TaikOz: Blessings of the Earth

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TaikOz: Blessings of the Earth


Graham Hilgendorf, member of Australia’s premiere performance group TaikOz, is bringing a special blend of traditional Japanese drumming with an Australian flair to Melbourne this Sunday – November 14.

I once read somewhere that drummers are the most physically fit members of a band – a statistic that makes sense if you consider the art of Japanese taiko.

He’s also bringing a pair of nicely sculpted biceps, not to mention a set of drums so large (one measuring in at a whopping 250kg ) they need their own transportation. And you thought your drum kit was a pain to get back into the boot. Accompanied by seven other members on tour across the country with ‘Blessings Of The Earth’ TaikOz is promising another unforgettable performance that includes song, dance, and of course the deeply spiritual sounds of the taiko chorus. I can only contemplate Hilgendorf’s end of things until he has the chance to catch me up on this most recent project.

“It’s very challenging and physical, but very rewarding at the same time,” he explains after a weekend of extensive rehearsals and two months of non-stop touring. I can tell he’s genuinely excited about what he does and maybe even a bit surprised that taiko has become such a dominant part of his post-Sydney Conservatorium of Music career – though he’s not entirely in the dark as to when the seeds were first planted.

“I actually went to Japan before I started playing the taiko and I have some family friends there as well. I sort of had a bit of knowledge about Japan and Japanese culture before I got involved and I think it was partly just that that led me to take up this particular instrument.”

‘Taiko’ – the Japanese word for ‘drum’ – is considered an artform in Japan much like the traditional practice of pouring tea (it must be aesthetically pleasing to watch), and dates back in the country several thousands of years – having given the Japanese plenty of time to perfect their methods. Still, with all this history behind him, Hilgendorf’s background as a modern jazz drummer and percussionist isn’t completely lost. “We also let a lot of our own influences in,” he reaffirms after I ask him to explain what makes Blessings Of The Earth a uniquely TaikOz performance like no other. The show is both contemporary and traditional, influenced by both Japanese and Australian cultures to become uniquely its own form of taiko drumming.

A national tour has been well overdue for TaikOz, who are completing the final leg in Victoria and Tasmania – having already travelled through the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales early this month and late last to give more people across the nation a taste of their unique blend of taiko.

“We compose and perform our own pieces but we also study many of the traditional pieces. We’re very conscientious in working out where all this has come from.” Hildgendorf doesn’t seem too concerned explaining the details, either. He clearly knows what he’s talking about but isn’t too worried about giving me a history lesson. Taiko’s ability to transcend culture is what has the TaikOz crew busier than not.

“I was really taken by not only the charm of instruments, but by the movements and the way the performers were moving,” he continues during our phone call, reflecting back on his first experience with taiko. “It’s not just drums. There’s many other colours that people will hear. I think a taiko performance is as much about seeing as it is about hearing.”

So what can we expect to see? “If someone goes to see a TaikOz performance they really get to experience some traditional Japanese performances. For instance, in this particular tour that we’re doing, there’s a dance piece that comes from a festival in Japan and the origin of this piece is thirteen hundred years. It’s a really old, old form of music and dance.”

He continues with a bit of a smile, “In Japan, a lot of people say ‘let’s go see the taiko’ rather than ‘let’s go hear the taiko’. They think of it as a visual art form.”

Blessings Of The Earth will also showcase the talents of TaikOz founding member Riley Lee – a world renowned shakuhachi flute player. The instrument has even been featured on albums by the Sugarcubes, Incubus, and Dave Brubeck. Riley, who was born in Texas, became the first non-Japanese to attain the rank of ‘dai shihan‘ aka ‘Grand Master’ of shakuhachi flute playing in 1980.

What’s hard to say is how audience members should behave when in the presence of such prestige: “A lot of people want to get up and move around! It’s a real combination of dance and drumming, rather than just seeing someone with a kit on a stage. There’s a lot of different elements that come together to make the taiko.”

TaikOz: Blessings Of The Earth featuring Riley Lee on shakuhachi and presented by Monash University Academy of Performing Arts will be performed on November 14 at The Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Clayton Campus. It’s at 6.30pm, runs for 110 minutes and costs $49/$35. For more info check out monash.edu.au/monart/whatson.