"To Japanese, the sound of the Taiko is the heart beat. It is the sound of life, and it resonates inside the body."

Drumming Toward Peace

Speech for Pacific Grove Nagasaki Memorial in 2011

A few days after the tsunami, I received a link to a photograph of a devastating scene of Sendai. The city was completely flattened. The massive debris resembled the aftermath of post World War II Japan. A man in a Japanese Self Defense Force uniform was looking for survivors under the collapsed buildings. The image was powerful - a reminder that we humans are so powerless against forces of nature. There was a Taiko drum in the center of the photo. The drum was visible in the background, behind the worker; however, its presence was strong. I could feel the drum calling out to heal and empower.

To Japanese, the sound of the Taiko is the heart beat. It is the sound of life, and it resonates inside the body. Taiko sounds reflect natural powerful energies that are awesome, forcing us to be humble. Natural sounds give us courage to go through hardships in our lives, and when quiet, gently comfort us. In silence… they send us a message… to live.

Nature has two kinds of energies – male and female. To live through one’s life in the physical world, we need both energies - strong male energy with determination and gentle female energy, with healing. These energies of nature are reflected in Taiko, and drummers learn to feel and control them. Power drumming in Taiko training stresses male energy, and subdued drumming in Taiko training focuses on healing. As we learn to control and feel the sound, we learn to work together with others, such that we can create a harmonious vital force to reach the soul of Taiko.

Many cultures have used drums since early history, and drummers were often times women. Because women have the ability to create new lives, they were considered the transmitter of the power and spirits of nature. Varieties of rituals were performed with the accompaniment of drums, and women were the healers of the community. In many ancient societies, women were leading figures of villages and communities.

As religious traditions became tied to political power, women more and more were excluded from core community practices and rituals, including drumming. Drums became instruments to goad people on in their fight for political power. Women no longer were community leaders or healers, but became second citizens and tools for manipulations of power.

The Civil Right struggle of the 60’s opened the door to a new consciousness with much broader view of the world, and from this view came public awareness of segregation and discrimination based on race and gender. Taiko became a powerful tool for Asian communities and women for artistic expression. In Japan many drummers are men. In the United States roughly 60% of all Taiko drummers are women.

We learn how to play Taiko with power and controlled fluidity. As our skills mature, we learn to control the power, and learn to create quiet, deep sounds. To become a good Taiko drummer, we go through many hours of training and performance. We present our skills in front of people with many different kinds of performances: “show and tell”, “demonstration”, “entertainment” and “artistic presentation.” Different performances stress different skills. With presentations of our skills in the community, we learn to master not only drumming skills, but also what it means to be an artist.

The Artist is a peacemaker for communities. By their training of skills, they learn to reach deeply into their disciplines. Their struggle in mastering their art will lead them to open doors for new thinking and new interpretations of the world. These struggles are personal; however, the result of each struggle is the core part of their artistic expression, and these are the elements to create that which is unique for the individual artist. As a result, the artist will learn to see hidden meanings in the history of their time, and with training of their skills, those hidden meanings will be disclosed in their art for all to see.

When we grow tired in our daily lives, we try to escape to Nature. In the vastness of nature, somehow we feel relieved and connected with something bigger than us. All Japanese ritual is about this connection, and that is why people in present day Japan have rediscovered these rich cultural traditions. Walking into deep unspoiled lands is akin to a rebirth, and symbolically Japanese ritual takes us back to the womb of purity and complete innocence. More Japanese now find solace in festival, pilgrimage and spiritual routine to help them deal with the grind of everyday life. We can find release in the grandeur of a physical place such as the deep forests that surround Mt. Fuji, or in the search for a sacred place within. Taiko is one of many Japanese artistic disciplines with which the novice, committed to years of arduous practice, will eventually find the sacred place that merges past present and future in a fluid sense of unforced quietude in a place where words vanish from consciousness.

We learn language, and words allow us to store abstractions of events. In American culture much language has evolved from a science based technologically focused society, and the language is full of formulae and abstractions. However, it is said that language represents only 10% of human communication. The remainder is entirely non-verbal. There are many expressions of Art. In each are found powerful communicational tools. Art reaches us on an emotional level. We feel ourselves as human beings. We are “human beings.” We live in a physical as well as spiritual, transcendental world grounded in both collective and individual psyche. We live in two worlds in one body and this is our struggle. Our effort is not to wholly unify mind and body, but to manifest intangibles in the physical world. We are always in the process of creating intangible to tangible, including ourselves. The struggle starts with self. It is painful to go through this struggle of becoming. We often give in to interruptions and obstacles to give us reasons to discontinue the struggle of our intent. It is painful to be reminded how weak we are, and thus we numb ourselves with shallow entertainment and addictions. In immersing our self in struggle, we see our true selves, and through art we recognize our selves in others, and treat people as human beings apart from the shallow formulae and abstractions of modern language.

At the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, there is the head of the statue of Our Lady of Nagasaki that survived the bombing. She had crystal eyes, but they melted away. Now, she has two blackened holes in her face. Her empty eyes are full of sadness, just like so many mothers who have lost their children by violence. The depth of that pain and the ecstasy of a child bonded in her mother’s love can not be fully understood in the mundane discourse of daily life. We hope to be able to crystallize these experiences and reach to a place where words are mere echoes of the profound feelings experienced through art, for we are all potential artists whose efforts promote peace.

Drumming Toward Peace © Ikuyo Conant, 2011