Seeing Arashi Daiko in concert for the first time is an experience that would be difficult to forget. We both came from different backgrounds and discovered taiko through different circumstances, and that in itself is one of the beauties of this art form. Taiko is a great magnetic force for people of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life, reunited by a shared passion: a love of taiko. We have met so many incredible souls through taiko, friendships that might never have been created had it not been for these drums.
I can still remember the very first time I saw Arashi Daiko on stage. I must have been in my early teens. It was a very different taste of Japanese culture than what I had been exposed to thus far. I remember feeling mesmerized by the choreographies and the sound of the drums and surprised by the sheer physicality of the performance. Many years went by before I would encounter taiko and Arashi Daiko again, this time in the Old Port of Montreal. Despite the large crowd and many eye catching distractions, I was immediately drawn in by the sound of the drums. Taiko is loud, it demands your attention, but the energy of Arashi’s members keeps you fixated and despite all the wonderful aromas of festival foods wafting around you, you don’t want to turn away, lest you miss a single moment of the captivating performance that is taking place on the stage. I was intrigued to learn that Arashi gave workshops and thrilled to get a chance to become a student. I still remember coming home after that first workshop, unable to lift even a glass of water to my lips (okay, maybe it was a pint of beer) without the use of both hands. Talk about muscles you didn’t even know you had!
My taiko journey began 4 years ago. My palms were sweaty and my heart was racing – signs of nervousness when outside my comfort zone. I was overweight and out of shape. I thought that taiko might help improve my lifestyle and help shed a few pounds. I was far from imagining that it would bring me so much more than I ever expected, as it does to this day: the nourishment my body and mind crave to live a healthy life. What brought me to finally try the drumming workshops was the impression Arashi Daiko left upon me. Like many other people who enjoy their shows, I was profoundly moved by their energy and wanted to know more about it. I had seen them years before, but was glad I had waited to take this step. I don’t remember much from the first workshop, except that I was soaked, exhausted, weak… and smiling! I also remember feeling really shy, and self-conscious, but trying my best to learn, and enjoy the experience. It had been the toughest thing I had ever done in my life, but I was glad to have done it. I was unsure whether or not I would eventually succeed, but something had already changed in me. While watching the leaves dance in the breeze, I had discovered the pure bliss that rewards intense effort. Needless to say, I was overjoyed to learn a few weeks later that I was accepted into the weekly classes. It was scary, it was hard. I had come further than I ever dreamed of going… and giving up had always been one of my “fortes”…I accepted the challenge and witnessed many more profound changes soon after.
On the path
Practicing every Sunday offered its share of challenges but quickly became the highlight of our weeks. One challenge was learning to kiai. Kiai come from the heart and soul deep within. They are a confirmation of presence, calls of acknowledgement and encouragement to put everything out in a conjoint effort with others. But when amongst a group of people you barely know, it is sometimes difficult to share your true voice. “What if I sound strange? Will I be ridiculed?” Releasing that first kiai feels awkward at first, but once you decide to be yourself in front of all, that is the moment when taiko becomes real.
What we thought were taiko lessons only, we soon realized were also lessons that apply to life in general. Giving your maximum in what you are doing, challenging yourself to overcome your self-perceived limitations, showing your guts and your spirit in what you are doing. You learn too that there is a difference between reading about values such as respect, consideration and appreciation, knowing what they should be, and living them very explicitly within a tight-knit community. There are also many subtle differences in interpretation of these terms between Quebecers and Japanese. Perhaps a topic for another article, but for now, suffice it to say that once you begin to feel like you are starting to understand these terms a little better than when you first encountered the group, you realize too that you cannot imagine living your life any other way.
The steep incline
Fast forward many months to the new challenge of trying to follow in the steps of the many incredibly talented and beautiful souls current and past that have helped shape Arashi Daiko. I think as taiko students, we all dream of a chance to share a stage with the members of Arashi Daiko and try in our own way to recreate some of that magic that drew us to taiko in the first place. Arashi is an incredibly generous and giving group of members that pour their love for their art into every performance and share this passion and energy with the audience and their students. Each and every member brings their very own essence, knowledge and experiences into their playing and their teachings which together as a whole creates the richness that is Arashi Daiko. Being invited to become an apprentice is an overwhelming mixture of emotions that is difficult to capture into words. Blood, sweat and tears, literally. And you quickly learn that you can only develop at your own pace. Who knew the most challenging part would be just learning to breathe; breathing together with everyone, remembering to breathe, period.
The last 11 months have been a whirlwind of strength and stamina training through taiko and a rush to get up to speed on Arashi’s existing repertoire as well as learn new pieces as they are being composed. It would be difficult to say exactly how many times we have played certain pieces, but just as an estimate: if there are 4 weeks in a month, and we practice a piece called Yatai Bayashi at least 5-10 times every Friday, over 11 months that is roughly 220-440 times that we have played that one piece, not counting all the extra rehearsals for concert preparation or individual practice time… multiply this by the number of years some members have been playing taiko…. and yet there are still things to work on. It is very humbling.
But stepping on that stage for the first time when the butterflies in your stomach are at their most active, and you are so nervous you can barely remember your name, you are most grateful for those many hours of practice in the heat and humidity because despite the nerves, the body remembers, the training takes over and you play that piece for the 500th+ time, but this time, someone is on the other end to receive your smile and the magic you are trying to share.
We are deeply honored to have the opportunity to perform on stage with the members of Arashi Daiko, individuals that we admire greatly and have taught us so much. We hope to be able to inspire many of you with the sound of our drums during Arashi Daiko’s upcoming 30th anniversary concert titled “WA” which is a Japanese expression that embodies teamwork and shared spirit, positive thinking, working toward a common goal in peace and harmony – October 19th and 20th.
Valerie and Johanna have both been apprentices with Arashi Daiko since October 2012 and have been playing taiko for about three years each. They share their discovery of taiko and the journey and excitement on preparing for Arashi Daiko’s 30th anniversary concert.
This piece was written for the September 2013 edition of the Montreal bulletin and we kindly thank them for permission to share it with you on our website.