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Sunday, April 22, 2001

A new drumbeat resounds around the world

Staff writer

The powerful beat of taiko (Japanese drums) of different sizes vibrates the air, while the delicate sound of shinobue (bamboo flute) adds spice to the dynamic rhythm. On stage is taiko troupe Tokyo Dageki Dan: four muscular men drumming and another with the flute.

"I want to include artistic elements in the performance by collaborating with different artists," said Jin'ichi Hiranuma, the group's founder, producer and director, before the recent appearance at the Setagaya Public Theatre.

Tokyo Dageki Dan's members are in their 20s to 40s, with such different musical backgrounds as jazz, pop and flamenco. Hiranuma produces and directs. In recent years, Tokyo Dageki Dan has successfully toured in Europe and Africa. In France, it played at the closing ceremony of the 1998 World Cup, representing Japan.

Hiranuma, 44, is fascinated with Japan's centuries-old love of taiko, but that doesn't mean he's shackled to tradition. "I want to see Tokyo Dageki Dan create something new each time it performs, mixing the sound of taiko with arrangements of pop, jazz and other forms of music," he said.

Hiranuma's passion for taiko started in 1980 when he saw the performance of famed taiko group Ondeko-za in Yokohama. He recalls being "totally blown away" by the power, spirit and passion of the group.

At the time, Hiranuma had quit his job after only a year working as a salaryman in the food-service industry and was at a loss as to where to go next. The enthusiasm of the group gripped him. "They were like a high school baseball team trying to make their dream come true at Koshien [the national high school baseball tournament]."

Five days after seeing them, he visited Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture -- the base of Ondeko-za, where performers practice and train to build their muscles.

He asked the troupe to let him join. But the group's manager was unimpressed by his abrupt visit and unorthodox request. Luckily, one of the staff was struck by Hiranuma's enthusiasm and introduced him to the troupe representative.

"Just stay for a while and see what happens," the rep told him. That turned into full-time training and touring. Three months later he found himself on stage playing taiko with Ondeko-za.

A year later, in 1981, Hiranuma and the Ondeko-za members founded Kodo, one of the world's most widely known taiko troupes. For 10 years he was active as a taiko player as well as a stage and production manager, but then he again felt the urge to move on.

He worked as a freelance producer, mainly for taiko performances and events, and in 1993 formed an entertainment agency, Artwill. Specializing in traditional Japanese music, Artwill founded Tokyo Dageki Dan in 1995.

Typically independent, Hiranuma wanted to do something totally different from other taiko groups. Most troupes live together in communes on remote islands, but Tokyo Dageki Dan members don't follow this tradition. The members live in the Tokyo area and get together only for practice sessions.

"I was born and raised in Yokohama," Hiranuma said. "I miss the big city, I want to stay with my family in a place where we can be comfortable."

Distancing itself from other taiko outfits, Tokyo Dageki Dan promoted itself as a small but unique ensemble. All its music is original, without relying on special acoustic effects. "We depend solely on the natural sound of the drums," said Hiranuma.

Taiko groups in various styles come and go. Tokyo Dageki Dan thinks it can survive by striving for originality and creativity. That way audiences will never tire of its music.

Hiranuma has the confidence to make that happen. "Each of our members has a strong character as well as solid techniques. Taiko is all about the liberation of the heart and soul. In our performances we will continue pushing the boundaries," he said.

You can catch Tokyo Dageki Dan next on Aug. 26 at Sesion Suginami, Suginami Ward, Tokyo, Aug. 26. Tickets go on sale June 22; call (03) 5311-7035.

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