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Taiko San Jose Makes Japanese Drumming an Art Form
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Tuesday, March 21, 2023
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

When third-generation Japanese Americans or Sansei looked for a way to pay homage to their heritage, the found it in Taiko drumming, which resembles a cross between drumming and martial arts.

Today the very physical drumming has become a revered art form that attracts thousands of people.  And San Jose Taiko will bring it to The Argyros in Ketchum at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 26. Tickets range from $20 to $35, available at https://theargyros.org/calendar/san-jose-taiko/

“Across Asia almost all cultures have a style of drumming. Ours evolved to be representative of Japanese drumming,” said Wisa Uemura, executive director of Taiko San Jose. “We’ve been described as dancing with drums because we have a lot of choreography and synchronized movements—more than other groups.”

San Jose Taiko is celebrating its Golden Anniversary this year, having been founded in 1973 to showcase the sounds of the Japanese drum, which is believed to embody the spiritual essence and heartbeat of Japan. As the third such group to form outside of Japan, Taiko San Jose pioneered contemporary Taiko.

There are now more than 500 such groups in North America.

“Not having grown up in Japan under their musical system or with their musical instruments, our founding members composed original music reflective of our own experience,” said Uemura, who started out as a drummer with the group. “That said, we have a very strong connection and deep respect for the history and roots of Taiko.”

Drums have long been a part of Japan. They were used to communicate orders to troops during war and they accompanied temple priests. They were used as a part of a much larger orchestra ensemble within the imperial court and they were used in theatre and festivals.

“In older villages they have one large taiko drum at a high point or tower. They used to denote the size of the village,” said Uemura.

Kumi-daiko performances like the one Sun Valley audiences will see Sunday started in 1951 developed by a jazz performer named Daihachi Oguchi. They spread throughout the world as Japanese migrated and debuted in the United States in San Francisco in 1968.

“We’re now fourth- and fifth-generation Asian Americans so we have a pretty eclectic type of sound,” said Uemura. “We have traditional and other musical influences including jazz and swing, with our program presenting a mix of music that was composed over 50 years. We don’t just see something online and say, ‘Let’s put that together.’ We try to find a master or instructor to explain it to us and teach the fundamentals of that particular art form.”

Some observers have said taiko drumming appears to be a great stress reliever, judging by the way the drummers pound on their drums.

“It does take a lot of energy,” said Uemura. “Each Taiko group has their own style of playing and philosophy of how they teach it. Our training focuses on stamina and the particular muscles in the body needed for taiko playing. It’s more endurance than muscular or physical strength. But, while you could bang out your frustration on the drum, our philosophy is approaching the drum with deep respect.”

That includes getting to know the drums and part of the drums, she said. There are several kinds of drums, including the large barrel-shaped nagado-daiko, which has a wooden body with a cow hide from Holstein cows stretched across and tacked on. The okedoum is a barrel-style drum that’s lighter and features cowhides stretched over metal rings with ropes to tighten the hides together.

Still another is the high-pitched shime-daiko, a snare-drum-sized drum that can be tuned with hemp cords or rope.

“We have four principles: Attitude, musical technique, the choreography or visual aspect and chi, the energy-emotion part,” Uemura said. “We see some similarities with martial arts, connecting energy from the source through the physicality of the movement. We even have a tiny bit of singing.”

DID YOU KNOW?

The odaiko drum used by some taiko groups weighs 780 pounds.


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