The rain clouds had been threatening for a couple of days already, riding the slowest-moving typhoon I've ever awaited, but nothing can stand in the way of our pursuit of the finest taiko. So Saturday morning, despite the proud confidence of the weatherman who was predicting 5 straight days of heavy rains, not to mention winds, with the slowly approaching typhoon just over our shoulders Echo and I set off across the Lake to attend the 2004 Taiko Festival in the small town of Koka.
We had called the Festival organizers to ask whether, if it rained on the night of the performance (to be held as always in an outdoor amphitheater in the forested hills outside the small town), the concert would be postponed to the following day or what. They said no, if it rains the concert will be cancelled completely, with no refund once it has started. These country festival folk don't fool around.
But even though there would be no refunds if the looming rains fell, when we arrived early at the site and took our seats on one of the grassy terraces (the concert time was 5-9: a lot of drumming), the large amphitheater was already nearly full, with everyone sitting there right out in the open beneath clouds so lowering that it looked like it was already raining-- but at that point it was just bluster.
There were a dozen or so groups set to perform, huge drums sitting out backstage, and hundreds of performers, from local school kids to drum teams from all over Japan, bused here and fed and hoteled at great expense and even greater disappointment to them and the growing audience if at the appointed time the drummers couldn't perform (wet drums and drumskins don't fare well). But as the moody skies teemed with ripped and swirling silverpurple clouds scudding over the full moon on accelerating winds, and the audience of many thousands from near and far filled the amphitheater, the drums began to sound-- the little kid teams first-- so with all this and the booms of the drums and speed of the clouds, right from the beginning the tension began to build between stage and sky, the kind of tension Shakespeare et al. have always shot for but seldom bullseyed like this; if only King Lear could have been there...
Even he would have enjoyed seeing kids under ten years old (one impressive performer was eight!) drum together at length, through complex routines (and no sheet music) in great and stylish discipline; then came the older kids, audience amazement building at the skills they were seeing as the sky darkened steadily, the moon glowing like a veiled ghost through a heavy mist that began to fall through the spotlight beams...
My audience favorites were the stout grandmas clustering here and there on the ground in the moon-and-spotlit dark with but handkerchiefs on their heads, clapping in rhythm to the drummers on the stage, all the while the bigger clouds looming and falling and looming again, riding over the stage, adding to the tension: will these little performers be rained out? Will these?
And what about Aska-gumi, the renowned professional group that was to close the show? At one point the rain began to fall in earnest and the umbrellas came out, then the falling slowed and stopped and the sky silvered again and so it went, on and off, throughout the performance as the moon watched through breaks in the clouds, everyone thinking the drums must at least be getting wet from the mist; then there was a great young group from Nara, Sakigakekai, and at last Aska-gumi came on and gave the finest taiko performance I have ever seen or heard or felt.
The great thing about such a concert is that the acts leading up to the finale (at the end all the young drummers gathered in the wings to watch Aska-gumi perform) gave the audience a gauge against which to compare each succeeding team. A top pro team that has performed all over the world, Aska-gumi is as great as it gets. Through percussion syncopations of galactic complexity, speed, dance/athletics and other variables, they didn't miss or overlap a single beat. Breathtaking. They were perfect.
It was as though they were all one person, they performed in such heart-pounding unison (the big drums competed with every heartbeat in the audience) then toward the end the rains came down at last and the clouds fell to the ground, floating wisps of mist-intermingled drops in big white horses' tails swept across the stage as Aska-gumi played to the end and it was wild, it was wild, great galleons of clouds swirling by in natural concert and the moon as spotlight, the like will never be seen again.
[If you're going to be in the Kansai region in October and want a musical experience you won't forget, Aska-gumi will be performing in Nara on October 9. Anyone wants details they can't get via the Aska-gumi website, email me, I'll find out for you if I can.]