Taiko Lesson – Learn Obon Festival Drumming

Thank you for dropping by!  There are two components to this online taiko lesson on Bon Daiko, or Obon Festival Drumming.  The first is an in-depth look at Hokkai Bon Uta, an Obon Festival classic.  Lessons 1-2 focus on the fundamentals and basic patterns.  If you’re just starting out, or would like a refresher, please begin the course here.  If you’re already familiar with the piece “Matsuri” you could probably skip to Lesson 3.

The second component explores a wide range of Obon Festival classics.  At the beginning of each video, there is a brief intro on the history and lyrics of each piece.  In the second part of the video, we’ll explore how to play each song.

By the end of this taiko course, I hope you have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Obon Festival and the music.  I played my first Obon Festival when I was 8 years old.  It’s music that is very dear and personal to me, and it’s an honor to share it with you!

Download Classic Obon Festival Songs

FREE Songs and Sheet Music. Feel free to use these recordings at your local Obon Festival.

Component 1 – Hokkai Bon Uta In Depth

Component 2 – Various Obon Festival Songs

Hokkai Bon Uta

Hokkai Bon Uta, formerly known as Beccho Bushi, was a vulgar coal miner’s song from Hokkaido. In 1940, the lyrics were subsequently rewritten. The song was rearranged into the version we eventually became familiar with today. The 1940 arrangement was recorded by Michiya Mihashi. The album sold 2.6 million copies. I’ve included a link to the Mihashi recording below.

There are a few reasons I chose to kick off these online taiko lessons with Hokkai Bon Uta.  First it’s one of the most popular Bon Odori songs, and you will hear the instrumental melody used as a motif throughout Japanese pop culture. Second, it’s simple to learn, yet a lot of fun to play. And finally, this melody of this song fits the basic Matsuri patterns perfectly. Therefore, if you’re even vaguely familiar with Matsuri, you have a great head start.

Hokkai Bon Uta Lyrics

The waves like flower petals
We cross the Tsugaru Sea into Ezochi (Hokkaido)
At 17, she was just a bud
Now at 21, the flowers are in full bloom
In love yet completely unaware
A complete lack of interest (in the opposite sex) is no good either
There are many things Hokkaido is famous for
One is the Bon Odori of my land, Hokkaido

Sohma Bon uta

Sohma is the old name for the Northeastern part of Japan, today known as Fukushima. Sohma Bon Uta celebrates a great rice harvest and is one of the most popular Obon Festival songs.  To my teacher, Mr. Yoichi Watanabe of Amanojaku, Sohma Bon Uta was one of the benchmarks for determining whether a player understood the aesthetics of Bon Daiko.

This song also holds a special place in my heart because a grew up playing taiko with a friend from Fukushima.  I recall visiting Fukushima and seeing rice fields extend to the horizon, the green so bright it hurt me eyes.

On March 11, 2011, the area was hit by an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.  The beautiful rice fields were now completely destroyed.  Ever since, playing Sohma Bon Uta has become a prayer, that things will someday be like they are in the lyrics.  In 2020, the need for healing and a prayer to return to normal seems eerily familiar.

Sohma Bon Uta Lyrics

This year is a good harvest
The tassels of the crops are heavy with rice
Rice can be harvested from even the grass on the roadsides

When rice can be harvested from even the grass on the roadsides
Money grows on the mountain shrubs

Here come the dancers
Even better than the fall harvest itself

I’ve danced too much and tried to sleep
But the faraway sound of the festival keeps me up

Here come the dancers
Even better than the fall harvest itself

Tokyo Ondo

Tokyo Ondo, alongside Hokkai Bon Uta and Sohma Bon Uta, is one of the most popular Bon Odori songs, particularly in the Greater Tokyo area. Aside from it being a Bon Odori song, Tokyo Ondo is also the anthem for Tokyo-based sports teams.

Tokyo Ondo was commissioned by a department store in 1932. The song was written for the store-sponsored Bon Odori held in Hibiya Park. In order to participate in the Bon Odori, customers needed to purchase a yukata from the department store.

Out of the gate, Tokyo Ondo sold 1.2 million copies. By 1971, estimated sales had reached 20 million copies.

Tokyo Ondo Lyrics

If you’re going to dance
Dance to Tokyo Ondo
In the middle of the glorious capitol

The ebb and flow of the crowd
The history of Musashino
Grass has turned to neon lights

The flowers of Ueno
The willows of Ginza
The moon of Sumida from a dinner cruise

Growing up with the Goddess Kannon
The moon perched on the roof

Mount Fuji to the West
Tsukuba to the East
The musicians are the heart of the festival

Compound Phrases

Up until this point, all the songs have used combinations and slight variations of the basic Bon Daiko (Matsuri) patterns. A simple, effective way to add variety to one’s playing, is to combine these basic patterns.

Combining patterns gives us new, longer patterns. These patterns can be interspersed throughout the song to add variety, and to create tension and release.

When creating our own phrases, it’s important to still follow the structure of the song. We want to be creative, but we also want our drumming to support the music, and most importantly, the dancers.

In my opinion, the great thing about the basic Bon Daiko (Matsuri) patterns is that they work well with almost any Bon Daiko song. It’s like working with great ingredients – the end result always tastes good. By working with combinations of the basic Bon Daiko (Matsuri) patterns, we are almost guaranteed that our new pattern is going to work with the music.

Try different combinations of the basic Matsuri patterns using the formula described in the video!

Yagi Bushi

Yagi Bushi is a popular song from both Gunma and Tochigi Prefectures originally performed at Yose theatres, the rough equivalent of American vaudeville theatres. In a more “traditional” context, Yagi Bushi is played on sake barrels instead of drums.

The exact origins of the song are the subject of debate. Most people agree that Yagi Bushi, as we know it today, was developed around 1914 by Genta Horigome. He is credited with creating the long vocal phrasings, and adding instruments such as the fue, kane, and sake barrel.

It’s likely that Genta Horigome incorporated elements of many local Minyo styles. It’s also likely that he travelled throughout the region, further contributing to the ambiguity of the song’s exact geographic origin.

Yagi Bushi Lyrics

Here comes the triangular man (trouble maker)
Who will play the drums on the square stage
The singer asks your forgiveness
Of the various lyrics and missed beats
As we begin our song

Here is the story of Kunisada Chuji
He’s from Joshu, specifically Sawago-ori (modern day Gunma Prefecture)
His father’s name is Chubei
And Chuji is his second son
He’s been a man’s man from the time he was born
Helping his village and standing up for others

With a fortune to make anyone jealous
He makes his living as a money lender (casino owner)
Gambling the day away
Gambling the day away

I wish to tell you more
While a long story by a good storyteller is one thing
A long story told by a bad storyteller is quite another
I shall end my song before the audience demands that I do so
And yield the stage to the next act

Soran Bushi

Soran Bushi is a song that would keep fishermen warm and entertained during the monotonous and physically demanding tasks of lifting herring-filled nets from the freezing waters of Hokkaido. It’s likely that the Soran Bushi we know today is a combination of several work songs originating from the area.

During the spring, fishermen would gather in Hokkaido and the surrounding areas to wait for schools of herring. Once they received word that the herring were near, they rowed out to sea with their nets. Aside from a small portion that was dried and used for food, the herring were boiled to extract the fish oil, and the remains were used as high quality fertilizer.

Soran Bushi Lyrics

I ask the seagulls where the herring are
And he answers “I’m just passing by. You’ll have to ask the waves.”

Out at bay, I listen to the seagulls hovering above
And it makes happy to be a fisherman

If you’re a man, ride out on the waves

The girl at the market needs no makeup
The silver scales light up her face

The dancing silver scales and the songs of seagulls
Signal the sunrise and another good catch

Aizu Bandaisan

Aizu Bandaisan sings the praises of Mount Bandai, a mountain located in Fukushima Prefecture. The song is considered one of the “Big Three” Minyo folk songs, along with Gujo Odori and Awa Odori.

The modern day version of Aizu Bandaisan has multiple roots. These include the local folk song Genjo Bushi, and Gokahama Jinku from neighboring Niigata Prefecture.

The lyrics begin with the line “Mount Bandai is a mountain of treasure. Gold grows on the bamboo trees.” One theory is that the bamboo trees of Mount Bandai produced fruit during a famine, saving the local population from starvation. Another theory is that the lyrics refer more figuratively to the plentiful rice grown in the area.

Aizu Bandaisan Lyrics

Mount Bandai is a mountain of treasure
Gold grows on the bamboo trees

From the mountain of the east
Comes the daily news
I cannot possibly avoid going

Why did Shosuke Ohara damage his health?
He loved to sleep, drink, and bathe in the morning
Of course he did, he deserves it

The loyal cherry blossoms
Fall to the name of Byakko Tai

The singing makes the dance stronger
The taiko on top of the yagura also becomes stronger

Tanko Bushi

Tanko Bushi is one of the most popular Obon songs.  It’s from the Kyushu region of Japan, specifically from Fukuoka.  You may be familiar with the dance, which mimics the motions of coal mining.  Tanko Bushi is often thought of as a coal miner work song, but it’s actually a very romantic love song.  The lyrics talk about a female coal miner longing for her romantic partner.

Although very popular, I didn’t cover Tanko Bushi until this point because it’s a tricky songs to play.  Both the phrasing and the form are significantly more complex than the songs we’ve covered so far.  Furthermore, another factor that makes Tanko Bushi difficult is the vast number of arrangements and recordings.  In this video, we’ll be covering the most standard arrangement.

Tanko Bushi Lyrics

The moon is out over Miike Coal Mine
The chimney so high it hurts the moon’s eyes

If you say so, I will gather the courage to leave you
If you return me to the girl of 18 that I was. I will leave you

Over one, two, three mountains is a camellia
Doesn’t matter how vivid it blooms if my precious doesn’t come around

Until the day we stand together, our hearts are one, our bodies two.
The sadness of being apart.
I’ll speak to my precious in my dreams.

Song Analysis

How do I come up with a drum arrangement for a Bon Odori song?  Many good Bon Daiko players – my teacher included – will tell you to sing the song as you play the drums. By doing so, you’ll be internalizing the song, the flow, the dynamics, the lyrics, the feel, etc.

That being said, singing and playing at the same time is easier said than done. In this video I’ll be covering some of the steps to get to that point.

Taking it Step by Step

One of the first things – if not the first thing – you’ll want to be able to do is find and maintain the pulse of the song. Find the tempo and see if you can clap along accurately to the song.

Another very useful step is breaking the song into smaller sections. For example, you can take a look at just instrumental part of the song. I’m going to combine these two techniques and clap along to the instrumental part of Hokkai Bon Uta.

If you’re feeling comfortable, you can try singing the melody of the song and clapping. If you’re not confident about the pitches, you can start by learning the rhythm. In the beginning I’m just going to clap and sing the rhythm of the song. I can then begin learning the pitches of the song, and eventually I’ll be able to hum the song and clap at the same time.

Gradually, you’ll want to start replacing the clapping with Matsuri patterns. I’m going to sing the same part, but instead of clapping, I’m going to play Matsuri pattern 1.

And the last step is the play a variety of Matsuri patterns while singing the song. From here, you’re going to rinse and repeat until you get through the whole song.

Troubleshooting

Now, every once in a while, you’ll run into a song where the basic Matsuri patterns don’t fit. For example, Hokkai Bon Uta has a bar of 2 in the middle, so if you continue playing the Matsuri patterns you’ll get flipped around.  When you encounter one of these spots in a song, try listening to what the other instruments are playing.

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In-person private and small group taiko lessons (up to 3 participants) are offered at my studio in North Hollywood.  You are welcome to drop by, see the space, and get a feel for what lessons might be like.

Place: 5716 Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601
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