Review: Drummers display athletic rhythm

Years ago, Japanese taiko drums defined village boundaries. If someone lived too far away to hear the village drum, he or she was not part of that village.

Fortunately, the Lied Center is a relatively small place. Wadaiko Yamato, the Drummers of Japan, invited a Saturday-night audience into the intensity, humor and warmth of their 10-member "village" during a performance that wavered between subdued, meditative thumps to intensely rhythmic tapestries of thunderous booms played with the unbridled fury of a warrior.

The troupe, founded in 1993 and based in Nara, Japan, showed right away the athleticism required of the craft. In the first number, Yakara, which translates to "the fearless headlong rush into life," the drummers began in semisquat stances and periodically leapt skyward, sticks poised above their heads, bringing the full force of their bodies back down on the barrel-style drums.

Two male drummers faced off in Rekka, a delightful display of one-upmanship that got the audience involved in clapping rhythms and showed Yamato isn't scared to lace a respected age-old musical tradition with comic relief.

Drummers turned to modern-day rock stars in Hayate, which had three women on shamisens (three-stringed lutes) jamming against a backdrop of drum rhythms. The Rakuda featured drums worn on shoulder straps, freeing the musicians to move about the stage in choreography that seemed inspired by the movements of martial arts.

After intermission, the troupe played Tamashy, a piece created especially for its 2003 tour. Three giant drums and two gongs stood on platforms with their faces toward the audience. Before each strike, three male drummers wound up like graceful, ritualistic baseball players and then struck the instruments with long sticks. At one point, the women sang a lovely unison melody as the men continued to render meditative tones.

In the impressive Kizashi, five drummers playing shime-daikos displayed immense concentration and control. It was a testament to their extraordinary skill that they were able to produce such stunning pianissimo at such rapid speeds using such substantial sticks. Each played a slightly different rhythm and, at both quiet and monumentally loud decibel levels, the sound remained clean.

The final piece on the program, Aozora, opened with a haunting solo on the koto, a Japanese zither, and included the largest drum most audience members had ever seen. Easily taller than any drummer on stage, it had to be played from atop a platform and produced a deep rich tone.

The audience responded with enthusiasm throughout the evening, and the troupe rewarded its standing ovation with a generous, rousing encore.

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