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Review: For Yamato Drummers Of Japan, Drumming Is Full-Body Art

Courtesy Kentucky Center for the Arts

The current tour of the Yamato Drummers of Japan swept into the Brown Theatre on Saturday. The eight-member ensemble energized a full house with a kinetic and enthralling experience.

Their program was entitled “The Challengers” with program notes suggesting that each piece reflected challenges ensemble members had encountered in life. The poetic program descriptions, together with an asterisk that the program was subject to change makes it equally challenging to identify each piece by name.

Employing a wide variety of Taiko drums from small, snare-like drums to instruments of a size that required several ensemble members to lift, the ensemble creates an impressive soundscape that is surprisingly melodic even when the shamisen, flute and small cymbals are not in use.

During the first number the drummers appear in colorful robes that to western eyes look fairly traditional; and then in a moment that echoes the hikinuku theatrical tradition, the costumes are transformed into equally colorful pants and tops.

Taiko drumming is embedded in Japanese culture and this ensemble both honors this long tradition and, since its inception in 1993, has pushed the boundaries of what this form can be. Its heightened athleticism, coupled with its superlative percussion technique, provides an evening of spectacle that is truly impressive. The spectacle was introduced during the first number as three drummers, wearing instruments strung from their shoulders by straps, twirled and swirled around the stage, as if their substantial drums were no heavier than a purse.

Throughout the evening, a striking lighting design — uncredited — supports the choreography and mood of each piece. This contribution to spectacle draws on both dance lighting (sharp angles) and concert lighting (bold colors) emphasizing how this ensemble embraces a multitude of influences.

In the first half of the concert the largest drum was moved from its central stand to a vertical position, held high by four of the ensemble, while a fifth percussionist struck its head with a drumstick, the dimensions of which suggested those of a short quarter staff. The considerable weight and heft of this large drum was held aloft in a way that looked deceptively easy by these extremely athletic performers.

A superb example of the performers’ strength and discipline was at the beginning of a number in which five midsized drums were placed vertically on a platform. Each percussionist positioned himself in front of his drum, straddling its width. At a signal of raised and crossed drumsticks, each drummer leaned backwards, over the open space below, until his torso was almost parallel with the stage floor. And then they raised themselves to play their drums; this move was repeated multiple times during the number.

The two women in the ensemble are highlighted in a piece featuring the shamisen, a lovely oasis of melody in an otherwise percussive-centric concert. Some of the midsized drums were incorporated into this piece, an opportunity for foregrounding melody with percussion in support.

A delightful sequence of whimsy is introduced in the second half of the concert, in front of the curtain. One of the performers appears with a pair of miniature cymbals, the lightness of this metallic sound in significant contrast with much of the evening. He’s joined by two other ensemble members also with cymbals and what follows is a jazz-like sequence of riffing on the established motif. Humor is injected with a suggestion of competition between the players, and them ‘throwing’ a note to be caught by the player of the next variation.

At several points in the concert, audience participation was requested and always given with great gusto (and some accuracy). This enthusiasm suggests that a return engagement would be welcome.