Denver Taiko sounds the thunder of drums in the Rockies

RHYTHM AND SOUL — Aiko Kimura has been performing with Denver Taiko for 45 years. photo by Gil Asakawa

DENVER — Aiko Kimura has been playing with Denver Taiko for 45 years, and has been leading the troupe for much of that stretch. She was 13 when she started playing taiko and joined in 1979, the youngest member of the young group.

Denver Taiko was formed in 1976, inspired by a visit to Colorado by Seiichi Tanaka, the founder of San Francisco Taiko Dojo in 1968, acknowledged as the father of the artform in the U.S. He gave a taiko workshop that sparked Denver Taiko, the fourth taiko group in the country after San Francisco Taiko Dojo, Kinnara Taiko in Los Angeles and San Jose Taiko.

Ever since its founding, Denver Taiko has been a mainstay of Denver’s Japanese and Japanese American community. They have performed every year at the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival — a pan-Asian event that draws almost 200,000 spectators over a weekend — since its inception in 2001, except in 2021 when the pandemic caused its cancellation.

And since the group’s formation, Denver Taiko has been a mainstay and the headline act at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in downtown Denver’s Sakura Square. The group has received the city of Denver’s Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and was invited to perform at the Colorado governor’s mansion.

Denver Taiko has a reputation as a precise and professional ensemble, the pinnacle of the artform. Their song list covers traditional numbers but also features contemporary, original songs.

Although Kimura has a day job with her family’s businesses including Tagawa Gardens and Tagawa Greenhouse, she’s spent countless hours recruiting, teaching, managing and performing with Denver Taiko. Still, she says, “I don’t think of taiko as being work. It’s something that I really, really enjoy … and hope to instill a lot of my skills and to teach future generations.”

The focus on youth is a priority. Denver Taiko has always recruited young drummers and trained them as Junior Taiko, the youth representatives of the main group. Junior Taiko was officially started in 1989, and has played the “farm team” role as an opening act.

“The reason why they started the junior group is to, you know, hopefully get at least a handful of members that come up to the main group,” Kimura says.

Fans who have followed the group have followed the growth of some of the Junior Taiko members as they hone their chops and move up.

If Junior Taiko had been around at the start, Kimura may have been a member of that team. From being the youngest member of the original group back in the day, Kimura and her husband, Yuji Kimura, are now the oldest members of Denver Taiko. That means they’re the keepers of the flame, with the passion and institutional memory for taiko and Denver Taiko’s history and legacy.

That legacy used to include practices twice a week and up to 40 performances a year, but Kimura says the group now only practices once a week and cut back performances.

“We’re only doing maybe 30,” she laughs.

This year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, or sakura matsuri, will be Denver Taiko’s 47th year on the stage. They’ve also always performed for Bon Odori during a break from the dancing, and they continue that tradition today, but it’s separate from sakura matsuri.

Obon used to be held in the evening during sakura matsuri, but now it’s on a separate night.

The most unusual taiko performance on Denver Taiko’s calendar is Denver’s Parade of Lights, a festive holiday tradition in December, when the city invites schools, organizations and performers to march in front of the City and County Building, which is decked out in festive holiday nights. Twenty years ago, Kimura got a call from the organizers. “They asked if we’d like to participate in the Parade of Lights. And we thought, ‘Oh yeah, it’d be kind of fun.’”

That first year, they walked in the parade with drums on small carts pulled by bungee cords. When they broke, they used rope, pulled by the parents of some of the members.

When they were asked the next year, Denver Taiko turned down the invitation. “It was too hard on our parents,” she says.

When the city asked what it would take to bring them back, she told them, “We want a car. We want a trailer.”

Nowadays, the group is set up on a platform trailer pulled by a pickup truck. The one thing they can’t fix for a December parade in Denver, though, is the cold weather.

Denver Taiko’s uniforms are always sleeveless and open like happi coats. For the Parade of Lights, they adjust by adding on.

“You know, under our regular taiko attire, we have turtlenecks and sweaters and ski caps,” she says. “We just layer on.”

And keep playing.

One response to “Denver Taiko sounds the thunder of drums in the Rockies”

  1. calvin kobayashi Avatar
    calvin kobayashi

    NMJACL is doing our annual Aki Matsuri on September 29, 2024 we are looking for a taiko group to perform. last year we had watsonville taiko come and perform….they wowed the audience….

    505-459-1822 Calvin Kobayashi, president, NMJACL, leader of NMTAIKO, asst director of Aki Matsuri.

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