Living in Japan
Nagoya Beats: the sound of Nagoya

Nagoya Beats: the sound of Nagoya

Added In: Living in Japan › Arts

Text by Al Mason / Photos by Laina Giselle Baines

It’s a Wednesday, and yet another chilly night on the streets of Nagoya. But despite the cold temperatures I’ve rugged myself up, wearing all my thermal underwear as well as a few extra layers, and have started to make my way towards Yaba-cho bridge where it crosses over Otsu-dori. I am drawn by the promise of warm people and a warm atmosphere.

As I near the bridge I hear the reason I have decided to brave the cold – the deep consistent sound of djembe drums. The closer I get, the louder the beat gets, until, reaching my destination, I see a group of about ten people sitting in a rough circle banging away on djembe with a beat that must have it’s origins in Africa.

You can’t help but be lured to the tribal nature of the music, and upon closer inspection it seems that it is not only drums that are being played. While the core group of people are each pounding away on djembe (hand drums held firmly between the knees), others are playing a variety of other instruments - a shamisen, several didgeridoos, a flute, a xylophone. This is what has simply become known as “The Drum Circle.”

Many of you will be familiar with all manner of street musicians in Nagoya. There always seems to be a band setting up somewhere in Sakae, one-man-and-his-drum-kit bands down random streets, guitarists with puny amplifiers lined up outside the south exit of Kanayama Station, lone trumpet players in Fushimi’s Shirakawa Park, and anyone who’s seen them will never forget the 50’s rock n’ rollers that dance up a storm near the Central Park fountain.

But the Drum Circle has one major difference – all are welcome to create music, not just passively listen. That means a great mix of people and whatever type of acoustic or percussion instrument they can bring along with them.

If you’ve ever wanted to take part in street music, not just be a spectator, this is the place to come. If you don’t have your own instrument there’s usually a drum lying around to borrow, as well as food and drink that’s shared around the group. Many just come to enjoy the music and atmosphere, while others take the opportunity to twirl colorful pois and staffs (sorry folks, no fire).
No one’s quite sure who started the Wednesday night gig under Yaba-cho bridge, but from talking to several of the existing members it appears they are an off-shoot of a group of djembe drummers that used to perform for five years near the Mitsukoshi building in Sakae. “We were looking for somewhere with a few less people and a more relaxing place to practice and jam, so we decided one year ago to start playing here.” says Fumi, one of the founders of the group. Masaki, who has been playing with the group since it started a year ago, says, “We wanted to be able to make as much noise as we wanted, and to play with friends and invite other people.” Since then the group has grown and evolved, old people leaving while newcomers fill their place, and there is a different crew every week.

 When asked why they come, everybody’s first response is “friends.” This is fantastic; this is what music is all about. Not only is it a group of like-minded people coming together to share their sound with the world, but also to share their music and expression with each other. None will deny that they enjoy playing in front of people - after all, every musician needs an audience, and enough people walk down Otsu-dori to Kanayama to give the performers a lot of exposure - but the main reason they are here is so they can play for and with each other, making some great friends in the process. This interactive audience and friendly social atmosphere are what make the Drum Circle so special. 

As well as the social aspect, there are also a lot of very talented musicians and performers here. Masaki says, “I play djembe and also the ‘mbira,’ which is an African instrument [made of metal prongs that you pluck] with your fingers.” Fumi, who tonight is surrounded by a wide array instruments, says, “I play djembe, but my favorites are my didgeridoos.” He also plays a large djembe-style bass drum, and a funny single-string bow instrument of his own design. Another long-term member Keiichi, says “My favorite is djembe, but I also play 6-string acoustic guitar, and sometimes I like to do some Indian singing.”  Another guy, Aoi, with a big smile on his face and slapping away slowly but skillfully on his djembe says, “I’ve only been playing for six months, I love it. I also play the shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese guitar.”

Tsuru, on the other hand, is slightly away from the group, twirling a long staff around his body using nothing but his neck and shoulders. “I come here for the poi. I like to practice to some good music and enjoy spending time with my friends. And sometimes I play djembe,” he says with a grin. Tsuru is amazing; I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so talented with poi and fire-staff. 

You may have noticed that there are a lot of Japanese names so far, but a nice mix of gaijin come along too. This is another feature of the Drum Circle experience, and a major drawing card for foreigners; not only are you playing cool music and making new friends, but enjoying a cultural exchange as well.

A friend, Naomi, says, “I have been coming here for four months since my third day in Japan. I was walking down Otsu-dori taking a look around when I was attracted by the infectious beat of the drums. I started running, and was immediately drawn in by the friendly people and pure fun of the music. Some of these people are amongst my best friends in Japan.”
So come down and have some fun. Bring an instrument and play some music. Make some friends and bring some new friends. Add yet another element to the Drum Circle experience.

The Drum Circle plays every Wednesday from around 8:00 until late. They are located under Yaba-cho Bridge where it crosses over Otsu-dori. It’s not hard to find - just listen for the drums and follow your ears.

Nagoya Beats: the sound of Nagoya
In action downtown
Nagoya Beats: the sound of Nagoya
What else to do under an expressway?
Nagoya Beats: the sound of Nagoya
One long flute!
Nagoya Beats: the sound of Nagoya
Fire stick at no extra charge