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Drumbeat of innovation: Japanese ensemble melds tradition with modern entertainment

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

More than 3,000 feet above sea level, on top of a mountain just outside Kuju, Japan, one of the country’s most famous musical groups regularly trains in 24-hour sessions before setting off on its world tours.

The setting is perfect. Up in the mountains, nobody in the town below can hear the intense taiko drumming that goes on in the practice facility day in and day out.

“In our base, we can practice and rehearse 24 hours, all night long,” said Taro Harasaki, a 14-year member of Drum Tao.

The drum performance group, known for incorporating the art of traditional Japanese taiko drumming and action-filled choreography, will stop in Santa Fe and Albuquerque this week as part of a North American tour of its latest show, “Drum Heart.”

Harasaki says the isolated mountainous practice area is also the ideal location for Drum Tao’s strict training regimen, which is necessary because the 17-member ensemble’s performances are so physically demanding.

In a recent telephone interview, Harasaki described how the performers prepare during the two months of the year when Drum Tao is not touring the world.

Each morning starts at 5 a.m. with a 12K run through the mountains followed by muscle training including pushups and situps.

“After that we do beating drums for one hour without a break,” he said. “Just ‘bang bang bang’ for one hour. It’s an extremely tough workout.”

And that’s all before breakfast. The rest of the day is full of composing, getting down rhythms, choreographing and practicing routines.

In “Drum Heart,” along with the taiko drums, performers also play other Japanese instruments such as a three-string guitar, harps, bamboo flute and cymbals.

Drum Tao is also incorporating its own take on Italian flag-throwing, which the drummers picked up while traveling in Europe and collaborating with local performers. “We were just inspired by them a lot and we just decided (to include) a similar thing in our show to make it much more exciting,” Harasaki said.

Drum Tao incorporates martial arts moves into its choreography

Drum Tao incorporates martial arts moves into its choreography.

Though Drum Tao holds onto some traditions by using instruments that are centuries old and choreography that includes moves inspired by martial arts, Haraski describes its performances as “miles away” from traditional drumming. Their goal, he says, is to create a modern show that still shows elements of older Japanese culture to audiences around the world.

“It’s totally not a Japanese taiko drumming concert or something like that,” he said. “It’s totally (an) entertainment show.”

Drum Tao’s Santa Fe show is Thursday at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. Its Albuquerque show will follow the next day at Popejoy Hall.

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