A few scattered nerds will associate taiko drums with the thunderous opening sequence of the Battlestar Galactica reboot — cue the creepily scanning red eyes of Cylon Raiders and the horrendously pockmarked Edward James Olmos slamming into a control panel as several nukes collide with the side of the Galactica.
Of Japanese origin, taiko drums come in various shapes and sizes. The Toronto-based group Nagata Shachu (formerly Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble) has been working to rejuvenate the instrument since 1998. The group showcases its great range, performing and composing pieces ranging from heart-pumping primal beats to more subtle, intricate rhythms. They’ve recorded five CDs of original music and are sponsored by four major Japanese drum manufacturers.
Before becoming one of the original members of The Cliks, Heidi Chan played the taiko drum with Nagata Shachu. In fact, taiko was the first type of drum Chan learned to play. “I came across a Nagata Shachu taiko concert back in 1998, I think, and I thought that was pretty cool, and there was a sign-up sheet for a workshop,” Chan says. “After I started playing taiko, I decided to learn the drum kit, and I needed to look for people to play with, and that’s how I found Lucas Silveira.”
Chan is no longer with The Cliks but regularly composes and performs pieces for Nagata Shachu. Her experience with multiple drum types allows her to blend styles. “Sometimes I think my rock drumming is informed by my taiko drumming — like the patterns I tend to play — and sometimes when I compose taiko I think in terms of parts of a drum kit, so there is crossover,” she says.
As part of its 15th anniversary season, Nagata Shachu is collaborating with Vancouver-based shakuhachi (a type of end-blown bamboo flute) player Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos. The concert will be multi-instrumental, including not only the taiko and shakuhachi, but singing and the shamisen (a slim, three-stringed instrument for plucking). “It will be Nagata Shachu compositions and then some melodic pieces from Alcvin’s own repertoire, as well as some traditional Japanese songs that fit with this combination of performers,” Chan says.
Taiko drumming is intense to watch; the drummers are often standing, wearing a type of thong called a fundoshi (which they won’t be wearing at this performance, unfortunately), buffeting their drums with very large drumsticks. “Taiko drumming is partially about showing the effort you’re putting into playing and showing your stamina,” Chan says. “So, it’s appealing to watch, because there’s a visual element to it.” One of Chan’s relatives has come to appreciate the visual element, too. “When my grandmother comes to see concerts, all she remembers is the bum muscles moving.”