Anything but Quiet

By Fromartz, Samuel | Natural History, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Anything but Quiet


Fromartz, Samuel, Natural History


Seiichi Tanaka never planned to be a founder of taiko--Japanese drumming-in the United States. He actually came to San Francisco from Japan in 1967, at the age of twenty-four, to pursue a martial arts career. But then, at a local spring Cherry Blossom Festival, he was surprised by the absence of the familiar drums, which he remembered playing even as a child. ("The drummers would get drunk and then fall asleep. That's when I would try taiko.") The following year, he borrowed some drums from a Buddhist temple in San Francisco and organized his own contingent of players, at first consisting mostly of Japanese nationals living in the Bay Area. Tanaka's martial arts background helped shape his philosophy and approach, which emphasizes the drummers' intense physical and mental training and their disciplined and graceful movement. His group, San Francisco Taiko Doj, has since grown and influenced the development of others in the United States and Canada.

The first major gathering marking this three-decade-long movement in North America was held in 1997 and drew nearly 500 people to Little Tokyo, the predominantly Japanese American community of downtown Los Angeles. During one jam session, while others were relying on brute force, Tanaka's drumming seemed effortless, as if it were an afterthought to the fluid movement of his entire body. In a master class he held afterwards-ninety students rotating through the drums-he urged: "You have to totally relax. Let the energy come from your ki [center]. Feel the energy come from the mother earth, from the bottom of your feet." He stressed a kind of loose intensity, in which the mind focuses on the tips of the bachi, or drumsticks. And he heartily endorsed the yelps one often hears from performers at taiko concerts. "Screaming is very important! After you scream you feel good."

Taiko rarely strays from an emphasis on percussion instruments. The pulse is maintained by the resonant tones of large and small drums, the clackety-clack that these wood-and-skin instruments make when they are hit on the side, and the shrill sound of the atarigane (a bowl-shaped metal instrument struck with deer antlers attached to a bamboo stick). Gongs of various size and shape add musical depth, and a bamboo flute occasionally offers a melody. When the drummers solo, they improvise in response to the rhythms, engaging in a kind of dance with the strong undercurrents.

This music has ancient roots. The drums, which vary in form and use, probably came to Japan from China and Korea beginning around the fifth century, following the paths of Buddhism and theatrical arts. The drums are used in gagaku, the traditional Japanese court music that has changed little since the eleventh century. Regional folk styles of taiko have developed throughout Japan, tied to festivals and religious rites. But strictly speaking, the group drumming (kumidaiko) popular today-in which several performers play drums of various sizes, some keeping the beat, others soloing-is a post-World War II development.

In Japan, the rise of kumi-daiko coincided with the late 1960s counter-culture movement, which led some young people to reexplore folk arts that had been neglected as a consequence of the rapid modernization and Western bias of the post-war era. Ondekoza and its offspring, Kodo, now among Japan's best-known taiko groups, were established as rural communes in which the participants self-consciously sought to rediscover their roots. Japanese American youth began to explore taiko during the same turbulent times, when they were battling what was viewed as the stiff assimilationist outlook of their parents' generation and the prevalent stereotype of the "quiet Japanese" (taiko is anything but quiet). The 1997 taiko conference was organized by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) and held at their headquarters in Little Tokyo. Founded in 1980, JACCC is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve and promote Japanese and Japanese American heritage and arts. …

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