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FAT DRUM. A great deal of reverent attention goes into practicing the Way of Taiko, and such attention also informed the writing and design of The Way of Taiko.

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #44 (October 31, 2006), page 15.

Spirit, action, body, and etiquette

The Way of Taiko

By Heidi Varian

Foreword By Seiichi Tanaka

Stone Bridge Press, 2005

Paperback, 128 pages, $18.95

By Josephine Bridges

In a library or at a bookstore, the spine of this modest paperback may not catch your eye; the sans-serif upper-case title in white against the brick-red background, with the author’s name at the top in tiny letters, is a quiet statement. But suppose you slide The Way of Taiko off the shelf. The little volume rests perfectly in your hand. The cover photograph of a man poised to strike a big drum stirs your curiosity. You open the book. Oh, wow.

The Way of Taiko will captivate anyone with an iota of interest in the music of the "fat drum." But this book doesn’t stop with the music; it also explores "the disciplines of spirit, action, body, and etiquette" to which Seiichi Tanaka, "credited with introducing taiko to the United States in the mid-’60s," refers in his foreword.

It’s no wonder that Seiichi Tanaka repeatedly invited Heidi Varian to join his ensemble, though the woman who would later write this book was perfectly content with "lending a hand" back in the 1980s, when "San Francisco Taiko Dojo practiced in the basement of the Japantown YMCA." Her writing exemplifies the courtesy, power of observation, and eagerness to learn that make an excellent student. In her preface the Icelandic author writes, "Taiko has taught me more than Japanese drumming and traditions. It has taught me focus and concentration … humility, and also pride."

"This book is only an introduction to the Way of Taiko," the author writes in her introduction subtitled "The Heartbeat of Japan," but it’s a lavish one. Visually, The Way of Taiko is a dazzling understatement, printed in black ink with touches of brick red on paper with just the right sheen and feel. It’s a special treat that the paper changes color from section to section. The dozens of photographs that accompany and embellish the text are also beautifully printed, their tiny captions in white against black never detracting from the power of the images of taiko players.

Three sections comprise The Way of Taiko; "A Brief History of Taiko" is the first of these. It begins with a wonderful traditional Japanese tale of a sun goddess who is drawn out of the cave where she’s having a lengthy snit — and depriving the world of light in the meantime — by the sounds of her fellow gods laughing and rejoicing to the beat of a drum made from a saké barrel. "The exact history of Japanese taiko is unclear," the author writes, but taiko has "always had associations with spirituality." Subsections on "Traditional Japanese Music," "Drums at War," and "Ensemble Drumming" bring us up to the present with information on taiko in modern Japan and in America, and some musing on taiko’s future.

"Understanding Sounds and Music" could be described as a field guide to a taiko performance. If you like to know the names of all those different kinds of drums, not to mention the "various rattlers, shakers, and other noisemakers," this is the section for you. Lovely little photographs of the instruments — as well as bachi, or drumsticks — accompany their descriptions. Information about vocalizations and regalia follow, as well as a tantalizing account of a taiko performance.

Heidi Varian saved the best for last. "Training in the Way" begins with the story of Nafune, a prosperous farming village on the Sea of Japan. Some 350 years ago, a warlord decided to capture Nafune, and the villagers had no weapons with which to protect themselves. "All the taiko … were brought down to the beach and bonfires were lit throughout the town." The people carved masks and wore seaweed in their hair, and frightened the invaders, who believed that Nafune was "haunted by demon drummers and sailed away, never to return." To this day, every August, the descendents of those farmers "celebrate winning a war armed only with the power of music." The rest of this section explains how to become a student of taiko, including a wealth of culturally respectful details summed up by the last sentence: "The Way begins and ends with courtesy."

A list of senior taiko ensembles, with contact information, and an exhaustive glossary by David Leong, concludes this splendid little book. A great deal of reverent attention goes into practicing the Way of Taiko, and such attention also informed the writing and design of The Way of Taiko. It shows.

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