‘HERbeat’: Asian women lead ‘a new era of taiko’


Sacramento Taiko Dan’s Tiffany Tamaribuchi. courtesy of FINDING HER BEAT

Sacramento Taiko Dan’s Tiffany Tamaribuchi. courtesy of FINDING HER BEAT

“We hope to inspire people not to have the courage to win at all cost, but to persevere through all adversity.” – Tiffany Tamaribuchi, “Finding Her Beat”

Not even Tiffany Tamaribuchi could have anticipated the extreme adversity she and 17 taiko women faced when Tamaribuchi and concert partner Jennifer Weir brought together an “all-star” cast of taiko players from the U.S., Japan and Canada to perform in a dream concert held in February 2020 at a performing arts center in Minneapolis.

Not only was a scary and mysterious virus spreading rapidly around the world at the time, Tamaribuchi, Weir and most of their taiko troupe came down with the flu during their intense two-week rehearsal period leading up to the concert. On top of all that, it was snowing and freezing cold outside, and they were tasked with creating a show from scratch while dealing with language and cultural differences, personality and playing style conflicts and competitive egos all looking for their moments on center stage after years of being relegated to “off to the side” status.

All of this and a whole lot more is intimately captured in “Finding Her Beat,” a documentary feature film by Dawn Mikkelson and Keri Pickett that is set to screen at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 5 (virtually), and in-person on Oct. 9 and 11.

Through the perspective of five main women artists, “Finding Her Beat” explores the individual themes of cultural and racial identity, the challenges professional marginalized gender artists face, the artists’ passion for a subculture that was designed to keep them on the outside, and the hope that this historic coming together of women taiko players would mark the beginning of a new era of taiko — for everyone.

As the film unfolds, we meet the artists — Korean adoptee Weir, her partner Megan Chao-Smith, and young daughter, Josie, at home in Minneapolis; Tiffany Tamaribuchi, international taiko champion and founder of Sacramento Taiko Dan; we travel to Japan to meet Kaoly Asano, founder of GOCOO Taiko; and Chieko Kojima, founding member of Kodo Taiko. Bay Area legend PJ Hirabayashi of San Jose Taiko is also featured and a member of the “All-Stars.”

Kaoly Asano of GOCOO courtesy of FINDING HER BEAT

In Japan we learn that Asano views taiko as a healing and spiritual force that can bring people together.

“Taiko has the power to connect us with a place,” says Asano, in Japanese. “The energies of the people who lived here. The energies engraved in the land. When you hit the drums, that comes into you. The feeling comes from (your heart) becomes sounds. I want to have that feeling together with others.”

As a woman, Chieko Kojima had been told over and over again that taiko was no place for women and she needed to fall into the typical gender roles expected in Japan. When she refused and became estranged from her family, she went on to found Kodo, now one of the most famous taiko groups in the world. She also created a dance-drumming style that only women can perform. She did this, in part, as “revenge” against all the men who once told her “no.”

Back home in the U.S., Tamaribuchi shares how difficult it was to do what she does after 36 years. For many years, she was one of only a few women out there; in Japan, being a woman in taiko was equally isolating. But coming together for this concert sent a strong message to all the women involved: They are not alone, and by working together toward a common goal, all their differences could be washed away — and we see it happen, day by day as the show starts to come together, and the group begins to bond like family.

So despite every obstacle, the group members come together, support one another and they fight and grind their way through grueling 12-hour-a day rehearsals all leading up to the big show.

“Why is it we think we don’t belong?” asks Tiffany Tamaribuchi. “Why is it we think we can’t do this? We belong here, and we deserve to do this.”

Empowering and inspiring for women and men, young and old, “Finding Her Beat” culminates on stage at the concert where 18 Asian women taiko players show the world that if they can fight through adversity to do what they do, then you can too. And not just in taiko, but in life itself.

Sadly, what should have been a launching pad for bigger and better things for women’s taiko ended up being their last concert for two years as most of the women in the group were shut down from performing due to the pandemic.

But in November, 2021, they came back together again and performed “HERbeat: Taiko Women All-Stars” at the World Taiko Conference in Tokyo, Japan. And now that performance groups are starting to ramp up, look for the All-Stars of women’s taiko to rise again — either live and in-person, or at a film screening near you.

The Mill Valley Film Festival will screen “Finding Her Beat” (U.S., documentary feature, directors Dawn Mikkelson, Keri Pickett) virtually Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 11 p.m. through Monday, Oct. 17 at midnight, EST, and in-person Sunday, Oct. 9 at noon and Tuesday, Oct. 11 at 11 a.m. at the Cinearts Sequoia 1 at 25 Throckmorton Ave. in Mill Valley, Calif. San Jose Taiko will perform at the Mill Valley Depot Plaza will follow the Oct. 9 screening. Guests expected: directors Dawn Mikkelson and Keri Pickett, producer Jennifer Weir, performers Megan Chao Smith, Tiffany Tamaribuchi, Josie Smith-Weir, re-recording Mixer Carly Zuckweiler. For more information, including tickets, visit https://www.mvff.com.

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