Before there was music, there was the drum. The percussive sound of two hands clapping, a rock being dropped to the ground or a stick being hit on a tree predated any noted form of music by millennia. Used for ritualistic, martial or communication purposes, the drum is a foundation of humanity.
While Canada is known for producing the best rock drummer who ever lived, Japan’s drumming history began around 15 centuries before Neil Peart was born. Taiko, the style of drumming in Japan has always held on to its cultural roots, but in performance, its differences have blossomed in variety. Japanese drumming groups like the Kodo Drummers have become known outside of Japan. Another group in this category is the Yamato Drummers, hailing from the Nara Prefecture. True to their home being called the birthplace of Japanese culture, the troupe is more than a group of performers. They live a regimented communal lifestyle of training and performance. Formed in 1993, the Yamato drummers have performed ten worldwide tours, the latest named Jhonetsu (Passion). This iteration has led them through Europe and now a 40-date North American tour in 2020 that brought the troupe back to Toronto for a stunning performance at Roy Thomson Hall. A fiery red backdrop stood at the rear while multilevelled platforms held various sizes of daiko (Japanese for drum). At the very top platform was the enormous five or six-foot circumferenced Ō-daiko, which wouldn’t be played till near the end of the performance.
The show opened with a solemn ceremonial piece where the drummers entered with lanterns depicting the Shinto mitsudomoe kamon crest and dancing circles around a large drum before shifting to a furious round of drumming. A quieter piece including some shamisen playing came next before the show took an unexpected turn. Two male drummers led the audience in some simple percussion call and answer but it became comedically clownish as the serious rudimentary instructional demonstration was spoiled by one member’s exuberance. This turned into the first of a few drum battles of oneupmanship in speed, technique and power. Sitting close to the action I saw the lead drummer quickly become slick with sweat only to continue to increase his furious drumming for the next ten minutes with faster and more complex patterns. Apart from any other display of technical musicianship I’ve ever seen, the daiko drummers hit their drums not only with precision but also with ferocity, seeming if not actually striking them as hard as they physically can. This may be the reason (though cheers of a female timbre showed) the male drummers of the troupe have their lean muscled torsos exposed in their various outfits.
As mentioned this piece revealed that the Yamato drummers are not just highly trained as percussionists but also as physical comedians, wordlessly telling stories and making jokes through facial expressions and physicality alone. Half of the various pieces held a degree of humour from simple body movements to exaggerated clownish slapstick. This combination of musical talent and comedy made Jhonetsu a thoroughly enjoyable and exciting show. After a brief intermission, the show restarted with five of the larger drums facing head out to the crowd. Five male drummers entered, climbed up to straddle the stands and peel their shirts off to reveal their heavily muscles backs. Again, cheers erupted for their physiques. They pounded overhead on the drums in step while their female counterparts played smaller louder tight-skinned drums. My favourite piece was a fun hand cymbal routine where the performers mimed tossing a ball in a game of cymbal catch. It was funny, deeply clever and like all pieces a feat in percussive talent and showmanship. On the topic, while the Yamato troupe defies tradition and has always included female drummers among its ranks, they weren’t included in the humour and while they played the flute and shamisen, the bigger personality roles within the show were held by men. That being said, when the largest drum was finally played and its deep thunderous tone was revealed, it was a female troupe member who played it. The final number was a large ensemble piece that highlighted not just the power and syncopation of the troupe but also the beauty and form of their choreographed movements.
I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect before seeing Yamato. I feared that 2 hours of virtually unaccompanied drumming would eventually become boring. I was very happy to have those fears allayed. Even for a viewer who may have a hard time appreciating the sheer amount of work and practice to pull off the troupe’s feat, there was always something visual onstage to keep one’s attention. However, the show is tight without any lag and it moves between visually stunning, musically interesting, powerful and humorous. It’s an outstanding show that the entire family will love.