Japanense Taiko drumming hits a third wave

Seattle now has eight ensembles of this highly kinetic form of music, and a recent performance of three local groups shows how tightly choreographed they have become.
Crosscut archive image.

Stanford Taiko, in a performance last year. (Stanford University)

Seattle now has eight ensembles of this highly kinetic form of music, and a recent performance of three local groups shows how tightly choreographed they have become.

I was introduced to taiko during the late 1970s in Los Angeles through a performance by the Japanese group Ondekoza, the first ensemble to take Japanese drumming out of its folk context and develop it as a contemporary form mixing traditional work with commissioned new pieces in a touring format. At the climax of that evening in L.A., an enormous drum, standing some seven feet tall on its cart, was wheeled on stage. A lone man in a loincloth entered and began to bang out primal rhythms on the monster drumhead. And as he did, my body literally shook to its core. It was not just me but also the wall I was leaning against at the back of the theater, vibrating. The faster and harder the drum was beaten, the more the wall and I shook in response. What finally put me and I think everyone else in the audience over the top was a performer running on stage with a bottle in his hand, who took a huge swig from it and spit a fine spray of water over the drummer, as if in a feeble attempt to cool him down, to bring him back from his seeming state of possession. The moment is frozen in my mind - the mist of water flying across space, the droplets illuminated by the stage light, the heightened excitement of the audience, and the sweat-glistened drummer beating out the eternal rhythms of the universe. At about the same time that Ondekoza was organized in 1969, two important events were happening here in the United States. In 1968, the first taiko performance group was established in San Francisco by Seichi Tanaka, followed a year later by a group attached to a Los Angeles Buddhist temple. Young Japanese and other Asian Americans were attracted to taiko, as this form of ensemble drumming came to be known in the U.S., not only because it was an exciting way for them to connect to their heritage but also because its assertiveness and muscular athleticism countered the ethnic stereotype of the quiet and passive Japanese American. Over the years, the American taiko movement has grown to include 200 groups in the U.S. and Canada, including eight ensembles in the Seattle area. In August, these local groups will co-host the North American Taiko Conference, an annual four-day gathering of taiko enthusiasts. "Drum Enchanted Evening," a rich and charming performance, was held at Nordstrom Recital Hall March 30 as a benefit for the conference. The first half of the program included appearances by three local groups, and after intermission a set by a wonderful collegiate group, Stanford Taiko, was followed by a closing jam with all the participating artists. Established in 1992, Stanford Taiko, composed of students at Stanford University and sponsored by its music department, is part of what local master performer Stan Shikuma calls the "Third Wave" of taiko in America – that of emerging collegiate and youth groups, growing world music influences, and dynamic engagement between American and Japanese artists. Group members compose all their own music and make their instruments and costumes. The troupe is evenly divided between men and women, and racially diverse. For an ensemble whose members cycle out annually as they graduate, with new additions added each year, they presented a surprisingly tight, well-rehearsed set of six pieces. Two of these exemplified the range of their repertoire. "Amaterasu," based on a Shinto legend, was performed on five "chu-daiko" or medium-sized drums; "uchiwa-daiko," small fan-shaped drums played upright; and wood blocks. The piece was the most intensely focused of the evening, commencing with an extraordinarily subtle drumbeat executed with slowly bent and released wrists. This was followed by an avalanche of bravura drumming setting the seats of Nordstrom Recital Hall buzzing in sympathetic vibrations, and in turn the butts and thighs of those sitting in them. "Sprint" was inspired by the demanding, often frantic academic life of a Stanford student. For three drummers, it playfully demonstrated the highly choreographed nature of taiko with its shifting weights and positions by the ever-kinetic performers, and with challenging rhythms thrown back and forth between them, reminiscent of the call and response structure of West African percussion. The first half of the program was introduced by an elegant women's folk dance to flute and drum accompaniment by Seattle Kokon Taiko, and brief sets by the vibrant young drummers of Inochi Taiko, and by One World Taiko, who offered perhaps the most complex rhythmic playing of the evening. The closing jam featured turns from members of each participating group. The highlight was a brief but brawny and evocative display of drumming by Gary Tsujimoto. In an evening showcasing the vigor and exuberance of youth, the performance of this mature artist reminded one of the role of drumming as an ineffable force in Japanese tradition used to acknowledge the ancestors, intimidate one's enemies, and as a mediating power that called out to the natural world.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors