Pioneering NYC taiko group Soh Daiko continues to transform itself

Soh Daiko performs at the Sakura Matsuri at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (above). photo by Guy Hessel

It’s another snowy Saturday afternoon in New York, but this has not kept members of taiko group Soh Daiko from holding their normal practice. As the days relentlessly beat toward their Carnegie Hall citywide performance at the end of March, members follow hours of drills and practice with a run through of their performance, energetically striking drum heads with bachi sticks and rhythmically moving banners. During drills and practice of specific parts of the program, long-time members help those who are undergoing their probation period to refine their movements and rhythm.

More experienced members have always passed down technique and understanding about taiko to newer members in Soh Daiko, as the group does not have a sensei. In their 43-year history, members have always motivated themselves and each other toward excellence. 

“If you have a sensei, it’s easy,” said Alan Okada, founding group member and active performer until 2014. “The sensei will require you to be diligent just because of who they are. Since we didn’t have a sensei, it had to be the group that was driving itself. So, in the early years, we were fanatical.”

The group, which was started for youth members at the New York Buddhist Church in 1979 in the city’s Upper West Side, describes itself as the first taiko group on the East Coast. Members asked the Rev. Hozen Seki for a name that would mean “peace, harmony, working together,” and were given “Soh Daiko.” 

A little more than a decade earlier, Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka had started San Francisco Taiko Dojo, the first taiko dojo in North America. His influence helped to start a slow but steady spread of kumi daiko (ensemble drumming) groups that formed across North America.

Instruction from leaders at Chicago’s Midwest Buddhist Temple Taiko Group and Los Angeles’ Kinnara Taiko shaped Soh Daiko’s early years, helping them to build their first instruments and form the foundations for their drumming techniques and philosophy. Members built their own 15-gallon barrel drums and performed in jeans and the church happi coat. Soon they were an adult group as “all the youth members got bored because it took us so long to build drums,” recalls Okada.

Time spent with Tanaka-sensei deeply impacted the group. After receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the grandmaster came out to train members in 1982 and ’83. “We didn’t know any better, so we got a grant for two weeks, 14 days’ worth of teaching” recalls Okada. Tanaka-sensei quickly told them that they could not do 14 days of training straight, so they broke it into two sessions: Nine days in a row followed by five days the next year. Hours of strict training bookended by dinner and breakfast with sensei turned out to be “pretty brutal,” according to Okada, but pivotal in shaping their approach to their craft. “Sensei created the basis for us as for taking taiko seriously,” Okada said.

Soh Daiko rehearsal at the New York Buddhist Church (L).
photo courtesy Tamiko Ooki

Strict practice resulted in performances at a range of notable forums over the following years. “We did our first concert at Japan Society in 1985, which was a pretty big step for a group that had only been formed in 1979,” said Okada. They were, in fact, one of the first Japanese American performing arts groups to be featured at the venue and would perform there again two years later alongside Japanese kumi-daiko group Kodo, the only North American taiko group to share a stage with the influential group at that point. Tanaka-sensei would invite them to play at a concert showcasing taiko groups from across Japan and North America, which resulted in a write-up for the group in the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Soh Daiko has also had its share of screentime, drumming alongside LeVar Burton on “Reading Rainbow,” teaching Oscar the Grouch how to drum on “Sesame Street,” backing alternative metal band Korn on the acclaimed series “MTV Unplugged” and performing as a two-story wall of drums behind Kanye West on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

Not long after the group celebrated their 40th anniversary, the pandemic moved all interactions between members online. 

“It’s very limiting what you can do on Zoom, so you have to be very specific about how you create the hit, how to move your body,” said Tamiko Ooki, the group’s chair. Members were no longer able to copy the movements of the person training next to them, so everyone learned to shape their feedback so that it was more easily understood online. This virtual practice space required a whole new type of discipline, as videos of drills were recorded and sent in for evaluation by senior members. “It’s amazing to me that people are putting in all this time all on their own, at home,” said Okada. “Recording videos and all this stuff. As opposed to being together and drumming together. Where you know that everybody is there. So it’s a whole other level of commitment that’s really amazing.”

Gathering online also shifted other aspects of the group dynamic. “Soh Daiko always talked about the music and the physical, but I think during the pandemic, we also spent a lot of time on the mental aspect and the spiritual aspect of things,” said Ooki. “Members are a lot more conscious about what other members might be going through and making allowances. Where in the past, rain, sleet, snow, it was like the post office. You never missed rehearsal,” she laughed.

Although the group has since returned to in-person practices, this new meeting venue also made gathering possible when the forecast called for all of the above weather conditions, in the form of a bomb cyclone. On this day, everyone did stand side by side as they practiced their drills, but it was courtesy of the boxes on a Zoom screen. Members synchronized during the run through of their March 27 performance, as if suddenly beamed from their practice room at the New York Buddhist Church into their own private spaces. 

For some of the probation members, this upcoming event will be their first public performance. For all, it will be the first time performing together unmasked in several months, as the venue requires all performers to be tested beforehand. After a season of hard work and restrictions, expressions of joy will clearly be seen on Soh Daiko members’ faces during this and upcoming spring concerts and sakura matsuri (cherry blossom festival) events, whether KN95-masked or not.

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