ANYTHING BUT QUIET
By Samuel Fromartz
(Natural History, March 1998)
Seiichi Tanaka never planned to be a founder of taiko - Japanese drumming - in the United States. He actually came to San Francisco from Japan in 1967, at the age of twenty-four, to pursue a martial arts career. But then, at a local spring cherry blossom festival, he was surprised by the absence of the familiar drums, which he remembered playing even as a child. ("The drummers would get drunk and then fall asleep. That's when I would try taiko.") The following year, he borrowed some drums from a Buddhist temple in San Francisco and organized his own contingent of players, at first consisting mostly of Japanese nationals living in the Bay Area. Tanaka's martial arts background helped shape his philosophy and approach, which emphasizes the drummers' intense physical and mental training and their disciplined and graceful movement. His group, San Francisco Taiko Dojo, has since grown and influenced the development of others in the United States and Canada.
The first major gathering marking this three-decade-long movement in North America was held in 1997 and drew nearly 500 people to Little Tokyo, the predominantly Japanese American community of downtown Los Angeles. During one jam session, while others were relying on brute force, Tanaka's drumming seemed effortless, as if it were an afterthought to the fluid movement of his entire body. In a master class he held afterwards - ninety students rotating through the drums - he urged: "You have to totally relax. Let the energy come from your ki(center). Feel the energy come from the mother earth, from the bottom of your feet." He stressed a kind of loose intensity, in which the mind focuses on the tips of the bashi,or drumsticks. And he heartily endorsed the yelps one often hears from performers at taiko concerts. "Screaming is very important! After you scream you feel good."
A Dance With The Undercurrents
Taiko rarely strays from an emphasis on percussion instruments. The pulse is maintained by the resonant tones of large and small drums, the clackety-clack that these wood-and-skin instruments make when they are hit on the side, and the shrill sound of the atarigane(a bowl-shaped metal instrument struck with deer antlers attached to a bamboo stick). Gongs of various size and shape add musical depth, and a bamboo flute ocasionally offers a melody. When the drummers solo, they improvise in response to the rhythms, engaging in a kind of dance with the strong undercurrents.
This music has ancient roots. The drums, which vary in form and use, probably came to Japan from China and Korea beginning around the fifth century, following the paths of Buddhism and theatrical arts. The drums are used in gagaku,the traditional Japanese court music that has changed little since the eleventh century. Regional folk styles of taiko have developed throughout Japan, tied to festivals and religious rites. But strictly speaking, the group drumming (kumi-daiko)popular today - in which several performers play drums of various sizes, some keeping the beat, others soloing - is a post-World War II development.
In Japan, the rise of kumi-daikocoincided with the late 1960s counter-culture movement, which led some young people to reexplore folk arts that had been neglected as a consequence of the rapid modernization and Western bias of the post-war era. Ondekoza and its offspring, Kodo, now among Japan's best-known taiko groups, were established as rural communes in which the participants self-consciously sought to rediscover their roots. Japanese American youth began to explore taiko during the same turbulent times, when they were battling what was viewed as the stiff assimilationist outlook of their parents' generation and the prevalent stereotype of the "quiet Japanese" (taiko is anything but quiet). The 1997 taiko conference was organized by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) and held at their headquarters in Little Tokyo. Founded in 1980, JACCC is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve and promote Japanese and Japanese American heritage and arts.
Hands Were Bleeding
Masao Kodani is the minister of the Senshin Buddhist temple in Los Angeles. According to him, before Pearl Harbor, "Every adult was expected to offer something in terms of entertainment, whether it was a poem, singing, or dancing." But the war - and the internment by the United States of 110,000 Japanese Americans in barbed-wire-ringed camps - had a corrosive effect on that tradition. Despite huge economic and emotional losses suffered by Japanese Americans, their overwhelming response to that experience was assimilation. And among the things that got left behind were the small celebrations of the community's cultural spirit.
Kodani took charge of the temple as a young minister in 1968. This gated compound lies in an African American and Latino neighborhood of south-central Los Angeles that had been largely Japanese American until the 1970s. Taiko drums are used in some of the temple ceremonies and festivals, but usually with other instruments and not for the kind of athletic group performances with which they are now associated. After the 1969 Obon festival (a summertime celebration of the ancestors), Kodani remembers, he and a member of the temple, George Abe, were putting the drums away for another year when they began playing them. They played for about four hours, until they were sweating, their hands bleeding. "George, I think we should do something about this!" Kodani remembers saying. Shortly thereafter (just one year after Tanaka formed his group in San Francisco) Kinnara Taiko was founded. It was the first contemporary taiko group to come directly from the Japanese American community.
Tanaka linked up with Kinnara Taiko and shared knowledge, especially about building drums. Most traditional taiko drums are made by hollowing out a tree trunk and stretching animal skin over the head. Especially in the case of an odaiko,or large drum, this can be quite an undertaking. Kinnara Taiko's innovation was to use oak wine barrels. Without this cost-saving resource, taiko probably would not have developed in North America the way that it did. Another difficulty was stretching the skin. The group first used pliers, Kodani said, pulled by the biggest guy in the congregation. Later, with the help of Tanaka, they devised a system with car jacks to stretch the skin. "We had to go through many experiments, breaking jacks and skins," Tanaka says. It's now a standard method.
A Link to Japan?
For someone like Johnny Mori, who grew up in the sixties and was an early member of Kinnara Taiko, the group seemed a natural link to Japanese culture. "Mentally, for me, it was very rewarding to identify with what I thought was a Japanese thing," he says. "But lo and behold, this particular taiko, this Japanese-American taiko, had no roots whatsoever in Japan, nothing at all. Basically, we sat around and said, 'Are we making this thing up?' and Reverend Masao said, 'Yeah, we're just making this up.' And I go, 'This has no connection? No other Buddhist group in Japan does this?' And he said, 'Nope.' I go, 'Wow, I always thought I had this connection to Japan - and I don't.'"
At first, this realization bred insecurity, which was compounded by comments from Japanese who told the group they were not playing taiko. But when other Japanese Americans cheered them on, especially the older Issei (first-generation immigrants), they grew more confident. What they were doing, the sounds they made, reflected who they were. It was a uniquely American form.
To be sure, there were missteps along the way. P. J. Hirabayashi, of San Jose Taiko, remembers that young musicians jamming on the taiko drums "had no inkling how to play." Alan Okada, of New York's Soh Daiko recalls one of their early instructors improvising on saxophone while the group played drums. The question they faced then - and still face - was how to maintain the traditions of taiko and still create music that resonated personally. "We were lucky enough to know there are traditions, and some of those traditions are valuable and need to be maintained," Okada says. "And we were lucky enough to know that you can change things. It's a living folk art, and it evolves."
A Thousand Drummers