Taiko Leaders Talk About Tradition and Change

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From left: Seiichi Tanaka, San Francisco Taiko Dojo; PJ Hirabayashi and Franco Imperial, San Jose Taiko; Michelle Fujii, Portland Taiko; Kenny Endo, Taiko Center of the Pacific. (Photo by Kim Nakashima)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

PALO ALTO — The 2011 North American Taiko Conference, held Aug. 18-21 on the Stanford University campus, concluded with a discussion of carrying on taiko traditions and an update on an online taiko community.

The biennial conference was attended by taiko groups from throughout the U.S. and Canada as well as Japan and other countries. NATC’s mission is to “build a community of taiko groups in North America; share traditions and repertoire; support the artistic development of the art form; and document North American taiko history.”

The discussion during the closing session on Sunday was moderated by Steve Sano, chair of Stanford’s Music Department and advisor for Stanford Taiko. He asked the panelists how they carry forth both tradition and innovation.

Seiichi Tanaka, who in 1968 founded San Francisco Taiko Dojo, the first taiko group in North America, has been called the “father of taiko” in the U.S. He joked that these days he is called the “grandfather” of taiko, which means that his mentor, Saburo Mochizuki, is the “great-grandfather.” Mochizuki, who also participated in the conference, was a founding member of Oedo Sukeroku Taiko in Japan. Tanaka noted that his own protégés who have started their own taiko groups are “getting older too.”

Looking to the future, Tanaka noted that SFTD has created the Rising Stars Dream Team, which consists of teenagers and young adults who have grown up studying and performing taiko under his direction. Each generation of the group’s players has mentored the next.

Tanaka, whose goal has been to make “taiko” a part of the American vocabulary like “karate” or “sushi,” added that he continues to “enjoy taiko and play with my whole heart.”

Kenny Endo, leader of the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble and Taiko Center of the Pacific in Honolulu, has studied under Tanaka and learned that “it’s all about spirit.” Recalling the grueling hours of practice, Endo said, “You’re building character. Would you quit or would you have the perseverance to stick it out?”

Endo also felt “very blessed and honored” to have shared the stage with two other mentors — Mochizuki, a teacher of hogaku hayashi (classical drumming), and Kyosuke Suzuki, a teacher of Edo-bayashi (Tokyo festival music) — during the previous evening’s Taiko Jam concert.

“When I go to Japan, I try to work with my teachers and learn what I can because I feel like I’m still on the receiving end,” Endo said. “At the same time, I get inspiration from the young people in my group, who are really putting their whole heart into it, so I think it works both ways. The torch is being passed to me constantly and I also have the responsibility to pass it on to my students, and also learn from my students.”

PJ Hirabayashi, who co-founded San Jose Taiko in 1973 with her husband Roy, thanked Tanaka for “opening my eyes to taiko … (which) became my instrument and became my tool for empowerment.” After studying with Tanaka, she recalled, “We had to digest what was really important for us to play with and also pass the torch to our members.”

Knowing that the original members would eventually be gone, Hirabayashi said, “We had to create a set of principles that guide our group … We each have to become leaders within our group. We also have to contribute equally, create a new organization, not a hierarchy. We couldn’t ever be a Japanese sensei-and-deshi (student) type of organization. So we had to really look at what it was that we wanted to empower and also pass on.”

After a long transition process, Franco Imperial has succeeded PJ Hirabayashi as SJT’s artistic director and Wisa Uemura has succeeded Roy Hirabayashi as executive director.

“I think the leadership that Roy and PJ encouraged in all the students made the transition much less daunting,” remarked Imperial. “Don’t get me wrong, it was very daunting. Those were huge shoes to fill. But that shared leadership, collective concept of San Jose Taiko lent itself to Wisa and I being able to pick up the reins and carry that torch.”

Since joining the SJT staff in 1999 and 2000, respectively, Uemura and Imperial developed artistically and also learned “the ups and downs (of) getting through as a business,” Imperial said.

Michelle Fujii talked about the experience of becoming Portland Taiko’s artistic director: “I came into Portland Taiko leadership six years ago. This year we’re celebrating our 17th anniversary, so I haven’t been with the organization even halfway through our history … When I came into Portland Taiko, I was an outsider coming into artistic leadership, which was challenging because I have been wanting to honor the idea of respecting tradition and history, but then also struggling to find an authentic voice for myself because I couldn’t represent something that I hadn’t experienced. So it was a complex conversation that lasted many years. I still feel like we’re evolving.”

Sano concluded, “Carrying the torch artistically and organizationally is a process that takes a lot of planning, a lot of thought and sensitivity, communication … Tanaka Sensei’s most profound legacy in this respect is the sense of caring for and passing on spirit … That spirit of openness and giving and sharing really is what has allowed the art form to flourish to this point.”

Taiko Mapping Project

Linda Uyechi (Photo by Kim Nakashima)

Linda Uyechi of Stanford’s Music Department discussed the Taiko Mapping Project, an online database that she is developing with Susan Yuen of Jun Daiko (Mountain View) and programmer Peter Spangler.

Displaying a map with dots representing 347 conference participants who had entered data, Uyechi said, “We asked you to enter your group biographies, which groups you played with in which years, and just some basic demographics — age range, male or female, and your ethnicity. But what’s really most important is that taiko biography. What we can see from that is a lot of connections. So coming back to the North American Taiko Conference theme of building community and showing our connectedness, this has a lot of potential.”

Uyechi showed a series of maps showing the growth of taiko groups from the late 1960s to the present. She said the 1990s were “a tipping point” for a taiko explosion across the country.

“It goes along with carrying the torch,” she added. “You can see now it’s a really nice progression of our history from the inception of this art form, kumidaiko (ensemble taiko playing), which we all know and have a passion for … When we reconvene in 2013, we’d like to show you a much richer database. We’d like to imagine that we can show connections between groups, we can show connections between individuals in different and interesting graphical ways.”

The website, which is still in development, is http://taikonetwork.org.

Johnny Mori (Photo by Kim Nakashima)

Johnny Mori of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, the sponsoring organization, a member of Kinnara Taiko and former member of Hiroshima, announced that JACCC will host the 2013 conference in Los Angeles. “It’s going to be very difficult to follow this particular conference, the standard which they have set in terms of being able to provide an excellent program and facilities …  Folks in Southern California are going to have to challenge themselves to duplicate this kind of conference,” he said.

The dates have not been set, but will be posted later on the conference website, www.taikoconference.org.

Noting that the conference has “grown and grown” since it was launched in 1997 in Los Angeles, Mori said, “We need to look at the resources and facilities we have in Southern California to determine whether we will be able to again have a facility large enough to accommodate the program … The conference has outgrown a lot of the facilities that are available to us in Little Tokyo.”

Yuta Kato (Photo by Kim Nakashima)

NATC has also been held in Sacramento and Seattle.

There was a special tribute to Yuta Kato, coordinator, and Kris Bergstrom, assistant coordinator, for the endless hours of work they put into this year’s conference. They in turn acknowledged the more than 100 volunteers who helped out.

Nearly 60 workshops, with subjects ranging from kabuki-bayashi to hip-hop taiko, were held during the conference.

Highlights included the Taiko Ten concert, in which 10 groups performed for 10 minutes each. Featured were Ballico Taiko (from Merced County), Eden Aoba Taiko (Hayward), Ensohza Minyoshu (San Francisco), Juni Kobayashi (Boston), Kagemusha Taiko (Exeter, England), Kyo Daiko (Philadelphia), Sonoma County Taiko (Santa Rosa), Stanford Taiko, Uminari Taiko (Vancouver, British Columbia), and i31d03d!jns+vw Battle (San Jose).

(The name of that last group is not a typo. Try turning it upside down.)

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