When professional taiko artist Kristy Oshiro prepares to drive to a neighboring city to teach classes, she puts a bucket of bachi (taiko drumsticks) on her passenger-side seat, 15 drum stands in her trunk and stacks 15 practice taiko (drums) in the back seat of her Honda Accord.
“And safely! I can still see out of my windows,” she said proudly.
A Yonsei born and raised in Kona, Hawai‘i, the 32-year-old Oshiro said she has been captivated by taiko ever since she was a small child. Each year, she would attend the annual Kona Coffee Festival, where many cultural performances were held. The Kona Daifukuji Taiko group, made up of youth from the Daifukuji Soto Mission, would close the festival and Oshiro would fight through the crowd to get front-row seats.
“I would always try to get as close as I could because I loved the feeling of the vibrations from the drums, and also to watch a group of young people on stage being so powerful and loud and doing this thing that looks really, really cool,” she said.
Oshiro began learning taiko with Kona Daifukuji Taiko when she turned 9 years old and has continued to play since then. During college, Oshiro was a member of Portland Taiko while earning her bachelor’s degree in music performance in percussion at Portland State University. She was a touring ensemble member as well as a Portland Taiko instructor from 2001 to 2007. After leaving Portland Taiko, she became an instructor and youth programs director for Sacramento Taiko Dan for the next seven years.
Now, Oshiro teaches classes and workshops in several cities in California, including Sacramento, Penryn, Nevada City and San Mateo, Calif. on a weekly basis, depending on when sessions start for each class or workshop. Despite her busy schedule, Oshiro said teaching has been a rewarding experience.
“Teaching in general, no matter who it is, is always great fun and rewarding to see students learning and enjoying themselves,” said Oshiro, who has been teaching for 13 years.
Beginning taiko student Wendy Okuda, a Sansei, said she likes how Oshiro includes Japanese culture and taiko history, as well as basic Japanese words and phrases, into each lesson. Okuda also admires Oshiro as a musician and said students experience her passion for the rhythm and beat of the drum when she teaches.
“There are many people out there who can teach you to play a song, (but) with Kristy, you experience and feel what the song is about,” Okuda said.
Many students echo Okuda’s feelings toward Oshiro and her classes. Beginning student Marlene Perkins, who is now in her third year of playing, adds that it is fun to learn from Oshiro and that she is very patient.
Beginning student Tatsuno Kusaba, who has five years of taiko-playing experience, said Oshiro adjusts her teaching style depending on the various learning abilities of her students. Kusaba has severe directional learning dyslexia, making it difficult to maintain the beat with her classmates.
“Instead of the experience being painful, Kristy-sensei gathers the whole class to assist me and others in such a fun and warm way that taiko for me has been serious, but great fun in exercise and to exercise trust my classmates,” Kusaba said.
Oshiro teaches people of all ages. She is a vendor for Visions In Education, a Sacramento-based public charter school, where she specializes in educational assemblies and teaching youth. She is an instructor for San Mateo Buddhist Temple Taiko, creative director of Placer Ume Taiko and instructor for Queer Taiko, a group she formed in 2014 in order to bring a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, gay, transgender and queer people as well as allies together to learn how to play taiko as well as build community and camaraderie.
Oshiro also continues to perform on stage. Besides being a touring member of Taikoza, which is based in New York, Oshiro formed a group called Tsubaki Ensemble in order to continue performing in schools after she left Sacramento Taiko Dan in 2014.
Tsubaki Ensemble is made up of Oshiro, who plays taiko and the Japanese flute, Japanese folk dancer Toshi Kawamura, who is known for her involvement with Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai, and taiko and shamisen player Kris Marubayashi. The group’s main objective is to showcase traditional Japanese folk music and dance to elementary school students, emphasizing how the art forms are for everyone. Oshiro, who serves as the group’s artistic director, said it’s great for students to see how multi-generational the group is — Kawamura is in her 80s, Marubayashi is in her 60s and Oshiro is in her 30s.
Marubayashi, a Sansei who played taiko with Sacramento Taiko Dan for 20 years, said she likes performing with Tsubaki Ensemble because she likes being able to share traditional Japanese music with young people, most of whom are not taught music in school or have not been exposed to Japanese music.
Marubayashi said Oshiro is a fantastic performer.
“She is able to effortlessly convey the joy of playing music while also being an amazing musician,” Murabayashi said. “Audiences can sense this and enthusiastically respond to her.”
In the future, Oshiro hopes to continue making a living doing what she loves. Her students hope she will too.
“Quite a few of us have simply followed her to wherever she is teaching in our area,” Perkins said. “We hope she’ll be stuck with us for a long time!”