Edo Bayashi: Decoding the Music

Edo Bayashi: Decoding the Music

Decoding the music – Dana Johnson


The first step in our journey with Edo Bayashi was to learn how to learn the music. Since the written tetsuke (sheet music) for Edo Bayashi are notated entirely in Japanese and uses a different format than Western musical notation, we needed help to even read the music. Longtime Ho Etsu member Dana Johnson stepped up to the challenge of translating the score for us, drawing upon her studied proficiency in Japanese.

Taking on the challenge

Dana Johnson

The weekend Eien came to visit I had injured my wrist so I could only watch, but not participate, in the workshop. Unfortunately, I learn best with tactile feedback from the drum and so I began to feel lost in all the kuchi-shōga (verbal teaching method) and terminology that Eien communicated to us during his short time in Chicago. I needed to do something to stay engaged. Luckily, we had purchased a copy of the Edo Bayashi tetsuke sheet music with this in mind, so I read along while everyone was practicing. Even though I cannot read western sheet music, I found I was able to follow along with the Japanese written notation so well that it gave me a sense of confidence that I could catch up with everyone later once my wrist healed.

I also realized, while watching everyone frantically take notes and trying to keep up with the plethora of don’s and tsu ku’s, that maybe we could all benefit from using the written music in the months ahead when we’d be learning the piece at a slightly slower and less intense pace. Having all the resources – time, a really sweet multifunctional printer, and a sound working knowledge of Japanese – I asked to take the book home and create an English translation of the Edo Bayashi music for the group.

Diving into the text

The first thing I had to do was photocopy the book to preserve the original. For those who have not had the pleasure of seeing it in person, it is printed and bound in a very elegant Japanese stab-bound style. It looked and felt so delicate that it was mentally difficult to put it on the flatbed, close the cover and subject it to the harsh light of the copier. The copy, scan and layout process actually took several hours – to save paper, I condensed two pages of the original to a page. The book is sturdy, too – it looked still brand new after all my work with the copy machine.

The translation part was not complex, but it did require a lot of patience, a lot of paper, a very good Japanese kanji dictionary, and of course, Eien’s assistance. 75% of the effort was just standard focus and attention to detail. For the other 25%, I had to listen to the music repeatedly to understand various instructional comments, of which there are several scattered throughout the piece.

Some of the difficulties I ran into included translating non-traditional Japanese words and phrasing and also trying to figure out the right meaning of some of the kanji. For those not familiar with Japanese, some kanji can have multiple readings and meanings, so without a sound familiarity with the music or discussions with the composer himself, it was not always clear which translation I should use. Eien, tremendously patient and helpful as always, answered any and all questions I threw at him (even the mundane ones that I felt embarrassed even asking).

The booklets also included an English translation of the musical notation (the kuchi-shōga) that was not possible to write out within the translated text. For the uninitiated, kuchi-shōga is a phonetic music teaching system based on Japanese katakana. Since our group typically learns new music through spoken kuchi-shōga, I did not have to explain the kuchi-shōga itself. For example, “tsu ku” (ツク) or “te ke” (テケ) sound just what they look like when written in Japanese.

The path ahead

Finally, I copied and bound the booklets to pass out at our Edo Bayashi kick off (Editor’s Note: Dana also wrote everyone’s names on their booklet and laid them out for a grand presentation. We loved it). After a mini crash course on direction of reading (right-to-left, in columns), the basics of tetsuke musical notation, and a few kuchi-shōga read-throughs, we found we were all more or less on the same level in less than 30 minutes.

I have not used sheet music before in taiko, but in this case, I’m not totally sure I could have gotten up to speed as quickly without it. It’s been rewarding to see how my contribution has also helped other members like it has helped me.


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