JET Programme Voices / Becoming the African taiko player

Courtesy of Wisani Shibambu

Wisani Shibambu, right, and Sakka Tsuchiya

By Wisani Shibambu / Special to The Japan News My name is Wisani Shibambu. I am an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) on the JET Programme, working for the Shizuoka Prefectural Board of Education. I come from Johannesburg, South Africa, and have been living in Japan for over two years.Speech

I was placed in Kawanehon Town, a small, rural community with a population of about 7,000 people. Kawanehon is nestled among endless mountains and the Oigawa river under a blanket of clear air. When I was brand new to the town, I remember attending a festival alone and taking in the sights when I heard the sound of drums coming from afar. The instant I saw the taiko drums being played by a group of locals, I knew I had found “my thing.” When I came to Japan I did not know much about Japanese culture in general, but when I felt the passion of those drums I knew I needed to learn to play.

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  • Courtesy of Wisani Shibambu

    From left to right: Wisani Shibambu, Hitomi Nakahara and Sakka Tsuchiya

As the months went by and I heard my students playing, I was desperate to find a local club. A couple summers ago I was fortunate to come in contact with a local resident who invited me to join their taiko club. You can imagine how surprised I was. I started practicing right away. Everyone was patient, kind and supportive, and although I was hard on myself in my efforts to get the stance and rhythm right, everyone else was understanding.

Honestly, at first it was gruesome; the drums were loud, my hands developed blisters and the stance was not easy to get right. I can’t even count how many times I considered quitting. That September I had my first performance — and it was magical. I was front and center and although I did not want to be in front initially, I am glad the team insisted. I performed with everything I had in me and left the stage feeling powerful, exhausted and so filled with adrenalin that I wanted to go back for more.

Through the many challenges I have faced in Japan, taiko consistently remains my favourite space. It is a release and requires all of your energy. Each movement requires your effort, strength, grace, gentleness and precision. By no means am I saying that I have the perfect stance or skill. Those take years to master. But I have the heart. That is the thing about taiko. It requires heart and soul as well as blood, sweat and tears. It is as painful as it is rewarding. Taiko gave me community, fitness, a sense of belonging and friends who have become like family. The best part is that it is beautiful — a sweet ode to the preservation of the culture of Japan. I am enjoying being an African lucky enough to play taiko with wonderful people in my community in Japan.Speech

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