Bang the Drums: The Eighth Biennial North American Taiko Conference

From August 18-21, 2011, over 500 taiko enthusiasts gathered at the eighth biennial North American Taiko Conference sponsored by the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, organized by the Northern California Taiko Network and San Jose Taiko, with support from Stanford University. Participants included taiko players from across North and South America, the UK, Germany, Hawai’i, Hong Kong, and Japan. Notable workshop leaders included Seiichi Tanaka, recipient of the 2001 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, Yoko Fujimoto, principal member of KODO since 1976, and Saburo Mochizuki, original member of Sukeroku Daiko.

To new audiences, a group taiko (or kumi-daiko) show may seem to be music passed down through many generations. In actuality, modern ensemble taiko performances started in the late 20th century. Tokyo-based jazz drummer Daihachi Oguchi founded Osuwa Daiko in 1951. While Japanese religious, theatrical, or village taiko may influence kumi-daiko performances, most taiko in North America is a form of new music or neo-folk performance generated by a vibrant, soul-searching community of amateur and professional musicians.

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Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble

Taiko in North America: San Francisco Taiko Dojo was started by Seiichi Tanaka in 1968, prompted by his missing the sounds and rhythms of the drum during the annual Cherry Blossom festival in San Francisco’s Japantown. Kinnara Taiko started at Senshin Buddhist Temple in South Central Los Angeles as a Buddhist music group that transitioned from chant to gagaku and found long-lasting success as a taiko group in 1969. San Jose Taiko formed as part of the Asian American identity movement and anti-war protests in 1973. North American taiko groups generally follow the model of a dojo (school), Buddhist temple activity, and/or community music-making group with the addition of professional taiko practitioners such as Kenny Endo, Michelle Fujii, Shoji Kameda and Kaoru Watanabe, to name a few.

With more than 300 taiko drums, numerous related percussion instruments, and many taiko players meeting for the first time, the North American Taiko Conference provided an opportunity to explore musical and performing techniques, share repertoire, learn about the history of North American taiko, further the artistic development of taiko, and strengthen the bonds between members. Most of the taiko groups in North America continue to make drums from wine barrels, using car jacks to stretch the drum heads made from animal hide. Many groups rehearse in temples, churches, or basements. The opportunity to gather and learn from various approaches to taiko offered solutions on how to foster creativity, oftentimes within collective music ensemble structures.

The three-day conference was packed with 48 workshops, a free public performance of ten taiko groups from around the world, special presentations, discussion sessions, and a marketplace with 18 vendors including Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten and Kodo Arts Sphere America (KASA). In addition, the 2011 Taiko Jam Concert at Stanford University’s Memorial Auditorium featured Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble from Hawai’i, Kyosuke Suzuki from Tokyo, Soh Daiko from New York, Inochi/Mirai Daiko from Seattle/Denver, and San Francisco Taiko Dojo.

NEW MUSIC FOR TAIKO

Amidst all the activities, videographer Chad Williams and I were able to interview about a dozen workshop leaders and ask them for their thoughts on new music for taiko. A handful of these interviews are excerpted in this brief informational video.

Kenny Endo (Taiko Center of the Pacific, Hawai’i)
First non-Japanese national to receive a natori (stage name and master’s degree) in hogaku hayashi (classical drumming)

George Abe (founding member of Kinnara Taiko, Los Angeles)
Invited to all eight conferences as a workshop leader

Roy and PJ Hirabayashi (directors emeritus of San Jose Taiko)
Recipients of the 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellowship

Yoshihiko Miyamoto (president of Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten, Tokyo)
Founded in 1861, Miyamoto Unosuke Co., Ltd. has provided musical instruments to the emperor of Japan since 1926

Masato Baba (artistic director of TAIKOPROJECT, member of On Ensemble, Los Angeles)
Began studying at age six with his parents, jazz musician Russel Baba and taiko drummer Jeanne Mercer

Michelle Fujii (artistic director of Portland Taiko)
Recipient of the 2001 Bunka-Cho Fellowship to study with Warabiza

The Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Los Angeles hosts the North American Taiko Conference in 2013. As a performer in the 1997 and 1999 Taiko Jam, as well as workshop leader in 2007, 2009, and 2011, I have been grateful for the insight that this community continues to offer on topics ranging from building instruments to composing music to performing with integrity.

Two quotes that continue to resonate with me are “innovation is tradition” spoken by numerous people throughout the conference, and “work is both a verb and a noun” spoken by Stephen Sano, professor and chair of the department of music at Stanford University. Considering work as both a process and a product, as a way for new music to continually rearrange for multiple performance contexts, provides a sustainable approach that the taiko community, even though nascent, offers to musical groups in America and beyond.

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