North American Taiko Conference Features ‘Jam’ Session

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Ryan Kimura performs a solo during San Francisco Taiko Dojo's "Tsunami." (Photo by Yuri Yoshida)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

PALO ALTO — The 2011 North American Taiko Conference (NATC) was held Aug. 18 to 21 on the Stanford University campus, attracting nearly 800 taiko enthusiasts from across the continent and around the world.

The event had been sold out for months. Activities included a reception/dinner at Mountain View Buddhist Temple, workshop and discussion sessions with taiko masters, a taiko marketplace, a mentorship program, a leadership forum, and concerts.

Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka, founder and leader of San Francisco Taiko Dojo. (Photo by Yuri Yoshida)

Among the 113 participating groups were Burlington Taiko from Vermont, Fort Wayne Taiko from Indiana, Hinode Taiko from Winnipeg, Canada, Kaminari Taiko of Houston, Kyo Daiko from Philadelphia, Mu Daiko from Minneapolis, St. Louis Osuwa Taiko, Tampa Taiko from Florida, and Zenshin Daiko from Makawao, Hawaii.

Participants from overseas included Amanojaku from Tokyo, Getsuyoukai from Hachijo Island, Kagemusha Taiko from Exeter, England, O•Daiko from Hong Kong, Wajima Kiriko Taiko Hozonkai from Wajima City, Ishikawa, and Yamabuki Japanese Drum from Sao Paulo, Brazil.

NATC is sponsored by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles, which hosted the first conference in 1997. This year’s conference was hosted by San Jose Taiko (one of the nation’s oldest taiko groups) and the NorCal Taiko Network.

New York's Soh Daiko performs "Hachidan Uchi." (Photo by Yuri Yoshida)

“Starting with just a handful of taiko groups in the early ’70s, the North American taiko community has grown to a point where we no longer have a grasp of … how many groups are out there in existence,” conference coordinator Yuta Kato wrote in the NATC booklet. “The successful and exponential growth of the community is wonderful on one hand, but a bit overwhelming on the other.

“In this day and age of accessibility to vast amounts of information and media, it is so easy for us to learn and get a taste of what is happening outside one’s own taiko group. But just as a rumbling ‘don’ of an odaiko cannot shake your soul through YouTube videos, nor can a genuine hug be felt through a Facebook comment, there is no other substitute for the biennial taiko conference. Real one-on-one connections.”

Inochi Taiko from Washington and Mirai Daiko from Colorado played together. (Photo by Yuri Yoshida)

At a ceremony on Aug. 19, special recognition went to:

• Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten of Tokyo for 150 years of supplying taiko drums and equipment;

• Yuko Yaegashi of San Leandro, Calif., who passed away last year at age 53, for her dedication to Rolling Thunder, which hosted a website that sold taiko equipment and provided information on taiko groups in North America;

• Roy and PJ Hirabayashi, founding members of San Jose Taiko, who stepped down this year as executive and artistic director, respectively, after leading the group for 38 years.

Taiko Jam

NATC includes Taiko Jam, a concert by professional and semi-professional ensembles that is open to conference attendees as well as the general public. The 2011 Taiko Jam, featuring five groups, was held Aug 20 at Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium.

A lion dance (shishi mai) by Kyosuke Suzuki, accompanied by Kenny Endo on fue, Saburo Mochizuki on taiko, and Eien Hunter-Ishikawa on kane. (Photo by Yuri Yoshida)

Serving as emcee was Mike Inouye, morning traffic anchor for NBC Bay Area and a standup comic. His father, Mel, is a member of Mountain View Buddhist Temple’s adult taiko group.

The Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble and Taiko Center of the Pacific, based in Honolulu, were introduced by Masato Baba, who toured with Endo for more than seven years and served as youth director of the Taiko Center.  Baba was born into taiko — his parents are Shasta Taiko founders Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer — and is now musical director of TaikoProject and a member of ON Ensemble.

Endo, who synthesizes Japanese drumming, world rhythms and jazz percussion styles, performed three of his own compositions, “Jugoya” (Crystal Clear Moon), “Moonwind, and “Noon Cycles,” along with “Edo Kotobuki Jishi,” a traditional lion dance, and “Tatsumaki” (Tornado) by Hiroshi Tanaka.

Yoko Fujimoto sang lullabies from northern Japan. (Photo by Yuri Yoshida)

Joining Endo were special guests:

Saburo Mochizuki, who has been performing at Kabuki-za and Kokuritsu-gekijyo (National Performing Art Theater) in Japan;

Kyosuke Suzuki, a musician and dancer with Wakayama Performance Troupe who collaborates with Oedo Sukeroku Taiko;

Shoko Hikage, a graduate of the Sawai Koto School who has taught and performed in Hawaii and the Bay Area;

Kaoru Watanabe, a former performer and artistic director with Kodo who now has his own studio in New York;

Eien Hunter-Ishikawa, a former instructor at Taiko Center of the Pacific who has toured and recorded with Endo’s ensemble and the Robert Hohner Percussion Ensemble;

Isaku Kageyama, former member of Amanojaku and two-time winner of the National Odaiko Championship, currently a student at Berklee College of Music.

Masato Baba of TaikoProject with emcee Mike Inouye of NBC Bay Area. (Photo by Yuri Yoshida)

Soh Daiko of New York was introduced by Johnny Mori of JACCC and Kinnara Taiko, who noted that the performance was dedicated to the victims of the earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. Founded in 1979 under the guidance of New York Buddhist Church, it was the first kumidaiko group on the East Coast.

The set included interludes by Yoko Fujimoto, a singer and koto player with Kodo and founding member of Hanayui, a Japanese folk music and dance ensemble, who sang two lullabies from northern Japan, “Tsugaru Komori Uta” (Aomori Prefecture) and “Owaiyare” (Yamagata Prefecture).

Soh Daiko performed “Yuudachi” (Summer Evening Rainstorm) by Sandy Ikeda and “Hachidan-Uchi” by Jennifer Wada and Peter Wong. In the latter piece, the performers moved between and played on five drums.

PJ Hirabayashi of San Jose Taiko. (Photo by Yuri Yoshida)

Two new groups, Inochi Taiko of Seattle and Mirai Daiko of Arvada, Colo., were introduced by Stan Shikuma of Seattle Kokon Taiko. He recalled that he learned taiko as an adult and later became a teacher and mentor to a new generation of youth who grew up playing taiko. Inochi Taiko was formed in 2003 by brothers Tyrone and Garrett Nakawatase, formerly of Tsunami Taiko and One World Taiko; Mirai Daiko was founded in 2002 by students of Gary Tsujimoto and Nancy Ozaki of One World Taiko.

The two groups collaborated on “Storm at Sea” by Jason Kopec and Garrett Nakawatase; “Renkon,” which integrates rhythmic breaks and beats with “new jack swing”; and “Kaizou” (Rebuilding) by Max Honkawa, Inochi Taiko’s signature piece.

San Francisco Taiko Dojo, which in 1968 became the first taiko group in North America, was introduced by PJ Hirabayashi, who was first exposed to taiko when Asian American studies was first established on college campuses and studied under SFTD’s founder, Seiichi Tanaka.

Unwilling to just watch what was unfolding in northeastern Japan, Tanaka recently went there to see what he could do to help the disaster victims. A friend in Tokyo introduced him to a volunteer relief group. During the concert, SFTD displayed photos from the tsunami zone and collected donations.

“This money’s going directly to the taiko groups in the area that were affected,” said Inouye. “There’s this huge network … It’s inspiring people, uplifting their spirits … Everything was taken from them, their drums, their bachi, everything. And it sounds like just a drum to some people, but it’s an expression of passion. We need to bring that back.”

SFTD performed two of its signature pieces, “California Wind” and “Tsunami,” both composed by Tanaka. He said that “Tsunami,” which was written many years before the recent disasters in Southeast Asia and Japan, is now dedicated to the victims and to the resilience of the human spirit.

“Tanaka Sensei really has kokoro with the spirit of taiko … He is very connected to the entire earth, the world, the people, to humanity, and I feel very privileged tonight to introduce San Francisco Taiko Dojo,” said Hirabayashi. “It’s come full circle, the connection of being able to study under Tanaka Sensei, and this is my way to also express my gratitude.”

SFTD’s set concluded with star players taking turns playing solos on a huge taiko that is also used in the group’s annual Bay Area concerts. Tiffany Tamaribuchi of Sacramento Taiko Dan, another former student of Tanaka, was also featured. The audience gave SFTD a standing ovation.

In closing, Inouye said, “This conference happens once every two years. If you don’t know where it is, look it up on the Internet. If you can’t, roll down your window and listen for it. If all else fails, you follow your heart because that’s what taiko is — it’s your heartbeat, it’s your soul.”

On the Web: www.taikoconference.org

The Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble included musicians on flute, vibes, koto and percussion. (Photo by Yuri Yoshida)

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