The Way of the Drum Reviewed


Review by Peter Thomson, Emeritus Professor of Drama, University of Exeter


This book tells an extraordinary story. It begins in 1996, when Jonathan Kirby, approaching forty, was living with his wife and three small children in Palo Alto, California. Behind him lay a brief career as a teacher of French in England and early experience as a drummer in a rock band and folk-rock group. He was in Palo Alto because Hewlett Packard had appointed him divisional Global Marketing Communications Manager, and that meant that he could afford a place in one of the USA’s five most expensive cities. More out of curiosity than conviction, he made early contact with San Jose Taiko and found himself participating in a rigorous two-year audition process. What happened to him in San Jose was comparable only with a religious conversion, since it changed the direction of his life as utterly as Saint Paul’s had changed by the time he reached Damascus. Towards the end of 1997, Kirby left Hewlett Packard and California on a mission to establish taiko drumming as a cultural – and spiritual – force in the UK. The decision tempts me to invent dialogues with his wife and with his bank manager, and it’s not the least remarkable feature of this improbable history that Gabrielle Kirby supported her husband’s vivid quixotry.

The Kirby family returned to England without a fixed destination, and they settled in Exeter only because it was the first place in which they found a large enough affordable house: large enough, that is, to accommodate drums as well as children. When Jonathan Kirby established Kagemusha Taiko in 1998, there was nothing like it in the western counties and no obvious precedent anywhere else in the UK. His immediate challenge, then, was the one identified by Wordsworth in 1815 – that of creating the taste by which he was to be enjoyed. He found out all he could about taiko in the UK while setting out to create more. Twenty years later, he had masterminded twelve UK Taiko Festivals and three European Taiko Conferences. These are the public faces of a phenomenal private – and largely altruistic – enterprise. The principles that have underpinned that enterprise and the stages in its evolution are scrupulously enunciated in this book.

Entirely without arrogance, and in a tone commensurate with a factual report to shareholders in a corporate venture, Kirby details the history of Kagemusha Taiko. If only Stanislavsky had been as straightforward in My Life in Art, we would better understand the Moscow Art Theatre. But it seems to me likely that Stanislavsky was less aware than Kirby of the complex dynamics of a creating group. Harold Clurman’s The Fervent Years, his chronicle of the Group Theatre in the 1930s, comes closer to The Way of the Drum: such objectivity from the inside of an artistic ensemble is both rare and immensely valuable.

There is, though, a generally discernible difference between the disciplines of a musical and a theatrical ensemble. Taiko at its most thrilling combines the sound of the drums with the balletic/gymnastic precision of group choreography. It requires drill. Watching on YouTube a 2011 performance by Kagemusha Junior Taiko of ‘The Gift’, I was uncomfortably reminded of an occasion in the 1980s when I engaged a Japanese actor-trainer to lead a project with a representative group of Drama students. After two sessions in which he kept them working until they had perfected the gymnastic exercises he had demonstrated to them, the students revolted against the demand that they should ‘merely’ imitate, and I had to abort the project. Kirby and Kagemusha Taiko are living proof that taiko is not an immovably Japanese art form, but its ideal performers are temperamentally attuned to the pursuit of the kind of accuracy essential in oriental martial arts.

Kirby is surely correct in his perception of a therapeutic element in this pursuit. An almost priestly pastoral concern is a discernible subtext of The Way of the Drum, and it is part of the text of the company’s website:

‘We proceed on a basis of openness and uncompromising integrity, respecting ourselves and each other’.

There is nothing sanctimonious about this. Taiko has been Kirby’s way of life for twenty years. The only thing I find more astonishing than his sheer boldness in founding Kagemusha Taiko is the achievement of sustaining it. At the centre has been an unassailable conviction that taiko is fun. Watch the faces as well as the drumsticks of Kagemusha’s players. But an essential, and for me surprising and admirable, feature of the group’s history has been its founder’s adaptability. His own composing has both responded to and challenged the skills of his players. He has, at various times, prioritized training or performance, local community or national engagement, youth projects or group management. And he has taken some fearful risks, none greater than the 2012 decision to establish a dedicated taiko centre on the campus of the former Seale Hayne Agricultural College. This is a fine rehearsal and residential resource, but it is in rural Devon, out of range of public transport. The move brought to an end the brilliant ‘Junior’ branch of Kagemusha Taiko. It was time, Kirby concludes. Core members were moving away from Exeter to take up places at university. Their immediate legacy is the chapter about them in this book and a video archive, but, in the longer term, they will have an impact on the future of taiko in the UK.

Speculation about the future of Kagemusha Taiko is an unavoidable corollary of reading this book. Kirby has been its driving force, as ubiquitous as Rossini’s Figaro (‘Figaro qua, Figaro la, Figaro su, Figaro giu’). There has never been an alternative. He is, after all, the taiko professional at the centre of an amateur enterprise. As a reader, I found myself on his side even in the various tales he tells against himself. Any missionary who works as excessively (and selflessly) as he has deserves no less. At one point, he describes the heart-attack he suffered in 2008 as inexplicable. This book probably explains it.