Allure of taiko drums resonating across Pacific

CALIFORNIA-BOUND — Katsuji Asano (R) and his father Akitoshi (L) of centuries-old Japanese taiko drum maker Asano Taiko Co. have been preparing to open a Los Angeles shop and launch taiko lessons in July 2013. Photo was taken Dec. 17, 2012, at a shop of the taiko maker in Hakusan, Ishikawa Prefecture.  Kyodo News photo

CALIFORNIA-BOUND — Katsuji Asano (R) and his father Akitoshi (L) of centuries-old Japanese taiko drum maker Asano Taiko Co. have been preparing to open a Los Angeles shop and launch taiko lessons in July 2013. Photo was taken Dec. 17, 2012, at a shop of the taiko maker in Hakusan, Ishikawa Prefecture. Kyodo News photo

KANAZAWA, Japan — With a dream of raising traditional Japanese taiko drumming to worldwide prominence, a centuries-old maker of the instruments used in the culturally significant music form is creating a business foothold in Los Angeles.

Asano Taiko Co. has been preparing to open a Los Angeles shop and launch a taiko lesson course in July since setting up a U.S. subsidiary last June, encouraged by a steep increase in sales of taiko drums in the United States.

In recent years, ensemble taiko drumming has become a popular pastime, particularly among Japanese Americans on the West Coast.

There are around 300 taiko ensembles across the country.

“I want to establish (the Los Angeles shop) as a springboard for spreading Japanese taiko culture around the world,” said Katsuji Asano, 29, who oversees the company’s U.S. project and is the son of an Asano Taiko executive.

Asano Taiko, whose history dates back to the beginning of the 17th century, is based in Hakusan in the northern central Japanese prefecture of Ishikawa.

Taiko drumming’s popularity grew in the United States after an attention-grabbing gambit staged in 1975 by a Japanese taiko ensemble called Ondekoza, according to the Kodo Cultural Foundation, an organization in Sado, Niigata Prefecture, which seeks to make the taiko drum a globally popular instrument.

Ondekoza members participated in the 1975 Boston Marathon as runners, and immediately after crossing the finishing line trotted onto a makeshift stage and wowed spectators with an ensemble drumming performance using odaiko, or big drums.

Taiko performance events are now held in various cities across the United States. Among them, the North American Taiko Conference has been held every two years since 1997, alternately in Los Angeles and other West Coast cities, bringing together American and Canadian taiko drummers. The event is sponsored by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center of Los Angeles.

At the time of the 2011 North American Taiko Conference, Asano Taiko sold around 30 drums, each of which was worth some 150,000 yen ($1,681), in just three days.

Asano Taiko’s drums have won accolades as being superior to those made in the United States. U.S.-made taiko, which are usually converted from wine casks, lack the resonance typical of the Japanese company’s drums, which are comprised of one-piece bodies carved out of wood by skilled craftsmen.

Asano Taiko has tailored its business approach so that it can win more enthusiasts in the United States. It is selling small taiko that are light enough to be easily carried by women, who constitute a large portion of the U.S. customer base, and it offers a discount of around 20 to 30 percent compared with prices in Japan.

Taiko players in the United States tend to prefer a rhythm and blues style of performance. But Asano said he is hoping to awaken Americans to the Japanese style of drumming, which creates each sound with a whole-hearted intensity. He also hopes American drummers will play a role in promoting Japanese culture worldwide.

“My dream is to propel American players onto the global stage,” Asano said.

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