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Not just drumming

Miyuki Williams, one of the artistic directors and co-founder of Mugenkyo Taiko, talks to Ramona Depares about the group’s upcoming performance as part of the Malta Arts Festival.

Taiko is a form of Japanese drumming that remains largely undiscovered in the west, and both you and co-founder Neil Mackie are British. How did your interest come about?

I am half-Japanese and had moved to Japan to take up a teaching job there. Neil came to visit and, having been a kit drummer in various bands for years, was asked by a friend if he’d seen taiko before. When he replied no, we were both invited to a taiko drumming concert by the group Hibiki Daiko, which completely blew us away.

Straight after the concert, Neil was introduced to Kurumaya Sensei, the leader, who upon shaking his hand said “you will play taiko in London”.

Neil extended his stay in Japan to start learning from Sensei and then extended it further by obtaining a cultural visa for the explicit purpose of studying taiko.

I myself had no intention of taking up taiko – I was dragged along as the translator, but got more and more interested in the art-form as the lessons went on.

After two years of training with Sensei, we both returned to the UK and founded Mugenkyo; years later we relocated to our base in Scotland. Mugenkyo is now the longest-established taiko group in Europe, approaching our 25th birthday.

What does taiko involve and what makes it different from traditional drumming?

Taiko is not just rhythm, it involves choreographed movement, much akin to dance, or to the martial arts. It is energetic, drumming with the full body, not just the wrists and hands.

Taiko is not just rhythm, it involves choreographed movement, much akin to dance, or to the martial arts

The drumming is punctuated by the traditional kakegoe shouting, and the drums can be played in many different ways – standing up, to the side, sitting down – which makes for a very varied and interesting performance.

Can you describe what happens at one of your concerts? Is it just about the drumming?

We use a range of taiko instruments, from small hand-held drums right up to the large odaiko drum played with bachi drumsticks like rolling pins.

We use various kinds of percussion instruments, and for this particular performance we have a master of the Shakuhachi bamboo flute too.

Would you say the theatre aspect of the performance is as important as the drumming?

A taiko concert is a theatrical experience; the presentation is as important as the music.

It certainly isn’t ‘just drumming’!

You have performed both in Europe and in Japan – do you notice any difference in people’s approach to the performance and the way it is received?

In Japan, audiences will clap and cheer halfway through a piece if they are impressed by the skill of the player, but in Europe everyone will wait politely till the end.

Our performances in Japan are very well received, as Japanese people appreciate how seriously we take the art form, and our dedication to it. We have had great success with our concerts there.

What are the biggest challenges of this discipline?

The levels of energy needed, and the physicality.

Where do you get your inspiration for the music itself?

Some of our pieces are traditional, but most of our repertoire is actually composed by ourselves.

We get inspiration from many different sources, not just taiko. We study other art forms, other kinds of music too.

The starting point of a new composition might be in the music, or in the choreography, or sometimes the staging, or sometimes even a storyline, and then the rhythms come later.

Taiko remains, as yet, undiscovered in Malta. What should we expect from your performance?

Expect high energy, graceful choreography, heart-pounding rhythms and great entertainment.

And what are your expectations?

We are thrilled about coming to Malta – our very first time performing here. We hope to make new friends and new converts to this wonderful art form.

Mugenkyo Taiko are performing on July 3 at 9.30pm at Pjazza Teatru Rjal, Valletta, as part of the Malta Arts Festival.

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