Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers Impress Exeter Audience

by Dom Ford

Drumming as theatre in its rawest sense. Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers, taught by the fondly-talked-about Masaaki Kurumaya-Sensei, are one of the world’s leading taiko groups outside of Japan, where this drumming tradition finds its thousands of years old roots.

In a piece called Chronos, the performance begins in total darkness as the ethereal sounds of the shakuhachi flute welcome onto the stage “spectral beings”, according to the programme, represented by dancers with white masks and floaty nine-tailed whip-like things that glowed in the dark. As the unseen drums layered the soundscape, the atmosphere became disconcerting. Amongst all the sound, all that could be seen were these double-sided masks that meant you couldn’t tell which way they were facing and the floating wisps being whipped around. This gave way into a piece named Clau Solas that refreshingly draws upon Scottish Gaelic mythology (the group are based in rural Scotland, though have a very multi-national team, with performers of the night hailing from Bristol, Lisbon, Glasgow and Papenburg, amongst others).

Moving more hectically, the famous Yatai Bayashi kicked the night into gear. Drummers laid on the floor, lifting their backs to play intricately-laden yet bombastic rhythms. Traditionally from Chichibu and played inside the festival floats at the annual December night festival, it’s easy to imagine this echoing round the streets at night.

In a display of breathtaking endurance and strength, founder Neil Mackie then played the solo piece Odaiko (literally meaning “big drum”). A “personal battle to awaken and join with the spirit of the drum”, it was an intensely mesmerising performance. Back to the audience, it felt almost voyeuristic to watch this immensely personal and passionate piece.

Rounding off the first half were three pieces – a more melodic and gentle Shi-Shi-Shaku, using a single drum slung over a shoulder, hand cymbals and a shakuhachi, followed by a tribute to their teacher (“like the Shinto shrines which are traditionally rebuilt every 20 years, the relationship is renewed & refreshed. In keeping with this tradition, we created a brand new arrangement of this piece for our 20th anniversary year in 2014”), and a rotating solo-show-off style piece called Hibiki.

Neil Mackie then stepped into a spotlight to rapturous applause to introduce the group and tell the stories behind each piece. With a likable mix of humour and insightful experience and knowledge, the interlude was ushered in and I was able to eat a few more Twirl Bites.

The second half was decidedly more playful. In Hachijo, two drummers battled each other in a surprisingly slapstick performance, with some hysterical laughter from several individuals echoing around the theatre, while in Buchiawase two drummers used hand cymbals to throw an imaginary object at each other, each catching it within their cymbals and playing each part of a rhythm in attempting not to ‘drop’ it.

The show closed with the hypnotic piece Phoenix. Rising into a crescendo using a complex cross-hands style, the finale erupted into a standing ovation. This was followed by a few more words from Neil Mackie, and then an ‘encore’ which tried (to limited success) to get the audience to join them in taiko rhythms with stomps and claps.

Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers in this performance showed the great diversity in the tradition, from the otherworldly and ambient, to the slapstick, to the intense and ear-shattering. While it’s easy to see groups like this as inauthentic or culturally appropriating, they show true devotion to the craft. Regular visits to Japan to be taught by their original teacher as well as other taiko groups gives them great respect for and prowess in the original forms, while pieces like Clau Solas bring their own cultural traditions to the fore. The incredible experience of a good taiko group holding nothing back is unlike anything I’ve ever seen live.