San Jose Taiko reflects upon its evolution in community-centered arts

As the iconic San Jose Taiko approaches their 45th anniversary concert later this month, the Nichi Bei Weekly caught up with Executive Director Wisa Uemura and Artistic Director Franco Imperial via e-mail to discuss the group’s transition from its founding pioneers, their approach to creative collaborations, and what the future has in store for the group.

Nichi Bei Weekly: It’s been more than seven years since Roy and PJ Hirabayashi left San Jose Taiko in July of 2011. The transition seems rather seamless, but were there any challenges in the transition?
Franco Imperial and Wisa Uemura: Succeeding two such iconic individuals has been one of the most daunting and rewarding experiences for us as artists and leaders. In many ways analogous to San Jose Taiko’s own journey, it is challenging to find balance to blend past with future and to create space for a fresh, relevant voice and vision. Having worked side by side with Roy and PJ for over 12 years and taking a full year to plan the leadership transition gave us much insight into what they had envisioned for San Jose Taiko. We continue to be grateful for their openness, their foresight and acceptance that change in inevitable, and their belief in us to take San Jose Taiko to the next level.

NBW: How large of a shadow do the pair still cast upon the organization? They still appear with the group now and then, it seems.
FI and WU: This being our 45th anniversary season we wanted to bring them back as guest performers for San Jose Obon as well as our upcoming 45th Anniversary Concerts. They are no longer involved in the day-to-day operations or artistic direction so it makes it even more special to have them play with us, connecting them to the newer performers within the company.

There is such love and reverence for all that Roy and PJ have done, from within San Jose Taiko and in the Japanese American, taiko, and multicultural arts communities. Their selfless efforts in building community included an intentional goal to make San Jose Taiko be more than its two leaders so that the group could continue beyond their tenures.

As much as people continue to associate them with San Jose Taiko, we wish the public was more aware of their wonderful and meaningful endeavors that are independent of San Jose Taiko. They’re doing such exciting work as individual artists: collaborating with the great Lui(s) Valdez for his play “Valley of the Heart” and PJ’s Taiko Peace initiative. After guiding San Jose Taiko for so long they have definitely earned the right to share their own persona and valuable voices with the arts ecosphere.

NBW: How has the group evolved over the past seven years?
FI and WU: As a contemporary performing arts company we should be a reflection of the time we are in. Meaningful work takes time so while we can’t develop work as instantaneously as a tweet, we consider works like our recent Japantown Immersive, Swingposium, Bangerz, and Aswat Ensemble representative of our spheres of inspiration over the last seven years. Influenced by Japantown, the City of San Jose, and issues that face us as a nation, our latest work strives to use taiko as a gateway to share cultural values, the Japanese American experience, and how it is absolutely connected to current events.

NBW: In a nutshell, what is the difference between San Jose Taiko and the San Jose Taiko Conservatory?
FI and WU: San Jose Taiko is the performing company and its performance related programming: concerts, presentations, tours, etc. The San Jose Taiko Conservatory consists of educational and training programs that make up our school: workshops, classes, team-building sessions intensive trainings for taiko practitioners. This balance between performance and education has been at the core of our intentional programming since our humble beginnings 45 years ago.

NBW: The group has truly become ambassadors of the artform across the country, having toured throughout America. How has the reaction been to taiko in faraway corners where they aren’t usually exposed to it, and is there any uncharted city or state that you really want to perform in?
FI and WU: We’ve toured in all but three states, and one of our fondest memories is from our first extended tour in Iowa. Chuck Swanson, then executive director of Hancher Performances at the University of Iowa, brought us out to do a four-week residency tour through numerous rural communities throughout the state. It was the type of situation where our visit most likely tripled the Asian American population of any of the towns we visited. Whatever concerns we may have had about audience turnout or accessibility to taiko immediately dissolved as the people we encountered could not have been more welcoming and warm. It was a testament to how taiko can bring different communities of people together. We hope to bring new performing members of San Jose Taiko back to more of Iowa someday.

NBW: In regards to the creative process of compositions, how does that come about? For instance, in Franco’s composition of “Day of Remembrance,” performed annually at San Jose DOR, how do you convey the story of the wartime incarceration of the Japanese American community through taiko?
FI: In San Jose Japantown we represent the heartbeat of a community that has a strong connection to, among many things, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. As proud ambassadors of this community I feel it’s a duty and opportunity to be able to share this story with the rest of the world through the way we craft our work as taiko artists. I respect that audiences sometimes just want to be entertained with this dynamic artform but I also believe many are curious about the intention behind our work. Composing “DoR” was initially daunting; attempting to write something so connected to this narrative of incarceration could be difficult due to the trepidation of telling a story that didn’t happen directly to me. I was able to let go of that fear knowing that there is a reason why the group participated in Day of Remembrance every year. There was a river of intention that flowed through the company’s and community’s history. I just had to get in touch with that and let it guide me — resulting in choreography and music that symbolizes a wide emotional spectrum ranging from mistreatment of citizens to communities coming together to stand up for each other.
WU: San Jose Taiko has always aimed to compose music representative of its current members. The opportunity to compose is open to all performers. Each composer, in fact every composition, will vary in the manner that a piece comes together — maybe a single pattern permeates and establishes a musical theme, a visual movement drives the rhythms that can be played, or a whole song is written based on a vivid dream. San Jose Taiko’s creative process gives time and space to a potential composer to experiment after building a strong foundation of performance skills based on our Four Principles: attitude, kata (form), musical technique, and ki (energy).

NBW: San Jose Taiko has partaken in some creative collaborations. It appears that you will be performing with both the Aswat Ensemble and Wesley Jazz Ensemble at the 45th anniversary concert on Sept. 21-22 at the Mexican Heritage Plaza. What can we expect from the concert?
FI and WU: This is a culmination of our year-long anniversary season as well as a celebration of 45 years. The first half of the show connects these collaborations to our roots of Asian American identity and civil rights movements of the early ‘70s when the group was born. Including excerpts of our recent collaborative work ties that history of the Japanese American experience with current events. The second half will be a treat especially for long-time fans as we perform a “45th Anniversary Megamix” of San Jose Taiko favorites. San Jose Taiko has arguably the largest repertoire of original taiko music in the world, here we’ll showcase 30 songs from our rich musical legacy.

NBW: What does the proposed Creative Center at Japantown Square mean for San Jose Taiko?
FI and WU: The Creative Center is a facility that is equivalent to the present and future artistic vision for San Jose Taiko. You may not know this, but San Jose Taiko has had to move locations 15 times in our long history. The facility stability of our future home in the Creative Center in Japantown presents an opportunity for transformative growth. The proximity of so many varied artists and arts groups will allow us to create, work, and learn from each other in an organic manner. The Center will build our capacity to do more and be more for San Jose Japantown, the City of San Jose, and beyond. Without the need to relocate, we plan to expand programs in a financially and philosophically responsible manner, ensuring a sustainable legacy and profound regional impact for generations to come.

NBW: Any other major plans in the coming years, leading up to the 50th anniversary of San Jose Taiko?
FI and WU: Can’t give away all our surprises but we can say the future looks bright. As we celebrate this milestone, we renew our commitment to engage diverse people and perspectives with our artistic excellence and tradition of innovation. We pledge to be thought leaders and role models as we inspire audiences to create a better world through cultural understanding, creative expression, and rhythmic heartbeat.

For more information on the San Jose Taiko’s 45th Anniversary Concert Sept. 21-22, visit www.taiko.org.

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