By Lesley Betts

A group of drummers is filling a room with a rhythm so powerful that you don’t just hear it – you feel it.

They stand at hip-high wooden and cowhide drums, their drumsticks perfectly synchronised as they play.

They leap bodily from the ground or dart between the instruments, swapping places without missing a single beat. It’s a display of choreographed athleticism, punctuated by wild and warlike cries.

These are Taiko drummers, practitioners of a Japanese art form that has unexpectedly taken root in York.

I caught up with them in rehearsal at a York sports centre, perfecting their compelling routines as demand grows to hear and see them at events throughout the country.

The Kaminari UK Taiko Drummers, as they’re known, have showcased their talents at a host of concerts since they were formed back in 2008. They’ve wowed the crowds at the Great Yorkshire Fringe, the Galtres Festival and the Malton Food & Drink Festival and have also performed throughout Yorkshire and the rest of the UK.

Taiko means ‘drum’ and its music originated in Japan, where over the centuries it has featured at the heart of military, theatrical and religious activities. Modern Taiko originated in the 1950s, influenced by jazz. Since then its popularity has spread all over the globe, and it was brought to York by local group founder Mary Murata.

Mary had spent 14 years of her life in Japan and remained passionate about the country on her return, running a Japan society in York. A teacher of Japanese at York St John University, she came across Taiko drumming ‘by sheer chance’ on a visit to a Japan Day event in Manchester.

Contacts running an African drumming group were intrigued by Mary’s discovery and began working with her, learning to master the instruments and techniques involved with the help of a London-based teacher she invited to show them the ropes.

“It is just enormous fun,” says Mary. “It’s creative, and you’re working together with one another. People are making friends through it. It’s also a physical thing you get a buzz out of it. It is like going to the gym - you certainly raise your heart rate!”

The group was hooked, and started teaching itself traditional Japanese pieces and developing its own repertoire, all of which is learned by heart.

“Everything we do is in our heads,” says Mary. “Some of the band can’t read music, so we do it all from memory.

“If there is a piece from two or three years ago that we want to revive, there might be a video, or we might ask each other, ‘How did that go?’ and we work out how it went. It’s very much a collaborative effort - we make up songs and routines and it is all done together.”

The fledgling drummers found themselves putting on their first performance rather sooner than they had expected.

“Our very first ever gig took place before we had even formed a group,” recalls Mary. “Someone running a Japanese Families association in York said, ‘Can you do Taiko drumming and play at our open day?

“We had no drums and no expertise, so of course I said ‘Yes, it will be fun!’

“They said, ‘Great - what is the name of your group?’ We didn’t know what we were going to call ourselves, but the Japanese word for thunder is Kaminari and that stuck. Again, that was a collaborative decision.”

Gradually the band found itself taking the music more and more seriously. Members travelled to learn more pieces, some even journeying to Japan to take part in residential workshops.

The group’s design guru Jared Hardwick put together striking black and purple costumes based on martial arts clothes, giving them an eye-catching onstage identity.

The band’s instruments were bought either together or by individual members, with drums being made for them by experts from Germany and Luxembourg, although band members later started experimenting with making their own instruments, too.

As Kaminari UK started to perform, word spread quickly. “We started getting lots of gigs!” said Mary. “We did York Folk festival, the Galtres Festival, the Great Yorkshire Fringe, and things have evolved from there.

“Performing was terrifying at first. I used to get really, really nervous but it’s great fun, and people are very kind. We have followers now, we have fans!”

Kaminari UK plays at everything from major festivals to small, private gigs. Jared Hardwick also teaches adults, children and school groups, making Taiko accessible for anyone who wants to have a go.

The group also often collaborates with other performers of Japanese music such as Michael Graham who plays koto (Japanese harp) and shamisen (Japanese banjo).

One serious enthusiast for Kaminari UK is York woman Trish Joscelyne, who was instantly captivated when she saw the group performing at a busking festival in York city centre.

“I am a big fan!” says Trish. “It’s the rhythms, they are hypnotic. I first saw them in St Helen’s Square and I thought, ‘I would love to have a go at that.’

“I asked, ‘Do you have classes?’ and they said ‘Yes, we have a beginners’ group’, and I have been doing it since.

“I love it; it’s so exciting when you get a rhythm together. It’s like singing, it is in parts like harmonies. It gets quite complex and you get a good workout!”

See the drummers in action

Trish Joscelyne’s passion for the drumming group has led to a charitable venture which is giving the public the chance to catch Kaminari UK in concert next month.

She’s the wife of Brian Joscelyne, President of the Rotary Club of York, and the organisation has got together with the drumming group to organise the event at Shepherd Hall, St Peter’s School, in February.

The concert, ‘Journey’, will be a mix of traditional Japanese work and other pieces blending Oriental influences with other world music themes.

Tickets cost £12.50 including a glass of wine or soft drink, with proceeds to York Against Cancer and to Rotary charities in York.

“We were delighted to get involved for such a range of good local causes,” said Mary, and Brian added: “We do lots of charity events, from the Dragon Boat challenge to dinners and garden parties, but this is a great opportunity to do something very different, and we will hopefully reach a different audience.

“The group is really excellent and we are sure that the audience will have a great night while helping worthy charities.”

‘Journey – a musical journey through Japan and beyond’ takes place at Shepherd Hall, St Peter’s School, Clifton, from 7pm on Saturday February 10. Tickets priced £12.50 from www.yorkagainstcancer/events or members of the Rotary Club of York, For more information about Kaminari UK, visit