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Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Way of Taiko - Book Review

Who doesn't like free stuff?

Whether its stealing a kiss or someone offering to send me a book, when it's free — it's better.

Trust me... why would you want to pay for a kiss?

Recently, I was asked to review a book by the good folks at Stone Bridge Press, a company that seems to specialize on  books about Asia, with a healthy dose of all things Japanese. If you click on the link above, you will see a wide range of books the company publishes, and I urge you to see if you can find something there that tickles your fancy.

One of the books that Stone Bridge Press publicist David Jacobson offered me is called The Way of Taiko, which is a new edition of a book written by Heidi Varian and available for $19.95 (US) at booksellers worldwide and online.

A book about taiko... those huge Japanese drums... 

This is indeed a beautiful looking paperback book, and, according to Stone Bridge Press, is the first English-language book to appear on the subject... and while it provided many interesting bits of information, I have to admit that it kind of lost focus for me. Or I lost focus on it.

It did not quite tickle my fancy.

Taiko is a type of Japanese drum that used to play a huge part of the culture of every Japanese village in the old days... and was used for communication between villages and as a warning signal against invasion and even for playing as percussion in musical festivals.

I like the taiko drum. I even included a drum scenes in a LEGO diorama I built - HERE. Holy crap... was that 15 months ago?

To me, as evidenced by my LEGO creation, taiko is a recognizable part of Japanese tradition... and I know it's one the Japanese hold in high regard as well. 

Varian does provides an adequate look at some of the background of the drum's history... even mentioning similar drums in other countries and cultures.

But... and here's where I wish there was more... what makes taiko, well... taiko? Yes there was talk about the mysticism et al... but I'm talking physical attributes?

Can any drum be called a taiko, or is it really just that huge one that everyone familiar with Japanese music or tradition knows?

Is there a specific size to the drum that makes it taiko? What is the minimum taiko size?

But here's where I think I really got bored. Rather than focus on Japan and its taiko heritage, the author discusses far too much on the Japanese presence of taiko in the United States... and not just the U.S., but the California west cost.


There's nothing wrong with talking about the American version of taiko as created by transported Japanese folk... but not for what seemed to be half the book. Too much America.

Another failing, in my opinion, is that that the book's photographs of the taiko performers are all of Japanese groups situated in the left coast of California. Who cares?

I'm sure these folks are outstanding athletes and musicians in their own right, but this is supposed to be a book on Japanese taiko... let's see and hear more from actual Japanese taiko players living and working in their native Japan!

Heck... maybe the photographs did show actual touring Japanese taiko bands performing in sunny southern California - but that data was not conveyed in the sparse cutlines. At least give us a date the photo was taken - who the drummer is,and maybe what instrument they are playing.

A book like this - it's supposed to educate those ignorant of facts. Visual cues are important.  

Now... why am I so hot and bothered with the American-form of taiko? Well, the fact that I am calling it the 'American-form of taiko' is the main thing.

The author writes that the modern form of taiko - both in the US and Japan - has veered away in different directions from the original pure taiko form. If you want a simple example, look at how American Hip-Hop music has veered off from (and evolved from) yankee Rhythm & Blues.

I'm not saying it sucks, but it's no longer the same.  

Well, in this book, we, the reader, are exposed to the evolution of taiko taking place (even if it is just California)... that's okay to do... but, in my opinion, there is not enough attention give to the original form of Japanese taiko.

What is it? What is the original form of taiko? Do I need to crack open a samurai movie from the 1930s or 1940s to get a better idea of what that is?

Can the author adequately explain to me just how (in words) taiko has evolved from it's more traditional Japanese form? That needs to be done.  

Why do I care about American additions to the taiko legacy? I don't, and I bet you not one single Japanese person would, either. Unless the author can explain to me why the evolution was necessary (stagnation?) and what was done to create the evolution (besides simply moving to the US!)?

But... I'm confused as to why there was so much focus devoted to the foreign version of taiko

Surely after hundreds of years there was enough history and information to fill up 135 pages in a book on the way of taiko.

By the way... The Way Of Taiko... you know that's a nod to the Japanese translation of 'Bushido'... the Way of The Warrior, a famous Japanese aspect of Japanese culture and tradition.

Since it was a nod (if it wasn't, it's an incredible coincidence), surely the book should hold the reader with facts about the culture and tradition of Japanese taiko drumming.

While there is information presented on HOW a taiko drum is made, albeit briefly, with what ingredients, it is not enough.

Holstein Cow hide? Okay.

Male and female hides are used depending on the drum size. Okay. 

Japanese elm for the best sound - okay. 

But is there a specific tanning procedure for the drum skin?

Tell us more about the hollowing out of a tree trunk to make the taiko.

What instruments are used to hollow out the tree trunk? A chisel... but what type, and how long does it take?

I did learn that when carving the wood to make the drum, the wood was allowed to dry for several years using a "generations-old secret technique that kept the wood from splitting as it dried out."

Really? No one wanted to tell? But is that still being done today? I'm not sure, because the author then tells the reader that "Today, the instruments are shaped on a massive lathe."

So... are taiko being made with old school techniques or new school? A bit of both, perhaps? Regardless... it doesn't appear as though taiko are still made the old-fashioned way. 

Who the hell is making these things? Yes there are taiko musicians, but who are the manufacturers? Just because I can play a plethora of music instruments doesn't make me qualified to construct one.

There was a mention of an official taiko maker for the Emperor... but I don't see the Emperor of Japan requiring a new drum every year, so the point is nice, and a ringing endorsement, but do taiko masters believe these to be the best taiko drums available?

Can we visit the instrument-maker's shop(s)?

How much does a taiko cost? Approximately. 

How long does it take to learn how to play? What makes one a Master? How long does one study to be a Master? Is there a Japanese heirarchy of taiko players?

Does every town have a taiko drum?

Give a schedule and/or list of Japanese festivals where a visitor might hear the taiko being played at a town. 

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you, eh? Sorry David... there's lots of good stuff in this book, but I had to wade through too much superfluous stuff to find it, and by then, I was bored.

It was easy to read... the photographs are bright and colorful. It wasn't overly complex... but it still could have used some diagnostic diagrams.

What about the drum sticks? Are they a certain size? Why are they a certain size? Do they have to be a certain size?

Do you get a different sound hitting the drum in a different area? Well... actually, that was answered... as now I know there are seven tones. I think. 

Who are considered the greatest taiko drummers in Japanese history? What type of Japanese entertainment would one expect to hear the taiko? (This might have been mentioned), but is it Kabuki, or Noh or something else?

Now... I have criticized the hell out of the 135-page book... but it's not all doom and gloom.

There are good descriptions of the different types of instruments that make up a taiko ensemble... but maybe I'm not smart enough, because I didn't easily understand everything that was written.

There is a small section about specific clothing that taiko drummers should wear. There's a section on Formal wear, festival wear, practice clothing and costumes... but there is only a front and back image of festival wear included to give a visual representation. What about the rest?

Give us a whole page on the top, the leggings, footwear, head garb - if applicable? Give us drawings of people wearing clothing and indicate what each are.

The photos of the individual drums are helpful - but they are small... and since we are talking about taiko drums, wouldn't bigger images be better?

There is an image of 'rope-tightened and bolt-tightened tsukeshime-daiko on page 56... great... I can sort of see what each is... but do they have a different sound? Obviously the rope-tightened is more traditional... but will a Master play one over the other?

How about sizes of these drums? The photos do not offer a reference point for true size!

For a book that has high ambitions about providing a be-all and end-all on taiko drums, it doesn't provide ENOUGH information.

Look... I'm the type of guy who reads a news story online and then tries to put his own spin on things by examining as many different versions of the same story as possible to combine the data to give MY readers more information than any other blog or on-line article on the Net. That's my goal anyway. You'd be surprised to find out how many bloggers and newspaper articles simply take the one prepared news article and present it as the Gospel truth.

But when I read an article, I am often left wanting, as articles frequently do not provide the reader with enough data.

It's because at one time readers on-line were considered to have a short attention span - squirrel! Anyhow... I believe the smart reader has time to read a quality article. That's why I often spend hours upon hours researching my blogs to provide as accurate a story as possible.

Basically... I am saying that the author of The Way Of Taiko did an okay job, but didn't go that extra mile (kilometer) to give the reader a total understanding of the subject matter at hand.            

Now... as for the second book you sent me... Professor Risley & The Imperial Japanese Circus... holy crap... I love this book.

I'm only 90 pages in, but literally every time I flip a page I spot yet another thing I want to write about... to tell my readers about. It's that good!

Meanwhile...  Heidi Varian's The Way Of Taiko... it's okay.

Perhaps the book was not meant to be a be-all and end-all type of book on taiko... that it was meant to be a simple little book that the average person could pick up and get a feel for taiko drumming.

I still think it doesn't quite achieve that. It hints at offering a lot of information... but then it suddenly doesn't do what it hints at. The book is a tease.

As well..., while there is a fair bit (not enough) of information on taiko and taiko history in there that is compelling reading material, the whole book - thanks to the photos - has a 'homer' feel to it... like she is from California and never stepped enough out of her comfort zone to adequately research the topic. All the photos are from various California taiko performances. 

The author of the Circus book... now that's a historical document everyone should read.

Patience... I'm thoroughly digesting every single word I read of the book on Riseley - it's that good!

Stone Bridge Press... thank-you for allowing me the opportunity to review this book. It's a good start, but it could have been so much more than it is. I would give it a 2 out of 5 rating.

Andrew Joseph.

1 comment:

  1. Reading your review makes me curious about the book. I'll try to read that one. Thanks so much.