Taiko is the Japanese for drum, and Mugenkyo have an astounding kit comprising one enormous instrument (taller than any of the performers) and many others of varying sizes and each beautifully crafted. Interestingly, it is not the drumming that stays with me when I recall the beginning of the concert. It opens with a slow and moody piece where the musicians enter the stage chanting in an unsettling fashion - it‘s almost nightmarish. Meanwhile a dancer makes fluid shapes, reminiscent of a butterfly, manipulating a shimmering concertinaed fabric that appears to be her wings. It’s an obvious yet effective contrast between light and dark.
This slow, considered opening lays the way for a series of powerful and often sinister pieces. The drummers maintain stern faces and pound away with a non-violent aggression. They carefully approach their instruments, slide into graceful warrior-like poses, raise their drumsticks above their heads and then strike the drum skin with military-like precision. The music happens to be a result of these tightly choreographed moves and there is a danger of becoming so caught up in the visual spectacle that your ears can go off duty. One piece has stayed with me in my mind’s ear as much as in my mind’s eye however. In it, the dancer wears a devil-like mask on the back of her head and performs the entire piece with her back to the audience, creating a distorted satanic creature who writhes in perfect harmony to the beating drums. It’s mesmerising.
The second half of the concert takes on a far lighter tone; the musicians smile and joke with the audience, and there’s an overall sense of playfulness quite contrary to part one. The drumming, although more lively, remains awesome. I wonder what the objective of having such contrasting moods is; perhaps to dispel the perception that the drum is not a versatile instrument.
It would be easy to write about Mugenkyo without mentioning the music at all. They have made a point of using visual spectacular to connect with their audience. Drumming, particularly with instruments of the size used in taiko, is as much a physical discipline as it is musical, therefore to complement this with skillful dancing, dramatic lighting and splendid costumes makes sense. Also, perhaps this corresponds with the notion that the drum beat is the energy behind music, and to describe the sound itself as music isn't quite right.
Mugenkyo do an admirable job of demonstrating the demanding discipline, foreboding power and brilliant versatility of taiko. They deliver a multi-sensory experience that is music to your heart as much as it is to your ears.