If you think you work long hours in your job, consider a typical day in the life of a Drum TAO company member on tour:
Meet in the hotel gym at 6:30 a.m. to hit the machines. After a vigorous workout of cardio and strength training, take a shower and eat breakfast. If it’s your first day in a city, arrive at the theater by 10:30 a.m. In Drum TAO, you do your own load-in — you unpack the trucks, carry in the equipment, set everything up on stage, tune the drums. Lunch is at 2 p.m. Continue pre-performance prep, any needed rehearsals, warm-ups. Shows are usually at 7:30 or 8 p.m. After the vigorous, high-octane production is over, you help strike the set and load the trucks. You’re back in the hotel after midnight.
Next day: Meet in the gym at 6:30 a.m. to hit the machines.
“We manage to keep in shape,” says Taro Harasaki, who has been in Drum TAO for 14 years.
You can win a family four-pack of tickets to Saturday’s performance of “Drum Heart” (7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 5, Saroyan Theatre). To enter, leave a comment on this post telling why you’d like to go. Deadline to enter is 10 p.m. Friday, May 4, so this is a quick turnaround. I’ll pick the winner at random. Please don’t enter if you won’t be able to use the tickets. I’ll be informing the winner by email, so check yours Saturday morning.
That’s an understatement. Then again, the promotional image for the tour pretty much says it all: Most of the company members are clad in costumes baring their washboard abs. These guys and gals are not gorging on American fast food.
I’m talking by phone with Harasaki — who’s in Poway at the moment loving the warm California sun and water — in advance of the company’s tour stop in Fresno on Saturday, May 5, at the Saroyan Theatre. The production is presented by the Lively Arts Foundation.
The show is titled “Drum Heart” and features a high-precision — and LOUD — evening of taiko drumming and exhilarating choreography interwoven with “a beautiful story, simple and elegant,” as described in a Stagebuddy.com review. At the center of the show are those big, impressive drums stretched with simple cowhide.
The North American tour started Jan. 31 in Montreal and is in its final days. (The Fresno stop is the second to last performance.) For Harasaki, it’s all part of a pattern. He’s been on tour to the U.S. every other year since 2010. (In alternate years, the company goes to Europe and other parts of the world.) To prepare in the off-season, the drummers train together in a secluded camp more than 3,000 feet above sea level in the Kujū Highlands on the island of Kyushu.
A typical day there might include shoveling 3 feet of snow every morning at 5:30 a.m. before jogging six miles, followed by beating a drumhead for another hour straight without stopping.
The day includes calisthenics, martial arts training, and more hours of dance, drum, and music practice. Workouts end at 10 p.m.
Again, you even better understand those washboard abs.
It’s more than just a physical commitment, however. A Singapore newspaper described it this way in a 2012 interview with Harasaki:
It is believed that abstinence from the secular world allows the drummers to be creative and produce deep, soul-searching music. Even after training is completed, the troupe … have to continue their monastic lifestyle in the mountains. But at least they are allowed more luxuries, such as phone access and a sweet or two. It is only during their 14 days of annual leave that they can return to civilisation, visit their families and friends and go on dates.
Taiko drumming is a ubiquitous tradition in Japan, but Drum TAO is notable for shaking up the genre. Ikuo Fujitaka, who founded the ensemble in 1993, wanted to put a new spin on things.
“He knew that Japanese taiko playing has huge power and energy,” Harasaki says. “But many young Japanese people don’t think taiko drums are cool. He started looking for a way to make it modern.”
At the same time, Fujitaka was enamored of the Cirque du Soleil show “Mystère” in Las Vegas, and wanted to work in that element of dazzle and sophistication, Harasaki says. There are elements of the drum influences of Korea, China, Indonesia included, and other traditional Japanese instruments are presented with a modern twist.
The musicians and performers compose their own music and create their own choreography.
The visual element gets a lot of attention, too, from innovative stagecraft to high-tech lighting. In 2012, Drum TAO collaborated with noted global fashion designer Junko Koshino to create a new look for the company.
Harasaki, who is fluent in English and often acts as a spokesperson for the troupe (just try searching for his name and “Tao” on Google), is fully steeped in the Drum TAO life, and he’d like to continue his rigorous physical role as long as he can. After that: “I want to be an artist all my life. Once I feel I cannot be a performer, I’d want to work for this company as a stage director.”
For him, it’s all about the ritualistic, emotional power of drums. Many thousands of years ago, drums were used in times of war to encourage fighters. Then they began to be used as musical instruments.
Still, just about everyone is familiar with an even more primal concept: that the first sound we hear and feel is our mother’s heartbeat, and there’s something reassuring about that.
Harasaki witnesses that firsthand nightly.
“Throughout the tour, we see many kids sleeping in first row, even though it’s a really loud sound,” he says.
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