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Playing to the beat of their drums

Colin Grafton / Khmer Times Share:
The Mekong Daiko drummers at Aeon Mall. The group is celebrating its 15th anniversary in Cambodia. Colin Grafton

The Mekong Daiko drum team is celebrating its 15th anniversary in Cambodia this year and the popular Japanese group performs regularly at shopping malls and functions around the kingdom. It has come a long way since it was formed by a Japanese man with a long history in Cambodia.

Mr Hiraiwa, a former studio musician (bassist), arrived in Cambodia from Japan in 1998 and opened some restaurants in Phnom Penh. He formed a brass band with Cambodian musicians from the Royal Fine Arts University, but some of them left the country either to study in Japan or to hit the big time in the American music scene, so he stopped playing for a while.

However, 2003 marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and Japan, and the Japanese embassy asked Mr Hiraiwa to establish a Japanese drum (taiko) team for a cultural event. Ambassador Masashi Ogawa named the drum team Mekong Daiko.

At first, they had all their Japanese-style drums made with Cambodian materials. Cambodian drums have a warm, soft resonance, but for taiko they needed a much sharper and harder sound. However, Cambodian wood is too heavy and the skin is not as tight as that of a Japanese drum, so they were unable to create the sound they wanted.

Before their first performance for the event, they practised every day for six months in the embassy. They were all beginners and included embassy staff and Japan International Cooperation Agency volunteers. The practise was very hard and the skin peeled off their hands until they bled.

Later, through donations and the purchase of more drums from Japan, the team acquired authentic Japanese taiko. Aeon Mall kindly allowed them to use its Aeon Hall for their practise about twice a week.

They taught drumming to students of the Cambodia-Japan Cooperation Center (CJCC) and toured to Siem Reap, Laos and Vietnam. They perform for opening receptions of Japanese companies, special events and Japanese annual Bon-Dance (traditional summer dance) festivals in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Many of the members worked for Japanese companies or were volunteers, so they often needed to go back to Japan within a few years when their contracts expired. There were times when it was difficult to hold the team together due to a lack of drummers, but fortunately there were always newcomers who joined.

At present the team has seven or eight regular performers. They are more or less permanent residents: restaurant owners, managers of recycling shops, office workers or teachers, and are of different generations and nationalities.

While the membership turnover was a problem, on the other hand the newcomers came to Phnom Penh from many different places in Japan, with its great variety of traditional performing arts. Some members of Mekong Daiko had already learned drumming in their homeland, and they taught each other new music and different techniques.

Together with original compositions by Mr Hiraiwa, they perform in Miyake-daiko style from Miyake island, Yatai-Bayashi from Chichibu area, Kagura-daiko style from Suwa-taisha Shrine, Ohayashi style from Tokyo and so on. It is curious that they are able to learn and perform so many different Japanese drumming styles in Cambodia. This is a phenomenon that would seldom be possible in Japan.

How big do they get? This one from Ishikawa in Japan, made by Asano Taiko, must be one of the biggest. Colin Grafton

Mekong Daiko uses two types of drums. The larger ones, oh-daiko, are constructed with the drumhead nailed to the body, and the smaller ones, shime-daiko, are tensioned using bolts or turnbuckle systems attached to the drum body. The instruments also include a small hand gong (kane) and a bamboo flute (shinobue).

Japanese drumming is extremely dynamic. An important part of kata (style or technique) in taiko is to keep the body stabilised while performing, and this can be accomplished with the oh-daiko by adopting a low wide stance with the legs, keeping the knees bent. It is important that the shoulders are relaxed. There is a tendency to rely on the upper body while playing, but it is important to use the whole body.

For the drummers, it is a profoundly satisfying experience. “When you are drumming, your head is empty,” says Keiko Kitamura, who has been a member of Mekong Daiko for three years. “You are listening to the other drummers, but there is no thought involved.

“Beginners have to think, remember how to move the hands and body, but with practise it becomes automatic – the body remembers the rhythm, not the brain.” Is there a score? “No, nothing is read, only memorised.” What is the most difficult part? “Keeping the same rhythm and listening to others at the same time.”

This year is the 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and Japan and the 15th anniversary of the founding of Mekong Daiko. Anyone who is interested is welcome to watch a practise session and anyone with a sense of rhythm can take part. Now that the group is more consolidated, with a more dedicated and stable membership, Mr Hiraiwa wants to work to ensure its future.

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