Triangle Taiko

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Adventures in Drumming

DURHAM--"Adventures in ..." offers a glimpse of life somewhere in the wilds of the Triangle, in this space every Wednesday.

From the very first time we learn to hold a stick, an instinct deep within urges us to pound on something with it.

Hundreds of years ago, the Japanese figured out that there's an art to it. Today, members of Triangle Taiko (translation: big drum) pound on stuff every week.

A.J. Wheeler's object of choice on a recent Saturday night is a waist-high plastic garbage can, its opening covered in neat layers of packing tape to form a makeshift drumming surface.

Bare feet planted firmly on the hardwood floor, A.J., 17, holds the bachi -- wooden dowels fashioned into cudgel-like drumsticks -- poised in slender hands, waiting for the signal.

Bum ba bum ba bum bum, taps instructor Aisha Lewis, on a small instrument that sounds a bit like a snare drum. A.J. and five others in the beginner's class at the North Carolina Japan Center in Raleigh chime in on garbage cans and tires with a heavier sound -- hud-a thud-a thud thud. Some play a steady bass; others play rhythm.

"Hoi-sa!" they shout now and then, pointing one stick in the air.

Triangle Taiko was formed last year by Jason Sass, a Duke University law student who spent a year in a small Japanese fishing village, teaching English. He had seen and heard traditional drumming in old samurai movies, so he approached the local Taiko club there. Soon, he became part of the team.

"The most surprising thing was how difficult it was to play," Sass said. "You look at a drum and you think, it's a drum. How hard can it be? You hit it with a stick, right? But you really have to play with your whole body. It takes a lot of body control."

When he enrolled at Duke, he started looking for a Taiko ensemble. Lots of people were interested, but no one else knew how to play. "The next thing I knew, I was the coach," Sass said.

Now, there's a beginner's class and an advanced class, made up of people who share an interest in Japanese culture.

"Playing it feels ... it's hard to describe it," said Bill Barry of Wake Forest, a postal carrier. "There's something very elemental about it. Primal."

It's not just about rhythm. Students must learn choreography, too -- when to shift the weight from one leg to another, how to circle the bachi in the air with drama. Most important, they must learn to play as a group.

Now the advanced students show the beginners what their piece can look and sound like with a little more polish. For this, they put away the garbage cans and bring out a midsize drum that resembles a wine barrel.

Barry starts with the bass, his bachi bouncing lightly off the drum's face with a rich, hollow sound. When Lewis strikes the rhythm, the floor vibrates. Stomachs vibrate.

She hops away and others step in, shouting "Hoi-sa!" with conviction, their arms a blur.

Then the tempo slows. "Hoi-sa," the drummers whisper, all of them circling the drum now. Lewis taps on the rim. She taps again, more forcefully. Faster and louder the bachi fly, in perfect rhythm. Suddenly, the piece ends.

"Ha!" the drummers shout.

The beginners take a breath, then applaud. "Wow!" they exclaim, before kneeling on the floor and lowering their heads in a deep bow, signaling the end of class.


Our thanks to Vicki Cheng for providing this article for our website!

Raleigh News and Observer
March 19 2003
Page: E1
Section: Life
Edition: Final
Byline: Vicki Cheng