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Beating up a storm

Drum Tao percussionists lead a monastic life, suffering for their art. -TNP
Charlene Chua

Mon, Aug 20, 2012
The New Paper

Their home is a gigantic mansion-cum-training facility measuring 40,000 sq m, or about six football pitches, up in the mountains.

Envious? Don't be.

It's a boot-camp lifestyle that's so hard to adapt to that some trainees have bolted from their living quarters in the middle of the night.

Performing ensemble Drum Tao - consisting of Japanese drum artistes aged between 18 and 40 - spend their first few years as trainees living a secluded, austere life in the mountains of Grandioso in Aso Kuju National Park on Kyushu island.

No girlfriends or boyfriends, no mobile phones, no sweets, no Internet access and no contact with family or friends allowed.

With only the breathtaking scenery and each other for company, these self-confessed arts warriors - who have to wake up at 5am every day and jog 20km, do 200 sit-ups and and an equal number of push-ups - say it's worth it because of the "miracle of Tao".

In Drum Tao, a fusion of martial arts, Japanese music, dance and Taiko drumming which was founded in 1993, it is believed that abstinence from the secular world allows the drummers to be creative and produce deep, soul-searching music.

Even after training is completed, the currently 23-strong troupe - comprising seven women and 16 men - have to continue their monastic lifestyle in the mountains.

But at least they are allowed more luxuries, such as phone access and a sweet or two.

It is only during their 14 days of annual leave that they can return to civilisation, visit their families and friends and go on dates.

Those who are married have to house their spouses and children near Grandioso, but even then, they hardly get to enjoy much family time - the drummers are their real family.

Drum Tao, which has entertained audiences here thrice previously, was in town again for shows at the Marina Bay Sands until yesterday.

They have performed in over 400 cities and have been watched by five million people.

In the past year, they've spent 50 per cent of their time touring and 50 per cent in the mountains.

As testament to their popularity in Japan, 3,000 fans are allowed to visit Grandioso once a year so that they can mingle with their idols.

Taro Harasaki, 34, who has been a drummer for eight years, told The New Paper in fluent English: "The Tao lifestyle is so hard that so many trainees give up after just three days.

"They don't tell us that they want to quit but simply 'escape' down the mountain in the middle of the night.

"We don't chase after them, we just let them go. After all, it's their choice.

"Funnily, the nearest town is actually quite far away so we are always puzzled as to how they make it there."

Grandioso, which sits about 1,000m above sea level, is some two hours' drive from Kyushu's biggest city, Fukuoka.

Dating among group members, according to Harasaki and female artiste Arisa Nishi, 34, is taboo.

While Nishi - who has been with the company for 16 years - declined to comment on whether anyone in the current line-up is romantically linked, Harasaki admitted he had heard of couples hooking up.

He said: "Actually, they can do so during their 14 days' leave. But all these people have left already, not because they got together but because they found the Tao lifestyle too tough as a whole.

"Having a love life is not impossible in Tao, but there are a lot of sacrifices that have to be made."

So in love is Harasaki - with his craft - that he said he sees himself banging on the leathers for the rest of his days.

The "miracle of Tao", he explained, is the energy that the drums emit which is said to invigorate, inspire and chase one's blues away.

Harasaki recounted how a young man once told him that his father, who was very sickly and only given half-a-year to live by doctors, survived another five years as he had frequently watched the Tao performances.

Unable to describe how exactly the energy flow from the drums affect the senses and bring comfort, Harasaki said the old man was a firm believer that the sound of the drums gave him a fresh lease on life.

Of the 200 applications that Drum Tao receives each year, only 50 are short-listed for interviews.

Five are given a test run and only one is chosen to join the team finally.

Said Harasaki: "Many people have quit Tao because it's so tough.

"To be honest, there were many times when I too had thought of quitting.

"But when I look at the faces in the audience and see how much they appreciate our performances that keeps me going.

"I live for the applause at the end of every show.

"When the applause begins, the difficulties of the Tao lifestyle melt away."

Added Nishi: "When I'm drumming, I forget that I can't have chocolate and we try to refrain from talking about the things we can't have.

"Diet-wise, I also think of it in a logical manner.

"When you play the big drums (which weigh 400kg each and are 1.7m in circumference), you burn more calories, so you can eat more.

"If you play the smaller drums (like me) then you should have less."

A typical diet for the Drum Tao artistes includes barbecue meats, sushi and "lots of all kinds of Japanese food".

Even though the members continue to exercise discipline in following their rehearsal schedules and don't have much personal free time while on tour, they're allowed to use their mobile phones and access the Internet, as well as indulge moderately in local cuisine.

Said Harasaki about his visit to Singapore: "We tried the laksa and dim sum and we loved it.

"There are also so many skyscrapers here and everything is so clean."

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