The art of taiko drumming has had a presence in the United States for just under half a century. Several pioneers fostered and drove the art from its cultural roots to what is now an internationally recognized form of performance art featured in mainstream movies, television and music.
Taiko Takes Root in the U.S.
In Northern California, the newfound consciousness of identity driven by the Asian American Movement created the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival and its traditions.
Among the progenitors was Seiichi Tanaka, grandmaster of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. Tanaka, attending the 1967 Cherry Blossom Festival, realized there was no taiko drumming during the festivities. He resolved to take up the drum himself in the 1968 parade and played for the taru mikoshi carriers. From there Tanaka would start the Dojo and go on to later perform for movies such as “Rising Sun” and “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.” While Tanaka said he started the group as more of a “fan club,” he went back to Japan to study under Daihachi Oguchi, the leader of Osuwa Daiko, and later with Oedo Sukeroku among others to hone his craft and bring back those skills to create the Dojo as its known today.
Many taiko leaders would first study under Tanaka, as well as with groups from Japan, including Kodo, Osuwa and Oedo. They include Kenny Endo, Tiffany Tamaribuchi, Russel Baba, Jeanne Mercer and others who continue to teach and play today.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the Rev. Masao Kodani, a Sansei, became the new minister for Senshin Buddhist Temple in 1968. To help spread his teaching and raise interest in the church, he formed Kinnara Taiko, which originally played gagaku (traditional Japanese court music), which included taiko.
“We were using the taiko only for Obon and we wanted to have them used more than once a year,” said Johnny Mori, one of the founding members of Kinnara. “Even then, it was only one person drumming at a time back then.”
“Kumi daiko, it’s a very recent thing and not ‘traditional’ at all,” Mori said. According to the former member of the band Hiroshima, taiko as an instrument existed prior to the modern ensemble format called kumi daiko, but its use was different and was played only once a year or so for the annual Obon festivities in the United States. Kumi daiko, Mori said, started around the same time in both the United States and Japan. “In the mid-50s, it started with Osuwa Daiko in Japan, then Oedo Sukeroku in the mid-60s. In the U.S., you see groups starting in the late 1960s,” he said.
Kodani said it made sense for Japanese Americans to embrace taiko despite not being wholly Japanese. “The taiko in America is like sushi,” he said. “There’s traditional Japanese sushi, and then there’s distinct American sushi, like the California Roll.”
“It all came together in the late ‘60s, the Asian American Movement, the amalgamation of cultural and religious things,” Mori said.
Kinnara played at Japanese American pilgrimages to the former Poston, Ariz. concentration camp, inspiring other young Nikkei. Taiko became a part of the cultural renaissance that helped many Sansei gain a new awareness of their ethnic roots.
Buddhist taiko took off from there, inspiring other churches to start groups of their own, such as Stockton Bukkyo Taiko in 1990, New York’s Soh Daiko in 1979 and, to an extent, San Jose Taiko in 1973.
For San Jose, however, the group took its own course in developing its sound and aesthetics, Roy Hirabayashi, the group’s co-founder, said. Hirabayashi was a student at San Jose State University when he helped form the taiko group. “As a Japanese American Sansei, I wanted to find out more about my roots,” he said. While he briefly studied under Tanaka in San Francisco, Hirabayashi went his own direction to play from an Asian American perspective.
“The early history was, Seiichi Tanaka coming to the U.S. with the folk style from Japan, and Rev. Mas played Buddhist taiko,” Hirabayashi said. “I was interested in finding a contemporary voice. We were never traditional, we never learned in Japan,” Hirabayashi said. “But we felt that was how we could produce our own sound.”
Taiko owes its success to several factors, its leaders say. Pioneers led the way for creating a vibrant community of drummers.
Tamaribuchi started studying under Tanaka in 1987 and then formed Sacramento Taiko Dan in 1989. She also toured with Ondekoza and other Japanese groups. Tamaribuchi, moreover, is known for starting Jodaiko the all-women’s group in 1988.
“I did a demo performance at Sacramento State University and received an invitation to the Take Back the Night March,” she said. The group became a place for women to come together and perform “stronger” pieces and parts normally not given to women.
“Very few women were doing power taiko,” she said. In breaking gender barriers, she played the lead part in San Francisco Taiko Dojo’s “Tsunami” in the early ‘90s and went on to win the All-Japan Odaiko Competition in 2002.
Baba and Mercer moved to Mount Shasta, Calif. after studying with Tanaka. Baba said they moved to the countryside to raise their son Masato Baba and thought they had left taiko playing behind, but they met Mark Miyoshi, another Mount Shasta resident and a pioneer of taiko building. Baba and Mercer built their own drum and began teaching their son, along with Shoji Kameda, a family friend. Since then, Masato Baba and Kameda have gone on to become the next generation of professional taiko players.
Their group also organized the Shasta Taiko Concert in 1995, which later became ShastaYama in 2005. “It was a small community theater, that’s where we started,” Baba said. The concert moved outdoors in 2005 to a field in Mount Shasta’s Shastice Park. “It’s a major undertaking. We rent the stage and the lighting, truck it in … It seems like it’s not worth it for a one night concert, but it’s incredible to play there in nature.”
In Chicago, Tatsu Aoki works on his own brand of music through Tsukasa Taiko at the Japanese American Service Committee. Aoki, who grew up in a geisha house, learned Japanese traditional arts from a young age and incorporated his training into experimental theater in the 1970s in Tokyo. Aoki said he left Japan to explore music in America. He arrived in San Francisco to work with musician Francis Wong and later moved to Chicago to start Asian Improv aRts Midwest in 1984.
With his avant-garde background, Aoki said he incorporates his knowledge of Japanese theater into choreography as well as mixing in nontraditional sounds into Tsukasa Taiko.
“What we did was be one of the first community groups to do public concerts,” he said. “We brought taiko into the general audience through my connections with jazz.” Aoki said his group, while not typical or as “entertaining” as newer groups, helped bring taiko into the public’s consciousness outside of the Japanese American community in Chicago.
As a younger generation of children exposed to taiko go to college, many collegiate taiko groups have started to form, especially in California.
Peter Do had no prior experience with taiko, save for a concert he attended for his sister’s Hawai‘i club activities when Do was in high school. As a University of California, Berkeley student, he befriended a former Buddhist taiko player from Chicago. The group banded together to build their own drums and become Cal Raijin Taiko in 2005. Working to establish themselves as a serious student group, “we’d find an empty room, and sometimes practice in the parking garage,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for newer groups to … wind up practicing in the parking garage.” Since then, Do said the group proved itself to the school it was a serious organization and gradually secured storage for its drums and practice space.
Since graduating and becoming a mechanical engineer, Do joined Jiten Daiko, a group formed in 2011. According to Do, Jiten Daiko, which practices out of the Buddhist Church of
San Francisco, is an eclectic group of former collegiate taiko drummers who have moved to the Bay Area after college, but “didn’t feel like joining the established taiko groups.” Do said the group plays mainly at community gatherings and is “an ambitious bunch” that wants to work on becoming a prominent performance group.
Endo, director of Taiko Center of the Pacific, said taiko in Hawai‘i has “really grown” since he moved there in 1990. While working on his graduate studies in music, Endo began teaching out of the University of Hawai’i. When the classes grew too popular he moved them to the Kapiolani Community College, where the school is now celebrating its 20th anniversary and teaches students as young as 2-years-old to seniors.
“It used to be three to four groups, now it’s something like 20,” he said. “I haven’t taught all of them, but I’ve done workshops with some and a few were started by my former students.” Endo estimates about half of the Hawai‘i groups have a connection to him.
While taiko grew through expressions of religious and ethnic identities, many players also attribute its attractiveness to its relative ease for new players to get into playing. Melody Takata, founder of GenRyu Arts, compared the dedication required to start taiko with other Japanese cultural arts, such as dance and shamisen. “It’s the first door in, and it sticks the longest,” she said. Other cultural arts such as shamisen and traditional dance, according to Takata, are far more expensive and time consuming for new players.
“It doesn’t look as complicated,” Baba said. “It’s just two sticks and a drum.”
Ryan Kimura, a San Francisco Taiko Dojo member, said his mother took him to a practice at the Dojo when he was 8 or 9 years old just to “watch.” “Somehow, one of the instructors got a pair of bachi (drum sticks) in my hands, and the next thing I knew I was up playing taiko in the class,” he said.
Wisa Uemura, executive director of San Jose Taiko, also noted a universal element to drumming. “It’s a cultural art form, but the appeal goes way beyond the Japanese and Japanese American,” she said. “The power of the vibrations, the idea of drumming is something that connects us as humans. In most world music traditions, the drum is one of the first three instruments that come into being.”
“You strike the taiko, and you get a sound,” Seiichi Tanaka said. “It’s an instinctive instrument that’s easy to get into, and the sound is like your momma’s heartbeat.”
Endo said there is a certain appeal to playing taiko, especially when played in a large group. “Taiko appeals to something missing in our modern lives,” he said. “Although things have become convenient and technology is changing our lives, there is something spiritual about the sound of taiko that speaks to a void in ourselves … It is a way to reconvene with nature.”
Baba feels a connection to the earth as well. “While it is a performing art, sometimes I think about someone who passed on and make it a prayer. It makes my playing into something personal that I can share with the community.”
Forging a Path
Information and supplies were scarce in the early years of taiko playing. Another factor that helped American taiko grow was the players helping each other. While churches may have owned one or two drums for Obon, there were not enough drums and no one instinctively knew how to reskin a drum head or where to purchase happi to wear in concerts.
Alan Okada, a founding member of Soh Daiko in New York, attested to Endo’s contributions in not only teaching, but setting up a “lifeline” to Japan for American groups. “While he was studying in Japan, he helped us and other groups in buying and importing stuff,” he said.
Endo studied in Japan from 1980 to 1990. He said several groups, including Kinnara, Soh Daiko, Denver Taiko, San Jose and Shasta, asked him to be an intermediary for purchasing equipment. “There was no Internet and even international phone calls were difficult, so it was done by letter writing,” Endo said. “It was time consuming, but I was happy to do it when I had time.”
Another aspect of American taiko was the innovation of building taiko. Kinnara pioneered the “wine barrel” taiko to build their own drums for their performances and many other groups and drum makers, including Japanese taiko makers, learned and improved upon their work over the past 40 years.
“We adapted to what was available. Taking a barrel — whatever barrel we could get our hands on — to build drums,” Mori said. “We found oak wine barrels worked the best.” Kinnara experimented with raw hides for skinning the drums and studied other drums such as the congas to figure out what to do.
“In Japan, no one thought to make their own taiko,” said Tanaka. “It was unheard of.” Tanaka called Kinnara’s work “groundbreaking” and said their innovation greatly contributed to making taiko popular in America.
“It’s actually really interesting, you’d think accessibility of the instrument would make it difficult (to popularize taiko),” San Jose Taiko’s Wisa Uemura said. “It’s very difficult to purchase a drum from Japan, and making a drum isn’t easy. You have to be pretty invested to build one.”
Moving Toward the Future
As taiko in the United States approaches its 50th year, the next generation of drummers are taking over. Major drum makers like Asano Taiko and Pearl have started to sell taiko in the United States. The art form’s terrain is rapidly changing.
Okada said with the popularity of taiko growing, he worries that the art form will lose its connection to Japan. “I view it in a traditional folk drumming format,” he said. Okada said taiko in Japan itself is changing and said taiko could lose it’s context. “The taiko supports Obon, nonprofits and in building community … it’s the voice of the life of the community.
Focusing only on the music is missing the point.”
Hirabayashi also said taiko is “diversifying very quickly” through mainstream culture. “The instrument is being recognized in a larger context … You’ll probably one day see a symphony orchestra permanently have a taiko,” he said. “Taiko is an instrument, like a piano, it can be played in different styles. … So how do people relate to it? Will we consider a taiko player a percussionist or a taiko player? Are you writing a taiko piece or a percussion piece?”
Hirabayashi said what’s important is to remember the context of the instrument. “There’s no control, it’s going to happen, but people must think about its roots,” he said.
Uemura said San Jose Taiko’s new members bring about specific changes, but the group’s overall essence remains the same. “We want to be representative of our current members,” she said. “We’re not trying to be anyone else. We draw heavily on the musical experience of our performers and membership. We write our own music and all of our performers participate in that process. In a general sense, it doesn’t change.”
Kimura said he is excited to see how new groups will innovate taiko and how it has become a part of the mainstream. “I think as long as those who play do not take the art form for granted and forget the core and history of it all, then things will be fine,” he said.
Masato Baba said he thinks his generation is pushing the boundaries of taiko. For Baba himself, he is coordinating the 2014 World Taiko Gathering in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo this coming July. The four-day event aims to bring 600 registrants together from around the world to attend workshops, perform and network. “As taiko is becoming more globalized, we hope that this event will educate the taiko community,” he said. Baba said the gathering will hold a concert involving groups and individuals from Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Meanwhile, Mori and other taiko veterans are taking up a new project: the Taiko Community Alliance. The organization aims to become an umbrella resource for taiko groups and to organize the North American Taiko Conference, slated to be take place in Las Vegas next year.
According to Mori, who is interim chair of the organization, the idea started some 20 years ago during a taiko retreat with Tanaka and other leaders. Tanaka challenged American taiko groups to start a representative national organization, but Mori and the others declined because “we thought it was still too early,” according to Mori.
The organization was not formed, but a North American Taiko Conference was started and organized by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles as a biennial event since 1997. The 2013 conference, however, was postponed after an abrupt change in the organization’s administration.
“The JACCC had problems finding staff and couldn’t … organize the conference,” Mori said. “We said, ‘Well maybe this is our opportunity or time to make that national organization.” The conference’s advisory committee got together at Stanford, Calif. in August of 2013 to bring together their collective experience of setting up groups and organizations and formed the Taiko Community Alliance. Mori said Endo, Hirabayashi, Okada, Tanaka and many other leaders are “on board with the project” and excited for its future.
What started as three main groups — San Francisco Taiko Dojo, Kinnara Taiko and San Jose Taiko — the popularity of taiko has exploded into hundreds of groups performing and teaching throughout the United States and the world. The art form continues to evolve and gain prominence more then 40 years later.
Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the Nichi Bei Weekly Japanese Culture & Cherry Blossom Festival Guide, the article entitled “Beating out a new path: The proliferation of taiko in America” erroneously stated that Tiffany Tamaribuchi “toured with Oedo Sukeroku.” It was in fact Ondekoza. The Nichi Bei Weekly regrets the error.