Beats from the East

The Tsukasa Taiko Drum Troupe closed the Pan Asian Festival at Hutchison Commons last Wednesday night. So instead of being full of the usual hungry and boisterous crowd of students clamoring around tables, Hutch was dark and rearranged to accomodate the troupe and spectators. The eighty-minute performance was composed of numerous acts; particularly, impressive were two young men playing a huge drum, one on either side of the instrument. Towards the end of the performance one of them started shouting some words in Japanese, as if for encouragement, but probably to coordinate their beats and movements.

The Tsukasa Taiko Drum Troupe, now one of the leading taiko drumming programs in the Midwest, was founded in 1996 right here in Chicago. The growing popularity of this Japanese musical tradition stems from it being as much a musical experience as a visual and cultural one. Actually, the only way to describe the troupe is as performers, since many of the musical acts were accompanied with dancing, but most importantly, the beating on the taiko drum itself requires intense movement and coordination. In fact, I remember in high school when we had seen a documentary on cultural music traditions, how two of my teachers had expressed admiration at the fitness of the taiko drummers, stating that there wasn’t a gram of fat on their bodies. And they were exactly right: the two men playing the drum Wednesday night were just as physically agile–and there is no other way, since playing this kind of drum is essentially a sport in itself.

While the monster drum was the major attraction of the night, it was not the only one; individual and smaller drums were also played, as was a sitar, and a metallic object that looked a lot like an ashtray.

The feeling of the whole performance proved to be quite intense since it demanded the full attention of the spectator. It was particularly fascinating that a room that college students know so well as a recreational space could be turned, if only for an hour, itno a cultural enclave. Most acts ended with a bow, and with a sentiment of reverence and respect that set the tone for the entire performance.

Unfortunately, however, the room lacked University of Chicago students: only thirty to fifty people showed up, and not all of them students–in fact, one of the spectators was an off-duty policemen.