A gruelling and precise Japanese art form gets a makeover

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The Independent Culture

A blood-red spotlight falls on the white skin of an enormous drum. A man enters and portentously strikes it with what looks like a table leg. "We put our souls into these unusual instruments... and our performances are infused with the idea that the drumbeat, like the heartbeat, is the very pulse of life," say the programme notes. But before you can dismiss Yamato as an overly solemn Japanese stereotype, on to the stage leap nine more drummers, all dressed in trendy, baggy black trousers, vest tops and combat boots, topped off with a range of experimental haircuts. They smile and whoop their way through the thunderous opening number of Kami-Nari (Thunder!), showcasing their rhythms, timing and dexterity on a plethora of drums ranging from the handheld to the enormous barrel-like odaiko. There is not a po-face in sight.

As the applause dies down, Takeru Matsushita, Yamato's leading man, slopes back onto the empty stage carrying a small drum and grinning beneath his frizzy curtains of hair. He encourages the audience to clap along to simple beats but is rudely interrupted by a fellow

Yamato member. This new arrival - sporting a pineapple-effect top-knot - goads him into a macho "drum-off" involving ever larger and increasing numbers of drums and an impressive range of off-putting facial expressions.

For the second half, the drummers don bright orange costumes - again sleeveless and loose, allowing limbs to flail freely. The storm promised in the title breaks - first with a syncopated ensemble piece representing the pitter-patter of raindrops, then with the metallic sound of Japanese banjos and zithers, which builds into an epic crescendo with all 10 drummers on stage. At the end of two gruelling hours, Yamato seem reluctant to leave the stage.

This is Japanese taiko drumming at its freshest and most modern. Yamato were founded in 1993 by Masa Ogawa in Nara, a town formerly named Yamato. Their first appearance abroad was at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998 where they won the Spirit of the Fringe award. Now Yamato have clocked up their one millionth ticket sale and are midway through another world tour, which arrives in London on 8 March.

For Kami-Nari, Ogawa has stepped back to become artistic director, handing the reins to Matsushita on stage. When I meet Matsushita the morning after their performance, he looks tired and less animated than he does on stage. His co-star Satomi Ikeda, who joins us, is also much meeker face to face than her screeching, livewire percussionist alter-ego.

The duo have squeezed in an interview between their morning run and rehearsals, which begin at midday and continue until the evening performance. Being a Yamato drummer is a full-time job. "Our life is hard. If you're not healthy, you collapse," says Matsushita. The fitness regime includes weight-training, running and "just drumming every day", explains Ikeda. The 7am run around whichever city they happen to be in is a Yamato ritual and, one suspects, their only opportunity for sightseeing while on tour. Matsushita says he sweats off up to 2kg every show and as for a special training diet, he laughs. "We just eat as much as possible."

Musical and physical abilities are not, surprisingly, essential prerequisites for an aspiring Yamato drummer. "You need to be friendly", says Matsushita. Ikeda elaborates, "We wake up together, eat together, drum together. Being close to the other members is important, as is the contact between the stage and the audience. Yamato is our family."

Neither Matsushita nor Ikeda have musical backgrounds. Matsushita was an engineering student who had never drummed before when Ogawa invited him to become a founding member. Ikeda was a nursery-school teacher who was inspired to join Yamato 10 years ago when Ogawa brought a drumming workshop to her school. Taiko drumming, they say, is not celebrated as a form of entertainment in its country of origin; at home they receive the most muted applause.

Although they are continuing a Japanese tradition, Matsushita hopes their show reflects today's Japanese culture. "People know about samurai and sushi. But they don't know modern Japan. We eat McDonald's, we drink Coca-Cola, but we're not Americans. Our blood and our thinking is from Japan." In Yamato, East meets West and ancient meets modern. Do they see themselves as cultural ambassadors? "We're entertainers," responds Matsushita. "Every country has its own culture, but everybody likes music and drums. That's enough for us."

Peacock Theatre, London WC2 (0870 737 0337), 8 to 18 March