Taiko ten years after

So, a decade ago this week – the 28th, if we’re being exact – I did one of the biggest things I’ve done in my life.

I played as part of a taiko ensemble, on stage at an international competition in Tokyo. We were the only non-Japanese group that year.

And if you’ll look to the left, you’ll see…

We won.

It had been a long road to get there, one that had begun years earlier. I’d begun learning taiko in the wake of a relationship breakup, when I decided to do something for me – something that would ultimately form a large part of my life, and though it’s something I no longer participate in, is something which helped me in lots of ways, and remains something I miss very much, still.

The student group, Taiko no Wa, was (and is still) a student arm of Australian taiko and percussion group TaikOz. It consisted of a relatively advanced bunch of nerds (let’s face it) who were fine with dedicating a bunch of hours to beating things with wooden sticks. What had started as an idea to maybe enter the competition had eventually turned into a sort of infection, and thence into a years-long prep, with continual rehearsal. Only a particular subset of the group stuck it out for the duration because it was relentless, as you’d expect, and asked a lot of everyone involved.

Listening to my get-psyched iPod playlist, while chewing migraine tablets like candy to try and keep a lid on pre-gig nausea.

Eventually, we sent away a qualifying video – we’d rented a local church and videoed both the required piece, as well as an own-choice piece – and waited. It was a surprise to hear we’d been asked to compete, the first Australian group to do so.

From that time until the performance, we polished and sweated. I fretted a lot. I remember having a few laughs, but I remember kind of locking a lot of myself away as well. I just know I wanted to do it, and do it well, for the sake of the people who taught me, but also for myself, to prove that I could do it.

It was my first trip to Japan, a place I’ve been to several times since. I was in the throes of severe anxiety, and both therapy and medication was years off, but still it was a magical time, despite the truly mind-warping levels of stress encountered. We had rehearsals, and by the time we had to choose our drums and set up on stage pre-show, the jitters had well and truly started: this was going to be something that was going to be happening in front of actual people. In Japan. What the FUCK.

Oh and there’ll be people there, right? Oh, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

People were a bit weirded out when they discovered we were in Japan to play taiko. Some people looked at me like I was a talking dog, and during the pre-gig stage check, there was a distinct “oh, they’re the novelty act” vibe from some of the other competitors. (I still smile when I remember one of our number, Michaela, shaming a teenage girl in perfect Japanese when she overheard her discussing how all gaijin smell like milk and are fat while sitting next to us. I mean, it’s true but they shouldn’t say it.) And I get it, it did feel a bit weird, and I did sometimes feel a bit like an impostor.

I remember the performance itself being extremely fast. The period of introduction was excruciatingly long, but the music? Done in a second, relativity at work. I felt my mind switch off, and everything was happening as if I were just a passenger in my body, watching calmly as the music was played and pins-and-needles legs surmounted.

It was considered a bit poor form to put the videos online when we got back, because the competition organisers were selling DVDs of the competition – at pretty steep prices – but so much time has passed (and the competition no longer exists) so I figure we’re good. It’s a bit weird to look back on these now: I can see mistakes still, but I’m a lot less hard on myself (and everyone else!) for them than I previously had been. Here’s an introduction and the set piece:

(Skip to here if you want to avoid a lot of names and bowing.)

Here’s the own-choice piece:

I distinctly remember the moment it was announced that we’d won. I had thought we’d maybe land a third place, as a mark of respect for the founders of the professional group that taught and guided us. But that didn’t happen. Second went past, so I thought we’d missed out entirely. Sitting next to my mate Emma, who I’d go on to complete an advanced course  – a mini apprenticeship, if you like – with the next year, we lamented the apparent result, but conceded it wasn’t unexpected.

Except for the fact that the guy who was announcing the placings has just said the name of our group. Emma was translating on the fly, one of the few in the group who actually spoke Japanese with any fluency.

“Get fucked!” I said, probably louder than was absolutely necessary.

Emma listened again, and confirmed. We’d won. Holy fuck.

We made an unseemly amount of noise but were indulged because you know, we were both guests and a good example of how some level of adherence to tradition could work in favour of taiko groups. (There were a lot of other spiky-haired, big-gesture groups, and the general sense of the commentary was that the judges were trying to use our performance as an example that sometimes showiness wasn’t the way to go, I believe.)

Anyway, we eventually were called to the stage, and I was lucky enough to receive part of the prize – after being pushed forward by another member in an act of generosity I hadn’t expected – from butoh legend Akaji Maro, who you might remember from Einstürzende Neubauten’s Halber Mensch film. I remembered the little Japanese I’d mastered, hopefully didn’t bow too obsequiously, and retreated, mind blown.

Maro and Me. Mind blown. Not exactly sure why it looks like I have hair that’s escaped from 5IVE, though.

The following year, we would return to Japan to take part in another concert, an anniversary show that would take stock of the winners from each year of the contest’s existence. It turned out we were the final winners: there hasn’t, to my knowledge, been another Tokyo Taiko Contest since.

Over the years I was involved with the group, I went from being someone who couldn’t read music, let alone really play anything (other than hacky guitar chords or tabs) to someone who wrote pieces for drum ensembles of varying sizes, for drums of varying sizes. I went from hitting my own hands in a beginners’ class to performing in front of judges and an audience in a theatre in the country that created the art form. And I’m just some average jerk.

I know, it sounds like I’m blowing my own horn. I am. But learning taiko was the one time I think I really saw the divide between musician and regular schlub break down. It was the creative process reduced to its barest essentials: you do the work and you get the result. Yes, there was some innate talent required: if you couldn’t hold a beat you’d probably be fucked. But everything else? It was one foot in front of the other, until ideas became muscle memory became performance which could be sculpted into something that people might just want to give up their spare time to watch. It’s the great liberating experience of my life: music is something anyone can do if they’re prepared to work, because I’m proof that it can happen, and I’m sure I’ve bored my share of people with this.

I stopped playing and learning taiko a little over 18 months after that Tokyo performance.

Of course, things are a lot different today. I’m sitting at home mostly, like most of the people I know in NSW thanks to this whole global pandemic thing. I have to leave for a part-time job twice a day, as being a crossing guard is, rather hilariously, essential employment – but I spend a lot of my time in my house, in a world at once smaller and more detailed than in previous years.

I don’t know when the next time I’ll have a chance to get to Japan will be. Current thinking is that international travel might be a thing next year, though likely it’ll be the year after… maybe.

And a one and a two and a don’tfuckupdon’tfuckupdon’tfuckup.

Right now, I’m appreciating the life I have these days, which is the best I’ve ever had. It’s a lot different from a decade ago, and is incalculably better. That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t wish I could sometimes do some things again, just one more time.

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