Drum roll, please...

4 September 2014
The Samba Blisstas keep in time Barrett's snare drum. Credit: Sophie Sambrook.
The Samba Blisstas keep in time Barrett's snare drum. Credit: Sophie Sambrook.

Imagine a sound that can not only be heard through your ears, but also felt through your entire body, vibrating from the ground all the way up leaving you with a smile that can’t be shaken for hours after.

This is the kind of music created by drumming groups all around the world.

Drumming orchestras have been around for thousands of years and, depending on the style, can have significant cultural and historical meaning as well as therapeutical benefits that enable freedom of expression and break down social barriers, according to psychotherapist Benjamin Schwarcz.

“It [drumming] has really helped me become more confident in a social setting,” said drummer Kate Higgins.

Two drumming styles that have been reconceptualised have hit Australia with the kind of force only a large drumming ensemble can deliver.

Taiko and batucada are two very different, yet equally exciting drumming styles that are performed within the country.

Where batucada is a sub-style of traditional Brazilian drumming that has been adapted over the years, taiko is a 2000-year-old tradition from Japan that requires a drummer’s discipline and an awareness of body movement.

Taiko drumming is described as the 'heartbeat of Japan' and, according to the Taiko Center, has gained its popularity due to its dynamic sound and is incomparable with any other percussion in the world.

TaikOz Crimson Sky highlights, 2012. Supplied.

Batucada is a slightly less serious form of drumming, created in the 1950s it is a sub-style of Brazil’s most well-known musical form, samba. Batucada puts emphasis on the polyrhythmic sounds of multiple percussion instruments.

In their most traditional forms, taiko and batucada drumming directly reflect upon their cultural origins, however modern drumming orchestras have begun to mould them into more contemporary forms of drumming.

Australia’s world acclaimed drumming ensemble, TaikOz, presents a contemporary take on the traditional Japanese art of taiko drumming.

Ever since TaikOz was established in 1997, the group has been dedicated to providing a unique performance that reflects upon the traditional form of taiko as well as creating new music for contemporary audiences.

Kerryn Joyce saw taiko for the first time in Brisbane during the 1990s and has been a member of TaikOz since 2001.

“It incorporates all that I love about music, movement and voice into one performance,” she said, “I had always found it interesting.”

Traditionally, taiko has always been used in religious ceremonies or festivals and played a sanctifying role within Japanese culture.

However, the transformation of taiko drumming into an international language is a recent phenomenon and one in which TaikOz is very much at the forefront.

“TaikOz adds an Australian style and flavour to traditional taiko drumming,” said Joyce. “Though we do endeavour to respect tradition and the instruments.”

Maintaining a certain level of respect towards traditional Japanese culture is extremely important to the TaikOz group, Joyce said.

“We don’t try to replicate tradition too much but we always try to get a stamp of approval from the traditional elders as a sign of respect, obviously that can’t always be done though."

Joyce (second from left) performing with TaikOz. Credit: TaikOz.

Musical director and founder of Carnaval Drumming and the Samba Blisstas, Paul Barrett described the difference between taiko and batucada styles of drumming as one being “very serious and the other a lot more fun."

“Taiko is more like a religion,” he said, “Nearly like a military style of drumming, its very culturally strong and relevant to Japanese history."

Whereas the bactucada style of drumming is well known for its repetitive rhythms and fast tempo and is usually associated with vibrant colours and elaborate Brazilian carnaval-type performances.

The idea to create a drumming group in Australia began for Barrett when he went to America in 1987 and felt the need to discover what was happening in the world of percussion.

At that time, the African drumming scene hadn’t really started in Australia, Barrett said.

“I was one of three pioneers in the percussion movement in Perth,” he continued. “Now there’s samba teams everywhere.

"It's kind of grown, but not as fast as it has in Europe.”

The carnaval style of drumming that Barrett has created for the NSW North Coast-based group has its own unique sound, one inspired by traditional Brazilian street percussion, and has nothing to do with trying to appropriate another culture, he said.

“I created a hybrid version of drumming,” Barrett said. “From my DJ background, I was able to infuse the batucada sound with rock 'n' roll and the unique Aussie sense of larrikinism.”

Barrett leading the Samba Blisstas with his snare drum. Credit: Sophie Sambrook.

Though the sound and rhythms created by each is very different, a similarity between the two drumming styles is the long list of instruments that are used within each group.

There are several instruments used in a taiko drumming ensemble. The chu daiko drum is the most common and is about the size of a wine barrel, but some taiko drums can be as big as a car.

Other instruments include small hand cymbals, flutes and gongs, and the high sounds of these instruments add significant contrast to the taiko sound and are easily heard over the thunderous drums.

Each of the instruments used in batucada are also as integral to the sound and atmosphere as they are in taiko. The surdo drum creates the heartbeat of the set and is complimented by snares, bells, ganzás (metal tubes filled with beads), tambourims (small tambourines which you hit with a split stick) and the in-time shouting of each drummer.

Although movement is incorporated into the Samba Blisstas performance, Barrett said that tandem-type movements are not as culturally significant to batucada drumming as they are to taiko.

The music created by taiko drumming is delivered in strong partnership with the strictly choreographed movements each drummer has to follow. It is crucial for the performers to create a strong connection and awareness with their instrument, body and other players in order to communicate with the audience.

“The movements are very important in taiko, it is a dynamic element that makes the performance so visually tantalising,” Joyce said

“It is quite tiring, but extremely energising at the same time, we really go for it and give it our all.”

Toward the Crimson Sky is the most recent show created by TaikOz’s artistic director, Ian Cleworth, and is based on a haiku (short poem) by Japanese poet Miura Yuzuru.

“I have long enjoyed the English translation of this haiku by Miura Yuzuru,” said Cleworth. “The poet’s images conjure thoughts and feelings that are on the one hand beautiful, colourful and sensual, and on the other, intensely – almost painfully – poignant and emotionally affecting.”

Joyce and her fellow performers use the art of taiko in an adrenaline-fuelled performance that brings the emotional complexity of Yuzuru’s poem to life.

The Samba Blisstas have built up a strong local following, having played at the Byron Bay festival Splendour in the Grass and the Gold Coast sculpture festival Swell. Their annual appearance in the Lismore Lantern Parade is their biggest yearly event.

The Samba Blisstas performing at the Swell Sculpture Festival in 2013 on the Gold Coast.

“We play at festivals and everyone is always happy to see us, it’s a lot of fun,” said Peter Morrisey, member of the Samba Blisstas.

Barrett said the most important part of the entire carnaval drumming scene, for him, is working with people and ensuring they have a good time and get the most out of the classes and performances.

“It’s about me reading people and enabling them to be themselves in a character they feel most comfortable in,” he said.

“It’s pretty amazing.”

Classes for the Samba Blisstas are run on the Gold Coast, Byron Bay and Ballina every week. Visit the Carnaval Drumming website for more information, or contact Paul Barrett on 0417 969 743.

TaikOz will perform Toward the Crimson Sky at Lismore City Hall on the October 10 and 11. To find out more visit either the NORPA or TaikOz websites.