Arts

Taiko drumming: A force for good in Derry

Fiona Umetsu may have had to scale back her plans for this year's Foyle O-Bon but, as she tells Gail Bell, the annual march of Taiko drummers will still 'pop up' in Derry next month

Fiona Umetsu, centre, director of Derry-based Ibuki Taiko, with fellow Taiko drummers
Gail Bell

VIBRANT and visceral, Taiko drumming is the Japanese art form taking Derry by storm and being increasingly used as a “force for good” according to one of its most passionate advocates, Fiona Umetsu.

The director of Ibuki Taiko – the first Taiko drumming group formed in Northern Ireland – Umetsu is hoping to stage new ‘pop-up’ events in the city next month, as an alternative to the large scale Foyle O-Bon festival which, in a normal year, attracts hundreds of fans from across Northern Ireland.

“This year, instead of the community festival, we are going to have ‘Community Moments’, as we are kind of going on the basis that gathering in large numbers is not going to be possible,” says the Derry-born drummer who returned from teaching English in Japan 20 years ago with more than an intense love of Taiko drumming – she also brought home her Tokyo husband-to-be, Katsu, who now makes the stands, props and even some drums for the Derry-based organisation.

“The idea is that you could be looking out of your living room window and suddenly see and hear a moving festival of colour and sound,” enthuses Umetsu, who struggles to find superlatives capacious enough to convey the sheer bonheur brought about by Taiko drumming.

“It is boundless and free and on a deep level really connects people,” she says. “I fell in love with the sound and rhythm when I was in Tokyo, but when I left Japan, I thought that was the end of my Taiko drumming – the drums are expensive, quite large and heavy to manoeuvre, for a start. Luckily, my dream came true and Derry people and others across Northern Ireland are now really embracing the joy of Taiko.”

A meld of percussion, theatre, dance and martial arts, Taiko is based on four key principles – Attitude, Kata (body language),Technique and Ki (Enjoyment) – and, as a result of Covid 19 restrictions, is also being viewed as a new type of healing.

Mental health benefits, Umetsu imagines, could be far-reaching in a post-pandemic world and already she has been fielding numerous enquiries from youth clubs and groups worried about the social transition of members getting back together again.

“We use Taiko drumming workshops for mental health and wellbeing and we just imagine we’re going to be over-run with requests – queries are already coming in from youth groups who are aware they will be bringing their young people back together at some stage and want to use Taiko drumming as a vehicle to help with social transitioning,” she says.

“It’s a very physical form of drumming and also very loud and, with team drumming, you have to listen carefully to everyone who is in the room with you so it’s very good for bringing people together. Also, in terms of social distancing, there isn’t a problem because, due to the size of the drums, you are naturally two metres apart, so it lends itself very well to restrictions.

“Because of this, last year we were able to deliver some of our workshop programmes with youth groups. We just told everyone to stay with their drum and not move. And the noise is loud enough that you can hear without being up close, anyway. I really can’t wait to get back out with the young people we work with.”

A Taiko performer as well as teacher, Umetsu says she always knew this particular type of drumming could be “an amazing force for good” in Northern Ireland – something that is still seen in her very first cross-community project between Protestant and Catholic schools in Claudy, Co Derry, in which pupils get together to drum in a local community centre each week.

“It’s great because the kids learn a completely new form of drumming which doesn’t have any divisive overtones nor come with the history of each ‘side’,” explains Umetsu, whose own three children – now teenagers – have been playing Taiko “since they could stand up”.

With its roots firmly in Japan, Taiko drumming has spread across the globe in recent years but there are still only three groups in Ireland – two in Dublin and Ibuki (‘breath’) Taiko in Derry, which along with the school project, runs a team and two adult groups who perform at various events, including the yearly Foyle O-Bon.

“We celebrated our 10th anniversary last year during the pandemic, so we didn’t get to celebrate properly, although we had a ‘10 years of Taiko Love’ online programme, so we did as much as we could,” says Umetsu. “We were very grateful to receive some emergency funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to fund a new van and marquees to help facilitate our ‘new-look’ festival this year.”

Unfortunately, that probably won’t include the usual elements of Japanese dance and crafts, Manga art and traditional lantern ceremony, but the ‘stage’ could literally by anywhere – perhaps even the Derry walls.

“We’re not sure of dates or exact locations yet, but there will definitely be an element of surprise involved,” teases Umetsu. “We’re not sure about numbers either – how many we can have on the ‘stage’ – even if the stage is just a wall or a street, but we were hoping to get up on the Derry Walls, to just explore the space wherever that may be, and to share the joy and sense of wellbeing with our wonderful Taiko family.”

For more info visit japanesefestivalsireland.com

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