Arts Review - Tribe 25 by the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers, Theatre by the Lake

PUBLISHED: 13:35 08 November 2019

The Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers

The Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers

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Mugenkyo infuse martial arts and music in an entralling display.

The Mugenkyo Taiko DrummersThe Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers

There is music to which you can listen, relax, work - and even completely ignore. But there is one art form which could be said is about 'becoming' for both performers and audience. Taiko drumming is exactly this. You don't just listen to Taiko; you feel it. With the Mugenkyo drummers you don't just watch them beating a variety of percussion instrument; you lose yourself in the whirl.

It is no surprise then that in the programme notes there's an almost complete absence of references to musical training. Instead, the language of the Martial Arts is used. The group run their own 'dojo' (a room for practising martial arts), they studied under a Japanese master 'sensei' (teacher) and Markus Guhe (a superlative shakuhachi bamboo flute player) has attained the qualification of 'Shihan' (master). Their training, they tell me, is as much spiritual as it is about keeping time and choreographing moves.

That choreography is vitally important, however. No matter how astonishing it is to watch drums being beaten, you can't keep an audience interested in that for two hours if you do nothing else. Mugenkyo are anything but boring thanks to their ever-inventive displays and themes. The two halves of the show are effectively two different sets. The first, titled 'Tribe', has a modern, cross-cultural style and represents the 'global village' belief of the group that we all belong to one tribe of 7 billion people. Some of these pieces are performed in semi-darkness allowing the phosphorescence of the drums and sticks to shine magically. There are times when you can believe you're watching fire dance. The second half is a celebration of 25 years since the founding of the group and presents more traditional Taiko performances. This is where you really see the inventiveness and impressive qualities of this band of seven players.

Perhaps most physically impressive is co-founder Neil Mackie who is intimidatingly huge and, unsurprisingly, plays the equally huge Odaiko drum. The guy barely stopped all night. When he did it was to speak to the audience and, despite his appearance, he turns out to be a very gently spoken and kindly personality. His co-founder, Miyuki Williams, bounces around the stage throws herself into every move, every stomp, with astonishing enthusiasm. Born of Japanese and Welsh parents, she bridges cultures and expresses her joy of life brilliantly; encouraging the audience to catch the flame too.

Though these two have been in the group for 25 years, the line up does change. Stella Chan joined in 2012 and is the group's self-confessed 'poster girl' wearing a distinctive red stripe across the face. She's utterly electrifying to watch, just as energetic as Miyuki Williams but with a fiery aggression which is mesmerising.

Yet, exciting and astonishing as these performers and their compositions are, the piece that moved me most was the hauntingly beautiful 'Daha' performed by Markus Guhe on the bamboo Shakuhachi. About as far-removed from western classical flute playing as you can get, his performance was hypnotic, soothing and utterly magical. For me, this moment of peace was the highlight of an incredible evening.

It was no surprise that the Keswick audience didn't want the show to end and I suspect many will catch the performers at other venues on the tour or even take part in one of their weekend workshops where you can learn Taiko for yourself. I'll confess, I'm tempted.

The Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers are touring the UK throughout November with a final show in Blackpool on the 24th. For details go to www.taiko.co.uk or call 01357 522 008.

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