Revving the wadaiko engine

Yatai bayashi (屋台林) is a hard song to play, you guys. My group isn’t even learning how to do it at full speed and it’s still kicking our butts. I’ve mentioned before it’s a pretty traditional song. The beat can be repetitive to those who haven’t been exposed to it, and don’t hear it properly played. It can be boring, in fact.

Tonight, I got to see Taiko-sensei show us how he intends for us to play.

He was pacing the front of the room, fiddling with his drumsticks (which were as big as his forearms). We were all sitting in seiza or in position to play, panting, as he tried to work something out- his forehead was wrinkling up in all kinds of ways.

Then, he brightened.

“Imagine,” he began, slowing to a stop before one of the taiko drums. “Imagine that you’re at a car race. You’re in your car, or maybe on a motorcycle, and at the beginning–before the race starts–you wanna show off a little, right? Tell people what’s coming?”

We all nodded, not really seeing where this is going yet as he settled in front of the taiko drum.

Arms and legs in position, he continued, “You rev the engine a little, saying, ‘hey, hey, check this out, you’ll wanna see what happens next!’, right? But you’re not racing yet. You’re building up tension, you’re getting people excited for what’s about to happen. Then.” He paused, glancing at all of us with a grin spreading across his face. “Then,” he emphasized, “When the time comes, you add power to it, you say, ‘HERE WE GO!’ and you go!”

He proceeded to play the whole thing from start to finish, full speed, and it was like a light bulb went off over my head.

The last time I saw this performed, I didn’t feel any real energy from it. I got more of a “someone’s trying to remember all the beats perfectly” vibe–understandable, given it was students performing, but a bit sad given what I was feeling watching him do it there and then.

I could imagine it perfectly- the motorcycle easing up to the start line and revving, taunting. The final, loud rev right before it took off, tearing down the street. The squeal of the tires as it took sharp turns that slowed it down here and there, only to gain speed and power right back instants later.

By the end of it, I was grinning from ear to ear, and some of the other students were tapping their feet and trying not to dance.

Sensei finished the song and looked at all of us. “That,” he said nonchalantly, getting to his feet, “is why you need that one little emphasized beat I keep telling you about at the start. You’re gearing up, not starting and stopping. Let’s try it again.”

We all scrambled back into position, the image still clear in our heads. While we were tired and we weren’t going at the same speed as him, I could feel a change in the energy as we played. It wasn’t quite there- it wasn’t the energy that made you want to dance, like his had.

But there was something awake in it this time. Something that made me smile while I played.

I cannot wait to get this sucker down so I can kill it at a performance!

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