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Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Tao of Haka

Finally made it out to take in some live entertainment in Wellington the other night. Last Friday, "Tao: The Martial Art of the Drum" was playing at the Michael Fowler Centre downtown. This is a group of 10 elite drummers from Japan, 7 men and 3 women. They had 12 different songs they played, using all manner of drums from a humongous kettle drum down to smaller ones they wore around their waists. The show is based upon the ancient custom of taiko drumming that originated in China and Korea and has undergone a renaissance in Japan the past 40 years or so. In ancient times, there would be taiko accompaniment on battlefields as well as festivals throughout Japan. (I am cribbing from the program here, I don't hold myself out as an expert on this!)

The show was a combination of synergistic drumming and dancing, with all of the performers demonstrating impeccable timing and skill (my own words, I'm no longer cribbing!). I mean, if there was anyone out of rhythm or missing a beat it was indetectable. It just has to be seen to be believed. They made it all look so easy, and they were really enjoying themselves while they played - hard to do while concentrating so intensely. Apparently they have an insane practice regimen. To them, taiko truly is a way of life.

The opening number featured the 3 women and one of the men, one standing in front of the other, each holding drumsticks and each with their own drums to their right and left. Viewed head-on, they seemed like one person with 8 arms and they carried out their drumming flawlessly. It also wasn't just a matter of hitting the right drum at the right time, but there was fluid quality to their movements and when they would stop mid-motion they'd hold their positions in perfect symmetry.

Unfortunately they were only in town for one performance but they will likely return. It goes without saying that I would highly recommend checking these guys out, should they ever come to your neck of the woods. They first became popular outside of Japan at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland a couple of years ago, and hopefully will remain so for a long time as I hope to see this performance again as well as any new material they create.

It, uh, didn't hurt that the three women in this show were real cuties, too. And holding drumsticks. Even occasionally playing flutes. The operative word here is lithe. Yes, yes, I know. I need a date. Or a bucket of ice water!

One cool thing that happened at the end of the show, after their encore, was a Maori guy went down the aisle to the foot of the stage and performed a haka. It was clearly in praise of the performance, and the Japanese drummers were at first a little stunned but after the haka was finished they were all beaming. I thought it was a nice touch, and made this great experience a little more memorable in that it had a New Zealand flair to it. Apparently it's not unusual for Maori to express themselves in this way, should they be so moved. I love it and think it's great to have a cultural exchange like that. I'm still so new here but I was proud to be part of that New Zealand crowd!

A Maori haka, by the way, is a traditional war dance practiced by the original inhabitants of these islands. It is described rather well by some of Captain James Cook's crew, who first encountered the Maori on one of Cook's three historic voyages. I guess technically some Dutch explorers encountered the Maori first, some one hundred years prior, but four of them were beaten to death and the Dutch never made it to shore and so never had a chance to see the haka. But this dance was performed usually by a retreating tribe after they had lost a battle, although there were also 'victory' hakas as well.

The haka is a pretty extraordinary thing, really, and it's more than intimidating. There are many different versions, and currently the New Zealand national rugby side, the All Blacks, have made this dance famous as they perform it prior to every match. It is a way of psyching themselves up for the battle that is rugby, as well as a way to try to intimidate their opponents. The opposing team just stands there on the sideline, watching the All Blacks coolly as they do the haka. A particularly controversial version of the haka has been making the rounds this year, wherein the AB's pretend to slash their throats at the end of the dance. For more on the AB's version of the haka, click here.

The acoustics of the Fowler Centre were great and there really isn't a bad seat in the house. I look forward to catching more shows there in the future - hopefully ones good enough to earn another sampling of the mighty haka.


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