Drums: Article by Simon Vanyai, written around 2003

Taiko Drums Made in Tassie

Due to the powerful nature of Taiko, it was quite obvious that we were going to need proper drums. We were going through buckets at a rate of knots, and although we could perform with them, for any Japanese traditionalists it was rather a “sight for sore eyes”.

Taiko come in many and varied shapes and sizes, but the icon of Wadaiko is the barrel shaped double sided Nagado. So we proposed to make 4 Nagado taiko.

The craft of drum making, and particularly Taiko making, is a real art form, more a ritual than a production line. Nagado Taiko are traditionally hollowed from a tree that is carefully selected for size, age, and purity (lack of faults or knots). Transported to the workshop, it is gradually carved by hand to an approximate form. It is dried slowly to avoid splitting, a process that may take many years, depending on the size. Once deemed dry, it is again carved and whittled to the perfectly round taiko shell with an even thickness. When sanded, the dancing patterns of the grain over the curved sides come out, revealing the natural decorative beauty of the timber. The skinning process is traditionally affected with bamboo pegs through the skin, pulled down by ropes which are twisted to give the desired tension. On larger drums this process alone can take 6 months. Skins are affixed with specially crafted black tacks creating a strongly contrasting pattern on the pearly white skin around the rim. Gold handles on a carved metal decorative plate make the composition complete. It is also an art form that you pay through the nose for. The (smaller) cheaper nagado starting from $5,000 ranging to $17,000 for the kind of size I wanted for the group.

With the spread of Taiko in the Americas, and huge demand for drums, other less expensive methods have been developed to make drums almost as good as the real thing, and there was a reasonable amount of information on how to build your own Taiko on the Internet. Wine barrels are the perfect shape for Taiko and have been used with great success to make reasonably priced drums for eager groups who don’t quite have the funds for a Japanese made drum. So all we needed was wine barrels, skins, tacks, rope, a big workshop, and an army of volunteers.

In a small place like Hobart, it is simply amazing what resources and talented people you are able to find. Firstly I discovered that a fellow called Marcus Tatton had actually made Taiko Drums before, for a Sydney based group called Taikoz. He was very busy and couldn’t make drums in our time frame, but was able to provide us with the specially cured skins, heaps of advice for working with the skins, and even showed us where to get the special tacks we needed.

In search of wine barrels I remembered a sign on the side of the Huon Highway saying “1/2 and full wine barrels for sale”. It turned out to be The Tasmanian Cask Company run by John Murphy, and the most fortuitous meeting of all. Not only could John supply us with barrels, but was happy for us to use his large workshop, tools, and storage area. He showed us exactly how to glue the barrels together and if there was ever a technical problem to solve or a task to do, he had the perfect tool or machine for the job. Even when it came to a way of tensioning the skins on the drums – John just happened to have a hydraulic powered machine which was easily adapted to our purposes and proved an invaluably powerful device, saving hours of skinning time. I can’t think how we would have coped knocking our up drums in someone’s back shed.

The skinning was the most challenging part of the construction as none had done it before and we were going off information from the Internet and advice from drum makers in Japan. It’s also the most vital part of the process, making the biggest impact on the final sound of the drum. But our team of Architect, Engineer, Craftsman and Builders considered the task carefully and came up with some great methods of folding, tensioning and fixing the skin to the drum. We went to it very patiently, learning from the results of our first efforts to develop improved methods each time, and building up the infrastructure for future drum making activities. The final results have been truly remarkable and have surprised all who I have spoken to with the authentic sound.

The whole process took a couple of months, and for many it was an every weekend activity. We put people to work on all manner of dirty, dusty and smelly tasks, but to my great gratitude, they kept coming back to help us realise our dream of drums for Tassie. The reward for many was those first rumbling tones to come from the newly tensioned skin. It has been an amazing experience making our drums, friendships have been formed and challenges overcome together. In making our own instruments I think we develop a deep respect and connection to the drum – which is always a wonderful way to start a relationship.

More recently, John Murphy, out of support for the group and enthusiasm for the drum making process has also built a huge O-daiko measuring 1200 mm in diameter. It is a superb instrument with spectacular depth of tone and resonance, and it is a great privilege to have access to a drum so unique to Taiko, a privilege that many groups in Japan don’t even have.

We have also made 3 more drums in the okedo style, which is smaller, lighter, and tensioned by ropes, which gives a very different sound to complement the Nagado Taiko.

The other important factor in making drums is the finance. We are grateful to the Australia Japan Society and the Japan Club, who have paid for the construction of 1 nagado taiko and stand each. Other fund have come from performances given by our members, school visits, workshops, the University of Tasmania Societies Council, and the Regional Arts Council by way of a grant. With upcoming performances, and upcoming University funding, we are confident that we can continue to make more Taiko with the assistance of our greatly increased membership base. I look forward to working with you again soon.

Simon Vanyai