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An Old Hobbit Learns a New Hobby: Taiko

April 12, 2018

Jules Greene ’19

Closeup view of Taiko drums and sticks at the ready
A picture I took from OC Taiko's performance at the end of last year. Photo credit: Juliette Greene

The highlight of each week for me is my ExCo class on taiko every Saturday. In case you don’t know, taiko is a form of drumming that originated in Japan. It has become popular for Japanese Americans as a form of community-building in the aftermath of Executive Order 9066, which resulted in Japanese American incarceration during World War II. Today, there are thousands of taiko groups across the United States, including our very own Oberlin College Taiko (OCT). 

Learning taiko as a new form for both self-expression as well as self-understanding as an Asian American has been invaluable. Ever since I first saw OC Taiko perform at Asian Night Market last year, I’ve been an ardent supporter of taiko on campus. In seeing my friends hit massive drums in awe-striking synchronicity, and unapologetically filling the space with LOUD sounds, I experienced a sense of power from this art form that I never felt before. I had been a musician for 15 years, and had the experience of playing in orchestras filled with other Asian American kids, but within the context of playing repertoires by exclusively Western composers, our identities as people of Asian descent were never foregrounded. In fact, I’ve literally never touched a Chinese instrument in my life, despite having roots in Manhattan Chinatown and growing up hearing older folks playing the er hu and occasionally the pipa in Columbus Square Park. Also given that I play 18 instruments, it’s sad and a little messed up that none of those are Chinese instruments. I’m going to try to not think about that as I’m trying to go to sleep tonight. I suppose this is what they call diaspora.

As a result, the switch I experienced somewhere around age 17 from the first love of my life—music, to my greatest love—filmmaking, may have been implicitly motivated by my ability to apply my experiences and identity as an Asian and Pacific American to my work. But in some ways, taiko is beginning to disrupt this, and it’s shown me that my life's focus on filmmaking does not inherently inhibit extensive involvement with music. 

[I would like to note that I have recently begun to remedy this gap in my musical knowledge of my ancestors’ traditions: I’m really proud to say that I’ve finally nailed down my first piece of Irish traditional music (a piece called The Butterfly) on fiddle, mandolin, and tin whistle after years of fruitlessly trying to unlearn classical violin technique, and I’ve been able to transpose melodies played on the gu qin onto my violin, opening up a realm of opportunities to play Chinese music.]

The taiko ExCo is taught by members of OCT, and there’s around 18 people in the class. While there’s certainly a large number of students who are, not everyone in the class is of Asian descent. In taking the class, I’ve learned new things about Japanese language and culture, such as some basic phrases as well as how to count to 10. The class combines a number of my interests that I pursue at Oberlin, such as music, physical activity, and Asian American identity, history, and issues. 

I’m a pretty physical person, as I’ve written about before, and I’ve enjoyed the physical elements of taiko. If you watch a taiko ensemble like San Jose Taiko perform, they make it look easy, but it’s actually really hard work! The stance that you have to get into to play I like to think of as in-between the stance I would get into when I played goalie in ice hockey, plus the foot positions used in fencing, and horse stance from shaolin kung fu. I’m glad that I have the muscles from running to be able to hold the position, or else my stamina would be severely diminished.

Oh, and it’s next to impossible for a mere mortal like me to properly play in anything other than shorts or spandex. Denim and taiko don’t know each other, I’m pretty sure. The arm strength required to hit the drums with proper form has also given me really strong shoulder muscles–like they literally stick out every time I lift my arm. When I came home for spring break, I kept flexing my arms to scare my mom. Right now, I think I’m as close to being equal in muscle strength between my upper and lower body as I’m ever going to get–unless I get cast as Lara Croft in a Tomb Raider movie.

In learning more about taiko, it’s been important for me as a Chinese American to be aware of my position in relation to Japanese American incarceration and its legacy. When Executive Order 9066 was passed, many Chinese in the US wore buttons that said, “I am a Chinese” in an outward gesture of ethnic identification to avoid attacks that were specifically targeted toward people of Japanese descent. Because taiko in the US is rooted within this traumatic episode in history, it’s imperative for me as a Chinese American to be aware of this distinction and how Chinese Americans benefited from anti-Japanese sentiment during this time.

For instance, when Japanese and Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to incarceration camps, many of them lost their businesses and had next to nothing to return to after they were released from the camps. Meanwhile around the same time, my grandfather was able to return back to the US from fighting in the Pacific Theater of World War II, newlywed to my grandmother, and settled in Manhattan. As a Chinese American, I do not have to grapple with the intergenerational trauma of incarceration–it is not my burden to bear. But what I can do is stand in solidarity with Japanese Americans and center the history behind taiko, as well as celebrate and support ways that Japanese Americans have enriched both the Asian American community and broader American culture. 

In focusing solely on a percussion instrument, I’ve been able to hone my rhythm skills that I often skirted away from all the non-percussion instruments I play. While drums of all varieties have pitches (don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise, I have perfect pitch so everything has pitch. Nothing escapes.), they are not melody-based instruments the way that, say, violins are. So taiko engages a different musical skillset for me, and backs me into a corner where just pulling a killer vibrato cannot save me during a solo. It’s a challenge, and one that keeps me on my toes. Luckily, taiko doesn’t really require sheet music, because it is taught orally. I say “luckily” because after having spent the greater part of the last six years learning music by ear, I have the tendency to do my own weird interpretations of rhythms when reading off a sheet of music for a piece I've never heard before. The worst part about this is that once I actually hear what the piece sounds like, I tend to like my version better. 

Taiko is one of the things that has surprised me about my Oberlin experience. I can’t say with any confidence that I had heard of taiko before coming to Oberlin, much less had seen anyone perform it. I came into Oberlin with a pretty solid idea of who I was, what I was going to do, and what my interests were–I was going to double major in cinema studies and neuroscience, I was going to have a show on WOBC, I was going to play in 500 bands, I would take as many classes as I could get away with at the conservatory, the list goes on. Now, I did end up majoring in cinema studies, but with an English major to go along with that, and I have had a show on WOBC since my first semester. But I only just recently (!!!) formed a band and I’ve unfortunately never taken a class related to anything musical since I’ve been here.

My interest and passion for taiko exemplifies the state of flux that is being a college student. Just because I’m no longer changing my hair every two months or rapidly cycling in and out of the latest bands doesn’t mean that I haven’t found new things that are incredibly meaningful for me, that I’m not still growing in significant ways.

If you had told an 18-year-old who was madly attached to her Fender Jaguar and possessed an extreme distaste for counting beats that she would end up in percussion, gleefully counting every beat in exercises in polyrhythms, she would’ve probably looked off into the distance for a long, long time. But that’s what makes life exciting, mortal coils and all. I mean, not the failing Biology 100 in the first semester, but coming across something you know nothing about, and then wanting to learn everything you can about it is pretty darn cool.

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