Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers/Nobuko Miyazaki

Woodville Halls, Gravesend - 27 September 2011

"Mugenkyo pull it off in some style"

[Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers]

For the uninitiated, Wikipedia defines Taiko drumming as a "...relatively recent art-form of ensemble taiko drumming (sometimes called more specifically, "kumi-daiko" (組太鼓)). The performances can last between 5 and 25 minutes and typically follow a jo-ha-kyū (beginning, middle, end/rapid, sudden, urgent, and emergency) structure, which means the performance will speed up significantly towards the grand finale". Mugenkyo are a UK-based Taiko troupe and, somewhat surprisingly, the only professional touring group. 

Being a Japanophile, and something of a cultural purist, I was decidedly unsure if Mugenkyo would manage to get over my scepticism threshold that Westerners could even be worthy of attempting to recreate the rare musical dynamism of, for example the Kodo Drummers, let alone do them justice. Reading press praise on the promotional flyers describing Mugenkyo’s take on Taiko as being “Shamelessly theatrical” actually sowed seeds of concern. Fearing this had the potential for being a travesty rather than a respectful way of bringing otherwise difficult to see live Japanese drumming to wider audiences, I thought it wise to check out the official Mugenkyo website in advance before purchasing tickets. Included in the promotional blurb were a couple of video clips of their live performances. They were all I needed to be reassured that this was definitely a night to look forward to.

Though relatively modest in size, the entire troupe comprises just 8 full-time touring drummers, they manage to muster enough stage presence between them that the dynamic impact of live Taiko drumming still came across. Their sets comprise a combination of traditional and original compositions. The latter (like the opener Belenos) occasionally draw on non-Japanese musical and cultural influences and yet manage to effectively blend the two. The set incorporated several opportunities for Japan-born guest flautist and shinobue player Nobuko Miyazaki to introduce a more restful mood, which was welcome. 

Personally, the ‘industrial’ styling of some of the clothes (which changed during the set presumably attempting to match the character of the pieces) and an almost painfully embarrassing ‘comedy’ routine near the end, as well as a final piece that relied heavily on audience participation (lots of rhythmic clapping basically) I could have well done without, and were precisely the sort of thing I feared when first discovering Mugenkyo. 

However, Japanophiles like me are clearly not the target potential audience (it wouldn’t be an audience worth trying to appeal to and certainly couldn’t sustain this as a full-time pursuit!), rather it would be the culturally open-minded masses in regional theatres like this one in Gravesend, up and down the country that are the intended demographic. Unlike me, most of those were laughing at the ‘comedy’ routine, and even I got wrapped up enough to clap along when asked. To be sure, this is no Kodo Drummers, but it was never going to be, nor attempting to be. But in terms of bringing the multifaceted glories of Japanese Taiko drumming to a wider audience they pull it off in some style. 7/10

Rob Dyer