Newly acclimatising to a cochlear implant, Susan Bennett reviews a performance by The Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on 15 October.
Tightly controlled, theatrically set against a stark cave wall canvas, their drums placed precisely on a spot, sticks always at the ready, the Mugenkyo Taiko drummers walk in to Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. In half light to single chimes of tiny eastern cymbals, the growling tones of a huge golden gong being ground round, dressed in distressed denims, their arm muscles bulging, they move like the dead, perfectly synchronised, to their places. Then wham, a great cracking thump on a drum and the performers activate like electricity.
Newly acclimatising to a cochlear implant, I had been nervous for some time about what I could expect from such cultural offerings as they had been denied to me for so many years due to rapidly decaying hearing. And with all of the new electrodes in my brain fully functioning this felt like an assault to my poor lazy auditory nerve.
Not only was it swift but the huge and magnificent drum standing easily six feet off the floor delivered an unbelievable reverberation deep in my body. My implant, which has an automatic override to stop explosions and the like putting me in shock, kicked in, dampening the nuclear blast within seconds to a still highly audible but more muted thunder clap. Lights snapped on like lightening to show fighters attacking lesser but sharper drums with explosive energy - and respect.
Sharp cracks to the edges made me wince and were also felt in my fingers, the continuous whack of the big drum in my chest. It was as if my whole body was an instrument, a resonant sounding board. I was not only hearing, extra intensely as if in a hallucination, but feeling vibration, smelling the massive sweet joss stick quietly burning trickling smoke over the stage, seeing the frantic action, the light effects and experiencing something else basic, primitive.
All senses alert, I again galvanised as the Mugenkyo Taiko thrashed drums which never moved an inch, one leg poised out to the side, the other firmly planted down in a pose adopted as a perfect stance by both martial arts and yoga specialists. Accompanied at times by a delicate Japanese flautist who produced evocative haunting melodies that tickled my upper frequencies in a way they had never been reached before, the whole evening was an exuberant and supreme display of controlled intense power. A deaf awakening like no other.
With high impact, three drummers between four drums, furiously half crouched in fighting stance, feet rooted to the floor, slashed drums to either side. Crossing their arms hitting two drums at once they hacked out rhythms so fast that in the ultra violet light their wooden sticks showed not single slashes of luminosity, but fractured time lapse fan patterns. It was all too much for the eye – and ear - to comprehend.
By half time, I was exhausted, my senses battered and I gladly turned my implant off for twenty minutes and gathered all my body bits together for I felt like I’d been split into pieces by vibration and needed to reassemble. But wow! Was I enjoying this!!!
The drummers don’t practice, they train. This is intense physical work of martial art proportions, demands not only a commitment to the philosophy of taiko and superb drumming skills but supreme concentration, discipline and stamina like no other, for they perform for over two hours with no let up in the sheer intensity of their power.
Neil Mackie, one of the founder members, trained in Japan for two years and returned to the UK in 1994 to form the group and they have been touring for fifteen years delivering hard hitting and truly inspirational concerts ever since. Based in Scotland at the Mugen Taiko Dojo, they offer courses and workshops for beginners and intensive training for established taiko players from around the world.
Contrastingly in the second half was a segment called Chronos. I felt the percussive capability for sensitivity as it opened with chimes and the haunting flute, a crack in time and space. Two dancers, faces luminous in white masks, trailing blue fronds of flimsy material lit ethereal blue in the ultra violet light, weaved sinuous patterns which mesmerised as they flowed languidly to the combined patterns of subdued drums out of the darkness. It was ghostly, spiritual, mesmerizing.
There was also humour, little speech but universal signing gestures we all immediately understood and responded to when the audience were invited to take part by clapping in time. Then an incredible final display of physical prowress traditionally seen inside festival floats at the annual Chichibu festival held in October. It featured drummers sat on the floor, legs aside their drums, leaning back in that awful half crunch position I know to my cost is used in sit ups. They played furiously, sticks whirling high in the air, with seemingly little strain on their washboard stomachs or sweat on their faces.
It was both exciting, exhausting and exhilarating as the incredibly fast drumming in the middle range made me hold my breath, then sag with everyone else as a segment stopped. Instantly. And without a signal - such was their martial control, precision and confidence.
By now I had given up wondering which of my senses would be challenged next. A lone drummer stepped gracefully and almost in slow motion, towards the huge drum set on high. We all knew it would be loud as we leaned forward in anticipation. He almost teased us as he assumed the position, hands held high, circling the air in ancient homage then slowly whacked it with a wooden club like a base ball bat. The sound deep, booming, instinctively recognisable from ancient tribal memories lingered long in my belly.
A moment of stunned silence, then the applause was overwhelming. People stood, cheering, shouting, energised by the entire performance, clamouring for more. Only then did the Mugenkyo Taiko drummers let their hair down. Grinning, they launched into a great encore which left us all breathless, feeling with our whole bodies and senses the real togetherness of mighty energy.
The Mugenkyo Taiko performances offer something for everyone. I used to play piano, teach music in schools before the hearing left me and I did once rather infamously play drums with the Soukous Gang on stage at Greystoke Castle in Cumbria at a participative music festival many moons and ear cells before, so I desperately want to go. Just have to pawn a few bits and pieces first - and develop some big arm muscles and a flat stomach!
There is more background and photos, videos, etc on the website at www.taiko.co.uk