Of Tiger lovers and Taiko drummers

The players step onto the MCG and assume their positions. 

From the very beginning, they captivate fans through their powerful attack, majestic movements and disciplined, cohesive playing as a team.

And the match hasn’t even started yet.

This has been the spectacle at Tigers matches for the past four years, where the Taiko drumming ensemble Wadaiko Rindo have been electrifying Richmond home game crowds with their brief yet mighty pre-match performances.

On this Saturday, they’re rehearsing at St.Phillip’s Anglican church in the shadow of Collingwood Town Hall, coincidentally at the same time as the Tiger’s VFL side is playing at Punt Road.

Toshi Sakamoto, the group’s founder and director, is still teaching his other students as the members file in. “Dagga-dagga dagga-dagga dagga-dagga BOM BOM!”, he instructs, and the room shudders as his young proteges reciprocate.

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Toshi (left) has taught Taiko drumming in Melbourne for 20 years.

Taiko drumming originated as an art form some 1400 years ago in Japan. Used at religious ceremonies and on the battlefield, it set a marching pace for warriors, motivated them and struck fear into the hearts of their opponents.

The story of how it came to Australia is closely linked to Toshi’s.

“In 1995, I came to Australia in a cultural exchange program to teach at a Geelong high school,” he explains.

“The following year (1996), after finishing the program, I was going back to Japan, but the (program’s) boss asked me to stay one more year, and he supported my drumming performance and classes.” 

Toshi’s classes were the first ever specialist Taiko lessons to be taught in Australia. In 1997, he formed Wadaiko Rindo with some of his more advanced students, and the group has gone on to perform across Asia and at Melbourne events like Comic con and the Moomba parade.

The Richmond connection began in 2013. “I don’t know how they heard about us or why they were interested,” Toshi says, though I later found out the Tiger’s marketing department recruited them to emphasise the tribal feeling of the club’s fan base.

It worked: Today, the guard of honour Wadaiko Rindo form for players entering the arena remains the most popular part of Richmond’s match day entertainment.

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The O-daiko – note the Richmond colors on the body

Though ‘Taiko’ literally means ‘big drum’ in Japanese, the term refers to a broad range of drums.

The group use several of these in rehearsal, including the chu-daiko – keg-shaped and played lying down with your legs around the drum; the shoko, a small gong hit with a mallet made from animal bone; and the enormous O-daiko, which is often played by two players at once.

Toshi makes sure his charges have a turn on each of these drums – switching them mid-exercise – as he looks to build their strength, stamina and discipline.

But if a Taiko ensemble in full flight is visually striking, their sound is even more impressive. The “BOM-bom-bom-bom” beat hits your ears and body like a passing freight train – the Odaiko and chu-daikos providing the pummelling sound of wheel on rail, the shoko the clang of a level crossing.

When the thunderous noise finally subsides, it’s replaced with the sound of long, rasping gulps of air, as the visibly exhausted drummers retire to the floor.

Like the footballers they introduce, these players train hard to be ready for the MCG stage.

Perhaps this athletic angle is what has allowed native Japanese drumming to thrive within the context of native Australian sport, when it’s such an unlikely combination on paper.

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After practice

The fact it’s Richmond has been critical to this success: Much like a roar of “Yellow and Black”, Taiko drumming evokes passion and solidarity among its partakers.

This communal dedication has allowed to group to form a special chemistry with Tigers supporters – even though most of the musicians don’t follow footy or support other teams.

“I can’t imagine us playing for any other side at the AFL,” says senior drummer Ami, “and even at other sporting events we don’t gel as well we do with Richmond and their supporters.”

“We get feedback from the fans about how much they enjoy it,” adds Mia, another longstanding member. “Particularly when things don’t go well for Richmond, they’ll say ‘You guys are the best part, maybe they (the players) need to follow what you do!'”

One imagines they’ve been inundated with “feedback” in the last few weeks.

About Alex Darling

Melbourne-born, NSW-based footy fan, lover of the Saints, classic rock guitar and good writing on each of these topics.

Comments

  1. Hi Alex,
    Thank you for your article. I spent a couple of years learning taiko from Toshi in the late 90s. He is a wonderful and dedicated teacher. Great to see his ensemble playing for Richmond.
    I wasn’t at the game against Sydney – but, I heard the taiko throughout the game. Do you know where they drummers were sitting? (I couldn’t pick them out in the cheer squad) It seemed like this was the first time that they had played during the game and as a means of conducting and maintaining the support for the club. This could be very effective and also a unique element of Richmond games. The drummer could be the ‘conductor’ of the crowd, just as football (soccer) supporter groups have a capo (or ‘dirigen’).
    go tiges :)
    Andy

  2. Hi Andy,

    I’m not sure where they sit during the game – but my guess would be the raised platform above the race on the Great Southern Stand side (city end of the ground). Mia mentioned something about them performing there.

  3. Ronald MCCoy says:

    Great article. Reall nteresting. Thanks!

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