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Yamato: The Drummers of Japan – Peacock Theatre, London

Artistic Director: Masa Ogawa

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

In most bands, no one remembers the drummer, the lead vocalist, of course, the bass guitarist probably, but the poor drummer tends to be forgotten. Not so in Japan where the drum group Yamato have been impressing fans since 1993, taking their show on tour to more 50 countries including a brief spell at the Peacock Theatre where their show Yamato: The Drummers of Japan is currently playing.

Formed in Asuka, the band are part of the same community, living and working together to develop all aspects of the show which is then toured internationally. There is no narrative to shape Yamato and instead eight individual numbers respond to a particular emotion, experience or state of being important to Japanese culture using a variety of drums including the large taiko drum made from a 400-year old tree which forms the centrepiece of each section.

The show’s most notable feature is the sheer force and effort required from the ten drummers to sustain over two-hours of performance. With each piece lasting around 10-15 minutes, the endurance required to beat the complex rhythms and constantly changing pace is enormous, often using the drummers’ full body to produce enough power to create the depth of sound on several of the larger types of drum. This is matched by the agility and control needed to maintain the precise tempo of the smaller drums, often at considerable speed.

The group first perform a piece called Netsujoh which uses the drums to represent a burning emotion as a shadowy start erupts into a riot of sound, mixing soft and heavy beats at different paces while incorporating a choreographed dance with paper lanterns. Ishikure is played next, introducing different instruments including shamisens to contrast plucked strings with smaller drums with a higher pitched sound. A similar metal-like solo is the opening for Rekka which turns in to a well-pitched comic Cold War as two rival drummers attempt to outdo each by introducing bigger and bigger drums, while “Rakuda” celebrates the joy of the drumbeat which has a marching band quality to end the first Act.

After the interval, Ucho-ten, bathed in blue light, is a dramatic start to Act Two but again takes a comic turn as what seems to be the lead drummer, Kenta Ono, amasses a collection of drums to play by himself. Ittetsu about stubbornness is one of the most impressive sections of the evening as five drummers sit with their back to the audience and, with considerable exertion, play three different large drums. The silliness of “Garakuta” lasts a little too long as the male drummers play invisible catch with small cymbals while the stage to set for the multi-drum finale Itadaki about the feeling of reaching your goal which showcases the range of drums played across the show.

While the different rhythms and layers of sound are enjoyable, and the performances undoubtedly expert, Yamato does lack variety for those without a specialist interest in drum music. There is comedy, particularly in the transitions, but there isn’t a story to follow, and without a programme it is impossible to know what each composition means. Similarly, so many different types of drum are played across the evening but never explained to the audience or in the programme notes which feels like a missed opportunity.

Yamato puts the drum centre-stage, and it’s nice to see a positive gender balance with four of the ten musicians being female – Saori Higashi, Aikko Ogawa, Mika Miyazaki and Marika Nito. This is a young group, full of energy – with delight at being on stage very evident in their permanent smiles – and while a Yamato draws on the traditional in Japanese music there might also be room for the modern in the costume and stage design to show an evolving process that connects the past and the future of Japanese drums.

Runs until 31 March 2019 | Image: Contributed

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