At the exit of the 149 St-Grand Concourse subway station on Sunday, cheers could be heard from a distance—welcome sounds that kept the runners in the 2017 New York City Marathon invigorated.
Closer to 138th Street, Bronx, the cheers got louder, and they were accompanied by unfamiliar drum beats and music—a heavy bass percussion sound, the din of clashing metals, and the sound of an oriental style flute. The sounds at the intersection of Canal Street were coming from an orchestra composed of about 15 people wearing “Happi,” Japanese traditional festival costumes, featuring straight robes .
“We are playing the ‘Taiko,’ which literally means a big drum in Japanese,” said Kyoko Toyama, the founding executive director of NewYork Taiko Aiko Kai. (Aiko Kai means “club” in Japanese.).
According to Toyama, the Taiko is a Japanese traditional musical instrument, created by stretching tanned leather over a cylinder of dried wood, When the Taiko is played, sometimes it is accompanied by other musical instruments like the Hue, a Japanese flute, and the Chappa, a Japanese hand-sized cymbal.
The Taiko sound does not resemble rock and roll, jazz or salsa. Its rhythm is simple, but it's rapid, intense and passionate. “Taiko sound is not heard from the ear. You feel it from the whole body,” said Toyama.
The Taiko was used to invigorate samurai warriors to fight wars during the middle ages, but today it is played at festivals, religious rituals and Kabuki plays, according to Toyama.
The New York Taiko Aiko Kai began in 2002 with a few families in order to pass Japanese culture on to their children. “Nine years ago, we began playing the Taiko in New York City Marathon,” Toyama said. “Initially, it was for a husband of one of our members, who were running in the Marathon.” He had told her that he always had a hard time when he got to the 20-mile mark of the course.