music Wadaiko Ichiro Drummers, Hackney Empire Big ones, little ones, whole tree-trunk-sized ones - if it's wood, they whack it. Martin Gordon's ears ring to the rhythms of the demon drummers from Japan

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The seedy grandeur of the Hackney Empire in London's East End makes an unlikely setting for mystical rhythms from the Orient but, as the Japanese saying has it, "Out of a gourd comes a pony", the metaphorical pony in this case being the vociferously athletic Wadaiko Ichiro drum orchestra from Japan.

Following on from last year's triumphs at the Edinburgh Festival and Sadler's Wells, Wednesday's show was the first in a gruelling two-month tour with a revised set. The curtain rose to reveal a stage strewn with drums - small ones, big ones, bigger ones and, dominating all, the monstrous 1,000lb (or near metric equivalent) taiko, carved out of a single tree trunk. The ensemble bounded on to launch into the first of a variety of virtuoso percussion syncopations that used all the dynamic and tonal capabilities of the drums and drew upon the seemingly limitless power and agility of the 10-strong group.

An amalgam of apparent contradictions, the music of Wadaiko Ichiro sounds both utterly spontaneous and totally controlled, evoking primeval urges while coming on like some globalised Glitterband. Generous helpings of wit leavened the performance of these samurais of swing - the tiniest of pauses contained a snatch of Japanese folksong and a flung handful of petals, a brief lacuna before the two-fisted assaults upon the drums resumed. Dynamics had obviously been carefully thought out, both for individual pieces and for the performance as a whole - a mournful shinobue bamboo flute introduced a scene shift, a shamisen lute led the way for a taste of traditional red-wigged butoh dance, accompanied by some noh-style vocalising that thankfully (call me a philistine) avoided the drunken-Scotsman-like excesses of the noh theatre vocabulary. A delicate series of solo passages on assorted percussion, bell frames, Buddhist gongs and wood blocks presaged the final onslaught upon the three-metre tall taiko drums. The audience demanded four encores, which were provided with relish, ceasing only when the house lights went up.

The taiko drumming tradition dates back hundreds of years: first used in religious ceremonies, it has been liberated by such contemporary ensembles as the Kodo drummers and Ondekoza, of whom Wadaiko's leader, Ichiro Inoue, was formerly musical director. Finding their regime too strict (prescribed bedtimes and no women), he formed his own rival company based upon more eclectic lines and, indeed, Wadaiko Ichiro performances veer between stony Eastern inscrutability and West Side Story-style gang rumbles, conveying a distinct rock 'n' roll sensibility.

Another Japanese adage informs us, "Where there are geese and women, there is noise." There were no geese and only four women in the group, but Wadaiko Ichiro caused a serious commotion nevertheless. These high priests of rhythmic noise continue to thrash their deafening way around the UK for the next two months. From the sacred to the profane and back again at top speed, with maximum syncopation - not to be missed on any account.

Tonight 8pm Hackney Empire (booking: 0181-985 2424).

Tour details on 0171-580 9644

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