Tomorrow’s leaders: Collegiate taiko groups

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The modern kumi-daiko (Japanese drum ensemble) has a more than 40-year long tradition in the United States. The sound of large drums and bells drum up support for local community events, serving as the start of many Japanese American community events. With its prevalence, more people, including collegiate groups, are playing taiko today than ever before.

Starting with Kyodo Taiko at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1990, the first collegiate groups formed at Stanford University and UC Irvine, most recently taking root in the East Coast as well. Aya Ino, Taiko Community Alliance’s head of membership, said there are now about 30 college groups in the United States. Ino said groups at UCLA and UC Irvine have been so successful, that there are now two groups actively playing at each university.

Wisa Uemura, executive director of San Jose Taiko, said taiko provided her with an artistic outlet to balance her studies. “Taiko was a way for me to connect to my cultural heritage as a fourth-generation Japanese American,” she added. Uemura started playing with Stanford Taiko, which she joined in 1993. The group, founded in 1992 by Valerie Mih and Ann Ishimaru, laid the foundations for Uemura’s experience in both technical and leadership skills.

Uemura said San Jose Taiko is “amazed” by what collegiate groups are able to accomplish. “We are a 40-plus-year-old organization with performing members who stay an average of 10 years,” she wrote in an e-mail. “In these collegiate groups, performers have to develop from beginners to leaders of their respective groups within three to five years.” On top of that, Uemura said collegiate groups write their own pieces and increase the visibility of the art form, all while pursuing a degree in higher education.

While at Stanford, Uemura said Stanford Taiko hosted the first Intercollegiate Taiko Invitational in 1995, bringing together Stanford, Kyodo and UC Irvine’s Jodaiko. “This gathering emphasized the importance of going beyond your group and building networks and resources,” she said.

Peggy Kamon, now Peggy Mato, founded Jodaiko with David Shiwota in 1992 as Tomo No Taiko. Mato played with the Gardena Buddhist Church before attending UC Irvine. She started the group when her school’s Japanese American student association, Tomo No Kai, needed a presentation for its annual Cultural Night celebration. Mato recalled practicing on tires in her backyard with six or so members. The group now requires members to audition, and is one of two taiko groups on campus, the other being TaiKomotion.

“It has grown tremendously. I could never have imagined how much it would grow,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Oberlin College Taiko in Oberlin, Ohio, started in 2008. Galen Rogers, an alumnus of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo Rising Stars group, chose to go to Oberlin to study taiko. He majored in ethnomusicology and wrote his thesis on taiko outside of the established and famous groups.

Rogers said taiko on the East Coast is isolated from the larger Japanese American community and the “central narrative of American taiko.” While various groups formed on the East Coast, starting with Soh Daiko in New York in 1979, there was no real precedent to new taiko groups when Rogers arrived. “There was no ‘taiko boom’ in the east the way there was in California,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “We had to improvise, set our own precedents, and develop our own metrics of authenticity.”

In attending the first East Cost Taiko Conference at Cornell University in New York in 2011, Rogers said the dozen college groups that attended “struggled to articulate their own expectations through a dense and messy soundscape” during the odaiko jam session, which on the West Coast, considers San Francisco Taiko Dojo’s “Tsunami” as the paradigm of style.

The East Coast, however, seems to be coalescing more now. Rogers said the conference has become an annual event and the Kaoru Watanabe Taiko Center in Brooklyn, NY is becoming an established source of knowledge for players in the region.

After graduation, players like Rogers are also now finding new footholds in the taiko community. Rogers teaches taiko at Marin Academy, a private high school in San Rafael, Calif., and is director of Jiten Daiko, a post-collegiate group of taiko players based at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco.

Uemura said, while official statistics are unavailable, she estimates many collegiate players continue to play after college. “Many join the over 300 existing taiko groups in North America. Some start their own groups like PROTA, Jiten,” she said.

“We see collegiate taiko players as a significant part of taiko’s future,” Uemura said. “For professional companies like ours, they are a source of enthusiastic and experienced performers who can become valuable additions to our groups.”

Ino said she knows of several collegiate players that have gone on to play as well. Michelle Fujii, co-director of Unit Souzou in Portland, Ore.; Yuta Kato, principal at Los Angeles Taiko Institute in Torrance, Calif.; and Shoji Kameda, who is co-director of On Ensemble in Los Angeles all played in collegiate groups.

Ino, who started playing with Kyodo Taiko in 2004, said the experience helped her grow as a player. “It opened me up to different styles and forms,” she said. Whereas playing in the San Francisco Taiko Dojo maintained a strict teacher-student relationship, college groups emphasized collaborative teaching and experimentation, challenging her perception on taiko. “I learned how to be more creative and be more confident with myself and grow as an individual taiko player,” she said.

Jenny Matsushita at UC Davis played in San Jose Taiko’s Junior Taiko Program and continues to play with Bakuhatsu Taiko Dan because it is a familiar and enjoyable pastime. Despite the high rate of turnover, Matsushita said she enjoys the challenge. “I have been playing with Bakuhatsu Taiko Dan for three years now and I will say that although challenging, watching the group grow and work together to solve problems has been quite rewarding,” she said in an e-mail. The group makes and maintains their own equipment and members help each other by passing down the know-how to the next generation. “Overall, collegiate taiko is quite challenging but a wonderful experience.”

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