“Please enjoy with your whole body.”
With these opening words, Memorial Auditorium went black as members of Yamato stepped onstage.
This past Saturday, Yamato, a Japanese taiko group, continued its tour of the U.S. at Memorial Auditorium. The group was founded in 1993 and has since been invited to 53 countries, attracting 6 million viewers.
Even in a space as big as Memorial Auditorium, Yamato created an instant connection with audience members, eliciting cheers and applause in the middle of its performances. The performance began with “Habataki — Wingbeat,” which initially created a solemn atmosphere with highly ritualized movements and costumes. The piece quickly picked up, both through accelerating tempos and lighting changes. Suddenly, Yamato was all about high-energy, aggressive drum beats.
But the ensemble didn’t only focus on sound. The stage visuals were beautiful: an image of a cherry blossom tree, thin white ropes hanging in groups adding dimension to the stage, and even steam wafting in at the start of the performance. The group members used lighting to effectively mark new moods and added elements of dance as they twirled with and beat their drums.
While some taiko performances can come across as overwhelming, with heavy and percussive beats for the entire performance, Yamato presented the audience with a variety of sounds that ensured easy listening. In times of less intense rhythms, the group involved the audience; during “Sen-nari — Thousand Sounds,” the audience found itself in a back-and-forth with drummers, mimicking their beats with claps. Other times, Yamato engaged the audience via humor. One of the best pieces of the night, “Rekka — The Fire,” created a story about two pairs of drummers facing off against each other. Each team sought to outdo the other, whether by bringing out increasingly large drums, shouting louder than the other or simply drumming faster and faster.
This humor also shone through in the piece “Ittetsu — Sakura — Fubuki.” After resetting the stage, Yamato revealed a truly massive drum on the raised platform. Rather than jump into an impressive display of skills and power, a drummer sat on the platform with his legs under the drum and proceeded to do a few crunches, getting in a mini core workout. The other members onstage soon joined him, only to begin drumming in earnest soon after. The craziest part? For the rest of the piece, each drummer remained in a partial sit-up position, anchored by his or her drum, while continuing to put on a musical performance.
One of the most memorable characteristics of Yamato was each person’s genuine happiness to be onstage. The members were constantly engaged, smiling at each other or exaggerating movements for the audience’s benefit. The group’s attitude toward the performance can be best captured by the program notes for “Rakuda — Happy Drumming” (which involved a baseball bat for striking a drum, but that’s not the point): “People’s lifetimes consist of boisterous merrymaking. It’s OK to take it easy. It’s OK to have fun. Are you having fun?” Judging by the audience’s prolonged standing ovation following the performance, the answer to that question was a resounding “Yes!”
Contact Serena Wong at serenaw ‘at’ stanford.edu.