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Where EAST meets the Northwest

WORSHIP THE DRUMS. Portland Taiko will launch its 2006 season on April 12 with a screening of The Spirit of Taiko at Portlandís Hollywood Theatre. Pictured at right are (L-R) Kenny Endo, Seiichi Tanaka, and Masato Baba. (Photo/Robert Mizono, courtesy of Bridge Media)

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #14 (April 4, 2006), page 20.

Discipline and harmony

The Spirit of Taiko

Directed and produced by Steven Dung,
Dianne Fukami, and gayle k. yamada

By Josephine Bridges

Everybody has one taiko in themselves, and thatís the heart," says Kazuko Shiomi, President of Nippon Taiko Foundation in Japan. "And when youíre still in the motherís womb, the first rhythm you hear is motherís heartbeat."

Portland Taiko launches its 2006 season with a screening of The Spirit of Taiko on April 12 at 6:30pm at the Hollywood Theatre. For co-director and co-executive producer gayle k. yamada, this film was a labor of love: "Every time thereís a taiko performance in close proximity to where we are, we ó my family and I ó go. There is something about the power of the music, and the passion it seems to inspire in enthusiasts that is infectious." She will be on hand for a talkback session following the film, which chronicles the history of taiko, which means "drum," in the United States.

"Every culture has taiko and has a rhythm, itís just that the rhythms are different," says the Reverend Mas Kodani, co-founder of Kinnara Taiko in Los Angeles. Grand Master Daihachi Oguchi, founder of Osuwa Daiko in Japan, explains the spiritual roots of this musical form while members of a taiko ensemble play a game similar to musical chairs in which they distract drummers and take their drums offstage while they are looking away. "How and why an ancient art form from Japan is attracting people of all backgrounds here in North America and evolving into a dynamic musical scene is the story of American taiko," concludes narrator and percussionist Sheila Escovedo.

Instruments similar to taiko appeared in ancient China and Korea, but "taiko ultimately found its home in Japan some two thousand years ago," where it was heard on battlefields, in the imperial court, and at village festivals. Daihachi Oguchi is thought by most to be the founder of modern taiko, which dates from the early 1950s, "after World War II had silenced most of the drums." Oguchi combined several taiko, which until then had been played solo or in pairs, into the ensemble called kumidaiko.

Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka, founder of San Francisco Taiko Dojo, embodies the first generation of taiko in this country. A native of Japan, he was first drawn to taiko as a boy, but is now known as the grandfather of American taiko. Because he was not a member of a taiko family, Tanaka was at first rejected in his attempt to study the drums, but he never forgot the first impression taiko made on him. An immigrant to San Francisco, he noted the absence of taiko from that cityís Cherry Blossom Festival, and returned to Japan to learn how to teach taiko in America. "Taiko basic training" is how Jeanne Aiko Mercer, co-founder of Shasta Taiko, described the push-ups, sit-ups, and laps around the parking lot that Tanaka demanded from his students, yet she appreciated the discipline she learned in what her fellow student Tiffany Tamaribuchi, founder of Sacramento Taiko Dan, called "taiko boot camp."

Kenny Endo, another former student of Seiichi Tanaka, is a world-renowned musician and a teacher of taiko at his own school in Honolulu. Endo began as a member of the Buddhist-influenced Kinnara Taiko, went on to study with Seiichi Tanaka, and then spent 10 years studying taiko in Japan. He typifies the second generation of American taiko artists, yet also became the first non-native Japanese to receive a stage name in Kabuki theatre. Endo, says Tiffany Tamaribuchi, "has made the art form a lot more accessible even beyond traditional taiko audiences."

Masato Baba, co-founder of On Ensemble, who represents the third generation of taiko in America, heard his mother, Jeanne Aiko Mercer, playing the drums while she was pregnant with him, and grew up with a pair of bachi, taiko drumsticks, in his hands. Babaís mother and father are former students of Seiichi Tanaka. Baba studied taiko with Kenny Endo, who looks forward to "many more years of creativity and great taiko playing from him." Masato Baba, who is grateful for his teacherís emphasis on practice, says, "When you practice hard, then you get to the point where you can have fun playing in a performance."

"The world needs more of the kind of harmony and understanding that drums bring to people," says American taiko maker Mark Miyoshi, "and if everybody plays it and everybody hears it, hopefully theyíll understand the kind of world, the kind of harmony, thatís within a drum."

The Spirit of Taiko ends with a breathtaking performance that appears to include every taiko luminary interviewed or profiled here. Words canít come close. Be there.