Anything But Quiet
Natural History, March 1998
By Samuel Fromartz

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

Today, there are more than one hundred taiko groups, most formed in the eighties and nineties, performing throughout North America, from Calgary and Vancouver to Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Burlington, Vermont. In Japan, there are roughly 5,000 groups, including several major professional troupes. Week-long festivals attract thousands, and groups play for hours; at one festival, a thousand drummers play simultaneously. Kodo, along with a number of other professional groups, has been a force in that evolution in Japan.

The group sought from the beginning to connect with folk arts, says Atsushi Sugano, Kodo's business manager. "My (post-war) generation was not really experienced or exposed to taiko," he said. "There were no gatherings of taiko groups, just ritual festivals. So there was a desire, especially among people of my generation, to learn about Japanese arts, to return to our roots." Kodo, however, became compulsive about the art form. They lived in a commune, on Sado Island, off the east coast of Japan, ran marathons to build stamina, and practiced endlessly. In the process, they helped renew taiko. Kodo now tours eight months out of the year, conducts workshops the world over, and holds a percussion festival at its home base. (Last year, groups from Senegal, Trinidad, Indonesia, and Ireland appeared). Kodo has become so influential that its members bemoan how novice groups in Japan copy its pieces instead of developing their own.

Yoshiaki Oi, a founding member of Kodo and now a teacher in the group, applauds the American style. He says he heard a specific Kodo piece played at the Los Angeles conference. "In Japan, you hear the same melody (played by other groups), but it's the same presentation that we do, with the same sound, but what I heard here was different." He hopes that North American groups will appear more frequently in Japan "to show what creativity is all about."

Latin, Jazz and then Taiko

Kenny Endo, who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Hawaii, has probably taken taiko the farthest among Americans. He composes, runs a school, tours regularly, and plays with musicians in Japan and the United States. His interest took him to Japan for ten years in the 1980s, where he studied taiko and hogaku hayashi -the classical Japanese ensemble for flute and drums found in Noh and Kabuki. He played percussion in the Kabuki theater as a professional and was the first foreigner to earn the distinction of being granted a natori,a stage name that is also an informal license to teach. But Endo previously worked in funk, Latin, and jazz bands, even as he studied with the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. All these experiences show up in his work. "I feel a responsibility and a desire to continue the traditional music, whether it's Kabuki music or festival music," Endo says. "But I also feel a desire, for my own expression, to compose and use taiko in other types of contexts with other people." At the conference's concluding concert, Endo introduced a violist and saxophonist to play with his taiko ensemble. He also played a tsuzumi(an hourglass-shaped hand drum used in Kabuki) with Tanaka's group.

Perhaps the climactic moment came when drummers lined up to take turns on a three-foot-wide drum nestled horizontally on a wooden stand. Two performers at a time pounded at opposite ends, one as soloist and the other in a back-up role. As the sweat flew off their bodies, which in some cases were clothed only in loin cloths, the drummers unleashed a rhythmic frenzy, summoning up a deep roar with mounting intensity.

Following the concert, conference participants partook of food and drink set out by the JACCC in the open plaza outside the hall. But the milling crowd was still reluctant to disperse. After a couple of hours, some of the musicians spontaneously struck up a playful, raucous tankobushi,a traditional song and dance at Obon festivals, then segued into other taiko dance music. Somebody picked up a bamboo flute, another started to tap on a table, and then a couple homed in on plastic garbage cans and turned them upside down for drumming. Surrounded by deserted office buildings in downtown Los Angeles, the plaza felt like a village in the midst of a valley. The musicians formed a huge circle, couples danced in the center, and even Tanaka boogied into the fray to loud cheers. Everyone clapped and laughed long into the night; it was a celebration of rhythmic spirit as old as the taiko drum itself.

Here is a list of recommended CDs:

Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble, "Eternal Energy," Asian Improve Records, 1994
Katari Taiko, "Commotion," Karakarakara Records, 1994
Kodo, "Ibuki," Sony Records, 1996
Mugenkyo, "Mugenkyo," self-published, 1997
Ondekoza, "The Ondekoza," JVC, 1997
San Francisco Taiko Dojo, "Tsunami," self-published, 1997
San Jose Taiko, "Mo Ichido," self-published, 1996
Soh Daiko, "Soh Daiko," Lyrichord, 1991
"Japanese Traditional Music: Percussion," King Records, 1990
Uzume Taiko Ensemble, "In Your Dreams," Oo Zoo May Records, 1994

Some of these recordings, especially the self-produced ones, are difficult to find. They are available, along with other taiko products and information, from Rolling Thunder, 3008 Giant Road, San Pablo, CA 94806.

Web sites:
San Francisco Taiko Dojo
Soh Daiko



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