FOR THE COMMUNITY: Melody Takata’s three decades of teaching Japanese arts

Melody Takata has been drumming taiko for around four decades, starting in Los Angeles as a high school student with L.A. Matsuri Taiko before moving to Tokyo for a year during college to study with Oedo Sukeroku Taiko. After finishing her studies, she moved to San Francisco to work with artists in Northern California. She started Gen Taiko in 1995 at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.

MULTIFACETED CULTURAL ARTIST ­— Melody Takata has incorporated the Japanese performance arts of taiko, odori (dance) and shamisen (stringed instrument) into the repertoire of GenRyu Arts. photo by William Lee

The organization, with the incorporation of Nihon buyo (classical Japanese dance) and shamisen (Japanese three-stringed lute) classes, became the nonprofit GenRyu Arts in 2008. Gen, in Japanese, refers to the kanji for origin or “from the source.” GenRyu Arts serves San Francisco’s Japantown and the greater Bay Area region and strives to be “a global community at large,” according to Takata. The following Nichi Bei Weekly e-mail interview with Takata has been edited for length.

Nichi Bei Weekly: What kind of group is GenRyu Arts? Is it to teach or to tour and perform?
Melody Takata:
It is both teaching, performing, touring and more.
We believe in the kohai/senpai idea of responsibility. It is important that the older class plays a leadership role to the younger students and are pruned to lead the kohai. This has led to a leadership program for running the Gen Taiko and Odori School.

Performing and touring are the benchmarks of achievement of the students’ role in the school. Once they have performed and proven their mastery of playing and developing leadership skills, they are eligible to become a professional performer for theater works, and participate in tours.

NBW: What is your background in the arts? How did you get started?
MT:
My father insisted that my sister and I would learn Bon Odori to dance for grandma’s spirit at Obon. So, at a young age, I learned Bon Odori at Nishi Hongwanji (Los Angeles Betsuin). I was teaching other adults since I was about 7 years old at these Bon Odori practices after the session because I learned very quickly. …

As I took lessons in Nihon buyo from around 10-12 years old, I decided to learn shamisen (stringed instrument) from the Kineya School to become intimate with the music that was used for Nihon buyo and received my natori (master accreditation) from Kineya School. I then proceeded to learn taiko. I felt the fundamental core of music is the beat, which in some ways translates as a language for me.

Nichi Bei Weekly: So how did GenRyu Arts get started?
MT:
(GenRyu Arts is a) grassroots organization (that) started from offering a class for seniors to honor my father — who wanted to play taiko — but felt too old to give it a try at JCCCNC.

Melody Takata (center). photo by William Lee

Two parents approached me with four-and-a-half-year-old boys and asked me if I was interested in teaching their children taiko. They were interested in instilling Japanese culture for their child. … The group grew from 1995 to 2005, and we had about 85 children in the program taking classes at JCCCNC.

NBW: What is the group’s focus? Is it to teach, or to tour and perform?
MT:
GenRyu Arts is an expansion on the idea of instilling Japanese culture for the community. We offered an artist residency with the late Hideko Nakajima sensei who brought her knowledge and artistic practice of enka (a genre of Japanese ballads) and minyo (folk songs) to teach the Gen Taiko children and we performed for the Ethnic Dance Festival in 2006.

I taught Nihon buyo (Japanese classical dance) pieces to a group of young women in our school who performed as part of the Fujima Kansuma Kai group at Nisei Week in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.

We held special workshops with Japanese taiko and minyo instructors/performers visiting the USA to teach the group. We held workshops with local artist Genny Lim (poet) and (Masato) Kawahatsu sensei (sumie).

We created a cultural festival to share with the public called “Japan Day,” and “Japan Week” for the last seven years in S.F. Japantown, collaborating with the Japantown Merchants (Association) through Strauss Productions.

NBW: Who is Fujima Kansuma, and what does she bring to the group?
MT:
Madame Fujima Kansuma has an extraordinary story … She decided to learn Nihon buyo at the local Buddhist church in Little Tokyo …

She eventually is chosen as one to go to Japan to further her training and … she went through rigorous and tough training facing great adversity for being an American. She is a brilliant woman — extremely intelligent, ambidextrous, and sharp. She will be 102 years old this April, still teaching and providing her years of knowledge and experience.

She … received her shihan teaching degree in Tokyo and came back to the USA to teach.

There are numerous accounts of her staging performances for those in (concentration) camps throughout the U.S. … I recall taking class with her in Los Angeles, Little Tokyo.

My connection to her is an attempt to continue some of her legacy and pass it on to the younger generation. She is a treasure and is the epitome of excellence in Nihon buyo for me. That alone is enough reason to continue as her student and pass the legacy to my students. I am deeply indebted to her teachings and lessons. To embody the characters she brings alive in each of her students is an enliv(en)ing experience.

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