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Mugen Taiko Dojo

Flashback to August 2006, and our trip to Japan: specifically, the long weekend we spent on Sado Island for the Earth Celebration music festival. The Belated Birthday Girl and I watched the Kodo drummers strutting their stuff over three nights of concerts, and thought: these guys are superhuman. They devote most of their lives to reaching the absolute peak of physical condition, and then they get to demonstrate their abilities on a huge stage nightly. We couldn't do that.

But a large part of Earth Celebration was taken up with the Fringe Festival, the subject of a moderately popular YouTube video. Musicians from all over the world - primarily, like Kodo, players of Japanese taiko drums - converged on Sado and performed on a small stage to an enraptured audience that included The BBG and myself. And we thought: these people aren't superhuman. Most of them are just performing as a hobby, having huge amounts of fun, and probably keeping fit as a bonus. We could do that. And we wondered: was any way we could learn how to do that sort of thing back in our country?

Well, inevitably, there wasn't. That's why we had to go to Scotland.

Mugenkyo is a Japanese drum group formed in London in 1994 by Neil Mackie and Miyuki Williams: to this day, they're still the only professional touring taiko group in the UK. In 1999, they relocated to rural Scotland, where'd they'd be less likely to annoy their neighbours with the racket. They now own Mugen Taiko Dojo, a converted byre in the wilds of South Lanarkshire. It's primarily Mugenkyo's rehearsal space, but they also use the building to hold weekend taiko workshops for beginners: which is, of course, where we come in. For £160 (plus another £60 or so if you go for a residential package including transport and two nights accommodation in a nearby Strathaven B&B), you can spend two days at the Dojo and learn to play like this.

Okay, maybe not exactly like that. But Neil does make an astonishing claim when the workshop starts at 10am on Saturday morning: by 4pm the next day, all 18 of us in the class will be performing a full-length taiko piece together, even though most of us have never played any sort of drums before. And with the help of the people from Mugenkyo - primarily Teresa Brookes, with assistance from Neil and Miyuki - that's exactly what happened, even though The BBG was convinced as late as 3.15pm on Sunday that we wouldn't make it in time. The important thing is that for this to happen, it requires the student to commit completely to the training for the full two days. It's hard work, and your arms will still be hurting like buggery the following Tuesday, but you'll have a whale of a time.

There are two basic ideas that everything in taiko centres around, and those are what you start with. One is getting a rock-solid stance in front of the drum, so that you can flail your arms around like crazy without falling over. The other is getting the correct grip on the sticks, or bachi, so that you can flail your arms around like crazy without a stick flying off and smacking someone in the head. In both cases, the correct method is also the most comfortable one, allowing you to drum for ages without getting tired. Once you've got your position sorted out, the next thing to look at is what you play.

All of the rhythms used in the course are taught in the traditional Japanese way: verbally. You start by chanting a rhythm like 'don doko don don don ki ki, do donko don don don ki ki' out loud several times, before you even begin to think about which hands you use for each beat. Because ultimately, that's the key lesson of the weekend: taiko drumming is primarily about sense memory, and you need to be able to feel a rhythm internally before you can play it. That's especially the case when it comes to the repetitive ji-uchi rhythms, the basic loops over which the fancier solos are played. On paper, it may seem crazy that an hour or more of the course is spent just drilling 'don doko don doko' into you verbally: but once that rhythm's inside you, you can't shake it off. Time and again, all of us on the course found that consciously thinking about what you're playing is the sure-fire way to screw it up.

Two days of just practising drumming would reduce any novice to a frazzle. But the course is beautifully structured so that in between the hands-on work with the nine drums (one between two people), there are breaks for lunch (two scrummy veggie meals cooked by other members of Mugenkyo), videos of the Japanese pros at work, a short talk about the drums themselves, and - best of all - a couple of spots where Mugenkyo actually play live a few feet away from you. Which is inspiring in the same way that the Fringe acts in Earth Celebration were for us, because you can draw a direct line from the stuff you're playing to the stuff they're playing. They're better, obviously - simultaneously much more focussed in their playing and more relaxed in their movement - but you can see that with practice, their level of skill is achievable.

For me, the final key to cracking it was when I realised that taeko, even at the professional level, is a group activity. In this course you'll never be asked to play on your own, only as part of an ensemble with at least another eight people in it. At the start, I found myself getting frustrated that I couldn't hear what I was playing because of the sound of the other students - when in fact, the thing to be doing is listening to hear how what you're playing fits in with everyone else. (You'll hear when it doesn't fit, trust me.) By the time of the final performance, I was comfortable enough while playing to look around and watch everyone else having as great a time as I was. The video at the top of this page comes from that performance at the end of the two day workshop. I've clumsily cropped it to preserve everyone's anonymity, but to be honest I like the way that removing everyone's head from the picture makes us look more like a group. (And I'd like to point out that the sound was in sync when I posted it to YouTube, so don't blame me for that.)

Mugen Taiko Dojo holds a workshop like this every month or so, and it's a fabulous way to spend a weekend. The question is, how do you follow it up? The Dojo does advanced weekends for students wanting to kick things up a notch, while other attendees have been known to take the ideas away and start up their own groups. The BBG and I haven't decided yet what our future taiko plans are, but as I drank a post-workshop whisky in the Pot Still in Glasgow, and caught myself tapping 'don doko don doko' along to Don't Look Back In Anger on the pub stereo, I realised one thing: this probably won't be the end of it.



I have to admit, the sound's much better on this one.


Yep, no doubt. Great fun, being reminded of it again.

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