Listen: Mu Daiko 15th Anniversary - drummers pound out tradition

On this episode of Minnesota Sounds and Voices, MPR’s Dan Olson talks with members of Mu Daiko, a St. Paul-based Japanese drumming ensemble.  Iris Shiraishi and Rick Shiomi discuss the background and rudiments of music style.


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[DRUM BEAT] SPEAKER: That big sound is taiko, Japanese for fat drum. It's an ancient drumming tradition that has gotten a dramatic makeover here in Minnesota. Modern taiko includes the traditional rhythms. But the new sound is jazzier and includes dance and more instruments. All of the influences come together in Saint Paul tonight, as the drumming ensemble Mu Daiko celebrates its 15th anniversary. Here's a new episode of Minnesota sounds and voices with reporter Dan Olson.


DAN OLSON: Thank goodness for jazz, and for winemaking, and their influence on the ancient Japanese taiko tradition. On the winemaking front, Mu Daiko artistic director Iris Shiraishi says the ensemble's big drum is made from recycled California wine barrels. That's a lot cheaper and faster than traditional Japanese drum making, where workers fell a huge tree and then wait for the wood to cure.

IRIS SHIRAISHI: It would literally have to sit untouched, five, anywhere from five to seven years, in a temperature-controlled environment.

DAN OLSON: Shiraishi had a hand and feet in making the Mu Daiko drum.

IRIS SHIRAISHI: I actually climbed a ladder and stepped onto the skin. And I jumped up and down on it to stretch it even more.

DAN OLSON: Iris Shiraishi is a music major, originally from Hawaii. She played French horn in high school band, then studied composition, arts administration, and music therapy at the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota. Shiraishi started studying taiko in 1997 when Mu Daiko was founded.

Here's a very brief history of taiko. The tradition may go back 4,000 years, with drums leading warriors into battle. It may have been sort of the social media of its time, as villagers used taiko to communicate with one another. Then priests got a hold of the drums and put them mostly off limits, except for religious observances.


Iris Shiraishi says modern taiko started with a soldier returning from World War 2, to his village in Japan.

IRIS SHIRAISHI: Someone gave him an old manuscript that he figured out was taiko notation. He played it. And then being a jazz drummer, he found it pretty boring.


DAN OLSON: The jazzier, showier version of taiko jumped the pond to America in 1968. The tradition migrated to Minnesota in 1997 when Rick Shiomi created Mu Daiko. Shiomi says some taiko music is written down, but a lot is learned by vocalization or mouth music.


Shiomi says the rudiments of taiko, the drumming, and some of the movements can be learned in about two years. The masters, he says, have studied for more than 20. Shiomi says the best taiko players have a good sense of rhythm and body movement.

RICK SHIOMI: Understanding the movement and flow, that is the basis of martial arts and is actually the basis of taiko.


DAN OLSON: Taiko is a feast for the ears with its big bangy pieces and then its softer and sweeter tunes. It's a feast for the eyes as players treat the drums as a sort of dancing partner. Iris Shiraishi says a traditional move has players slowly raising their sticks, or bachi, skyward in unison, to call on Mu Daiko's spirit and namesake.

IRIS SHIRAISHI: We are following this move, the shaman artist warrior that connects the heavens and Earth through the tree of life, which happens to be the artist at that point, to gather this energy through our bachi, putting it into the drums, sending that sound out to the audience, and then many times feeling that audience energy come back to us.


SPEAKER 1: Mu Daiko performances recognizing the group's 15th anniversary begin tonight at the Ordway in Saint Paul. Then the group hits the road with a batch of performances around the state. You can see the drum ensemble preparing for these celebratory showcases by going to Watch a video of the group rehearsing and hear what members of Mu Daiko love about their art. Our Minnesota Sounds and Voices reporter and producer is Dan Olson.



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