Taiko Drummers Celebrate Heritage
The quickening rhythms of Japanese taiko drumming pulsed through Hallock Auditorium last Friday night, officially starting the observance of Asian American Heritage Month on campus. Students and community members packed wall-to-wall greeted the drum display, with late arrivals parking themselves all the way to the exit.
Taiko, meaning “fat drum,” originated in feudal Japan as a way of mustering troops. Since then, it has evolved from its original utilitarian mode to that of an exciting art form.
The show began with a piece called “Matsuri” (“Festival”), performed by members of the Intro to Japanese Drumming ExCo, which is taught by College seniors Jenny Soong and Maryll Phillips. Both are also members of Icho Taiko, a group that picked up the rest of Friday’s hour-long performance.
Icho Taiko played seven traditional and contemporary pieces including an original composition by Soong. In between drum set changes, Ensemble Instructor Yukiko Ebara outlined the development of Japanese-American activism through taiko.
“Japanese Americans were interned in camps during World War II, as you all know, and taiko became something that could only set them further apart,” said Ebara.
After the war’s end, Japanese Americans scrambled to assimilate thoroughly into American culture. Taiko, which had been transplanted to North America from Japan during the early 1900s, was left to flag in the margins.
In 1968, the traditional use of taiko gained a boost when Seiichi Tanaka founded the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, the first kumi (ensemble) taiko group in North America. He synthesized what is now known as the “Tanaka” style of taiko, a dynamic cocktail of disciplines that makes use of a variety of percussive voices and incorporates a strong choreographic element.
The success of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo sparked a series of other dojos across the United States including one in Los Angeles the following year and the San Jose Taiko Dojo in 1973. Taiko became a way of forging identity for the young Japanese Americans living in America in the ’60s and ’70s.
“Taiko was their collective voice. Through taiko, they embraced their heritage and challenged stereotypes, including the one of Asians being so quiet,” said Ebara, giving pause to allow the audience to slide the limelight toward the taiko performers on stage. “They are not.”
Whereas taiko was once a strictly male-dominated art form, the Icho Taiko troupe here consists of all women. In addition to Soong and Phillips, the ensemble includes senior Maya Walton and junior Minh Nguyen. Besides drumming, Walton and Nguyen played two parents in the skit of the Magic Drum, a taiko that coaxes the couple’s tiny offspring to unforeseen heights. The show capped off with Miyake Taiko, a repertoire standard played on low-positioned drums. Crouched close to the floor, the women of Icho Taiko cheered each other on to a fierce, resonant performance.
The performance was hailed with a standing ovation.
“I feel like I’ve been massaged on the inside,” said College sophomore Sonya Cohn.
Icho Taiko is named after the ginkgo trees that line Main Street Oberlin. Sponsored by the Japanese-American Citizens League, Icho Taiko is the only taiko group in the Cleveland area. It strives to instill pride and cultural awareness through taiko study and performance.
The event is the first of a variety scheduled for AAHM, which will last through May 5. This year’s month-long celebration, themed “Arts, Activism & Asian America,” seeks to celebrate the role of art as a catalyst for and composition of the Asian-American identity.