SACRAMENTO, Calif. — “My mom would say from the time I could walk, I would stand in front of the taiko,” said 51-year-old Tiffany Tamaribuchi, recalling her earliest encounter with the drums at a Sacramento Obon festival.
Her captivation with the Japanese drum would lead her to establish Sacramento Taiko Dan in 1989 at just 22 years of age.
Tamaribuchi’s main reason for founding the nonprofit group was simple: There wasn’t a place to learn taiko in Sacramento. In the 1980s, there were ways to learn other Japanese arts and instruments in California’s capital city — minyo (folk songs), chado (the way of tea), ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) and koto (stringed instrument), for example — but not taiko. But first, she needed more formal training.
She joined San Francisco Taiko Dojo in 1987 and continued to study and tour with the group until 1989. Prior to joining, the only other taiko experience she had was participating in a high school exchange student program in Matsuyama, Japan as a 14-year-old, and drumming a bit with Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai two years later during Obon.
When she approached Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka — the founder of San Francisco Taiko Dojo who is considered the father of modern taiko in North America — about starting a taiko group in Sacramento, Tanaka said that he would not start a group of his own there, but he could train her to start her own group.
Tamaribuchi said that, in addition to the lack of taiko presence in Sacramento, there was still a lot of anti-Japanese sentiments during the mid- to late-1980s, so she wanted to show people how “positive and powerful” taiko is.
“For me as a Japanese American and for me as a woman, it was really about just having taiko here but then it also became about having a voice for women and having a voice for Japanese folks to say, ‘Look, we’re here and we’re cool people and this is a really neat thing,’” she said.
Unfortunately, her first practice with the group had only two others in attendance, which may have been because it was scheduled on the same day as the Buddhist Church of Sacramento’s annual Japanese Food and Cultural Bazaar. Their numbers grew the next week, and by the end of their first year, Tamaribuchi had close to 80 students. By the third year, the main performing group had done 85 performances and was overseeing more than 86 students.
“It just blew up,” said Tamaribuchi. “Everybody wanted to do it. It was really successful and really great.”
Training and Touring in Japan
Tamaribuchi began traveling to Japan for training in 1992, returning every few months for Sacramento Taiko Dan activities. She participated in the Kodo Juku program where she went through four days of intensive training at Kodo’s apprentice center, then located in Aikawa, Japan on Sado Island. Kodo is a professional taiko troupe in Japan that was founded in 1981.
During her time in Japan, she trained with other professional groups like Oedo Sukeroku Taiko and Osuwa Daiko. She also visited Sacramento’s sister city of Matsuyama again to learn city-style drumming. She joined and toured with Ondekoza from 1994 to 1996 and Zampa Ufujishi Daiko from 1996 to 1998, to name a few.
Tamaribuchi said she has been lucky because she’s been able to play “the American card” in terms of being able to be a part of and learn from several groups, allowing her to “sample” different styles of drumming. Being able to move to different groups is unusual and not a traditional custom for Japanese taiko groups, according to Tamaribuchi. In Japan, she says, someone would join a group and stay with that group for the duration of their taiko career.
She also gained a mentor and supporter during this time. In 1992, after completing her Kodo Juku program, Tamaribuchi was told that Akitoshi Asano, the managing director of Asano Taiko, wanted to meet with her. She took the train and met Asano and Takeshi Takata, then editor of Taikology magazine, where she was interviewed about being an American playing taiko in Japan.
Asano took an interest in her career, getting her connected with various people to further her study. Tamaribuchi said Asano is a supporter of many taiko artists and groups all over the world, and they all call him senmu.
Asano Taiko is a well-known taiko crafting company that has been in continuous operation since 1609. “If anybody knows taiko, he knows taiko,” Tamaribuchi said.
“I’ve been really blessed in terms of having access as an American in a way that most people don’t get,” she said.
Tamaribuchi continues to tour with small taiko groups and solo artists in Japan every so often.
Women in Taiko
Over the years, Sacramento Taiko Dan’s main performing group has been composed of mostly women with at least one man each year, said Tamaribuchi. This female-to-male ratio was not intentional, but it does have something to do with the group’s early promotional years.
Because of the Women’s Movement in the 1970s and 1980s, Tamaribuchi said they centered their programs on events like Women’s History Month, Take Back the Night and women’s music festivals. As a result, an influx of women joined.
Even today, recent statistics show that this ratio of players is common for taiko players in North America and the rest of the world. According to Tamaribuchi, academics found that 70 to 76 percent of taiko players in North America are women, and there isn’t a clear reason why that is.
On the other hand, about 70 to 80 percent of professional taiko players are male, and Tamaribuchi has seen this to be true for the taiko conferences she attends. To address this, she has been a part of several “Women in Taiko” panels at events in the last year.
Long-time member Yuri Kimura said that Tamaribuchi, as a strong female instructor, is a large part of why she joined Sacramento Taiko Dan. The Japan-born taiko player was a member of the Odaiko New England group in Boston for three years before she joined Sacramento Taiko Dan in 1999. She participated in workshops that Tamaribuchi conducted in Boston and thought she was a great instructor.
“It’s an empowering part for me as a woman and for me as a drummer,” she said. “To play alongside and to be instructed under Tiffany is a significant part of why I came and why I stay.”
While Tamaribuchi is on the road teaching workshops (nearly two to three weeks each month), 11-year member Sascha Molina handles most of the class instruction. Molina is the assistant director of Sacramento Taiko Dan and director of the Sacramento Taiko Dan Youth Ensemble. She leads all the instructional classes for the organization and handles the educational outreach for the school assembly program, among other things.
A Southern California native, Molina came across taiko while studying the Japanese language, but did not think she could ever join a group because the groups she had seen were associated with Buddhist temples, and she is not Buddhist. It wasn’t until she moved to Sacramento that she found what she now calls her “home.”
She began her taiko journey with Sacramento Taiko Dan and said she feels very natural and comfortable with it.
“Once I got into it, it just felt like I had been doing it forever and that it was what I was supposed to be doing,” she said.
Molina said the Youth Ensemble has about 18 members, which includes nine students. They perform alongside the main performing group (25 senior-level members) most of the time (about 15 out of 50 performances per year). There are currently 18 beginning and intermediate adult students. Molina hopes to start children’s classes, apart from their Taiko in Schools program, with children as young as five years old.
Kimura and Molina said that the Sacramento Taiko Dan members are close like a family.
“Once you become a part of the group, you just get in to this family,” Molina said. “It’s always fun to perform because, actually, when I’m performing, I don’t really think of it as performing. I think of it getting to do this thing with my family.”
After 29 years, Tamaribuchi said that she “never had any idea it would come to this.”
“It has been one of the most amazing and fortunate things that I could have ever gotten involved in, in terms of finding a path for myself and in terms of the impact that I hope we’ve had on this community and the impact that I hope we’re having on the taiko community,” she said. “It’s been really incredible.”