Becoming Gods

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“Your heart is a taiko. All people listen to a taiko rhythm, dontsuku-dontsuku, in their mother’s womb. It’s instinct to be drawn to taiko drumming.” — Daihachi Oguchi, widely regarded as the father of modern taiko (Associated Press)

Kate P.

Every Tuesday and Thursday night from 7:00 to 9:30, drumbeats pound across the desolate industrial zone of North Portland. Differently pitched beats weave in and out of each other in complex patterns, creating a full piece of music which, though it has no true melody or harmony, layers different rhythms to convey deep emotions. However, if the listener cares to do so, the music can be picked apart. It is not so hard to separate the deep growls of the ōdaiko (大太鼓) from the high, clear beats of the shime-daiko (締め太鼓); but then again, it is not so hard to relax and let the drumbeats blend into a thundering music that resonates through your chest. Follow the drumbeats through the cold, empty streets to their source, and you will find the studio of Portland Taiko — an award-winning group of performing taiko drummers.

In Japan, taiko (太鼓) refers to any type of Japanese drum. It’s easy to get confused when dealing with taiko terms; for example, “taiko drumming” is literally “drum drumming.” The art of ensemble taiko drumming is actually called kumi-daiko (久美太鼓), and refers to a taiko ensemble that consists of various types of taiko. Kumi-daiko groups are made up of anywhere between two and twelve performers — Portland Taiko currently has nine — and use many types of drums in any one particular song. Some even incorporate different instruments. Ancient Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi (尺八), a type of bamboo flute, or the stringed shamisen (三味線) and koto (箏) (“The History of Taiko”), are often added to taiko music, as are violins, gongs, guitars, or drums from other disciplines. Portland Taiko’s only remaining founding member and resident matriarch, Valerie Otani, explains that “each group…tends to develop their own kind of personality. [Some are] heavily influenced by jazz, or by folk drumming from a certain regional style, or the talents of particular members … to play [other instruments]” (Otani). Valerie, an older Japanese woman with a kind, open face, is deeply knowledgeable about every aspect of taiko, and her group blends influences from many different to create their own unique art. Portland Taiko incorporates Japanese folk dance, storytelling performances, and nontraditional instruments, and has collaborated with artists from various disciplines — the group has played with African and Native American drummers and alongside Aztec and Indian dancers. But if you aren’t lucky enough to see the group perform at their regular big-stage concerts at the Newmark Theater or their smaller performances at fundraising events, schools, or parks, it can be hard to understand why this ancient Japanese art has become so popular in the West, and how it got here in the first place.

***

Though practices are open to interested guests, few people get to hear Portland Taiko practice. When I visited the studio on a cold November night, Valerie told me apologetically that “The noise ordinances are such that we need to be in an industrial area where you’re allowed to make a lot of noise, and even then we need to stop making noise at about 10” (Otani). Apart from the eight members practicing that night, the only person I saw on my visit was a man in a reflective orange vest standing motionless outside of a welding company. Cars sped down Columbia Boulevard at 45 miles an hour, windows rolled up against the wind that swoops through the desolation that is industrial Portland at night. There are no streetlights out here, and in the moonlight, shadows warp into monstrous creatures. The studio parking lot is ringed by chain-link fence, and next to the studio is an auto garage, still operating late into the evening. The ghostly shadows, the clanks of metal, the screech of a radio, the whoosh of traffic —  in this setting, the drumbeats are eerie and dangerous. I imagine the sound emanating from the camp of a far-off army, which, oddly enough, is not too much of a leap. At one point, taiko were instruments of war.

In the 1500s, taiko were used to issue commands to troops (“Overview and History”), and it is believed that they were used prior to that date to intimidate enemies and rally the morale of soldiers. Though the modern art of taiko drumming retains the power that one might associate with soldiers, taiko was not solely a battlefield invention. Four thousand years ago, during the Jomon period, simple taiko beats were used to announce events occurring in the village. One rhythm might mean the hunters were setting out, while another might mean a storm was coming. These rhythms were so important to daily life that villagers began to believe that the taiko was inhabited by a god, and only the village holy man could beat the taiko (“Overview and History”). The taiko has maintained its religious significance into modern times. Taiko are often the only instruments allowed in Buddhist and Shinto shrines, and they are used in kagura (神楽), an ancient form of Shinto theatrical dance to honor gods. In the United States, some taiko groups retain these strong religious connections; for example, performers at Los Angeles’ Kinnara Taiko, the second taiko group founded in the United States after San Francisco Taiko Dojo (“History & Mission”), was founded by members of a Buddhist temple and is known for its unique religious music.

Taiko drumming also has roots in the palaces and theaters of imperial Japan, but unlike modern kumi-daiko, taiko were historically used only to accompany other instruments in musical or theater performances. Taiko are used in gagaku (雅楽), a form of ancient Japanese court music (Fromartz), and in kabuki (歌舞伎), classical Japanese dance-dramas. Different types of taiko are used in different types of performances; for example, the beat of the ōdaiko announces the start of a kabuki performance (“Taiko”). Taiko “was backstage [in] theater in Japan, it was behind the scenes…For taiko to be a group on a stage performing [alone] is a new American thing” (Ede).

***

“We were lucky enough to know that there are traditions, and some of those traditions are valuable and need to be maintained…And we were lucky enough to know that you can change things. [Taiko] is a living folk art, and it evolves.” — Alan Odaka, member of New York City’s Soh Daiko (Fromartz)

Taiko came to America in the 1960s and 70s, just after kumi-daiko developed in Japan. After World War II, Daihachi Oguchi (小口大八), a Japanese jazz drummer, found an old piece of taiko music and rearranged it to be played as an ensemble piece (Associated Press). Valerie explains that the first modern taiko players were “some guys…who were essentially just a band. They were really contemporary, lots of attitude, very musical…but they were really viewing it more like a rock band ensemble” (Otani). Japan’s pre-war industrialization, followed by the devastation of World War II and the post-war Western bias, had made the ancient arts a low priority ever since the end of isolationism in the 1800s. Taiko caught on in Japan as part of a youth-led counterculture movement (Fromartz) aimed at bringing back arts and traditions that had been previously neglected.

In the United States, taiko was popularized by Japanese-American youth fighting the assimilation mindset of their parents and the stereotype of the “quiet Japanese” — taiko is “anything but quiet” (Fromartz). Before World War II, the Japanese-American community was vibrant and artistic. After 110,000 Japanese-Americans were interned in World War II (“Japanese-Americans”), much of this cultural spirit was lost or repressed by the generations who had lived through the internment camps. Taiko was a way for young Japanese-Americans to get back to their Japanese roots and reclaim their cultural heritage. Taiko also became a powerful voice of the Japanese-American community, particularly in the fight for redress of the World War II internment camps (Portland Taiko). Lisa Tamura, an easygoing Japanese-American drummer, says that one of the things that surprised her most about taiko was how much meaning it carried for the Japanese-American community — and for her family. Lisa’s grandparents and parents were interned during World War II, but they “never talked about it at home” (Tamura). When Lisa started playing taiko, she learned that taiko had been a part of the reparations movement and began to ask questions of her grandparents and parents. For Lisa, taiko was “a catalyst to enable me to learn more about my family history” (Tamura). Many groups incorporate some kind of history into their educational programs. In the workshops and classes and auditions one must pass to become a full member of Portland Taiko, students learn the history of taiko along with the actual skill. Taiko’s unique history is inseparable from the art itself, as it’s a huge part of what makes the art so dynamic — in taiko, East meets West in an explosion of rhythm, beauty, and power.

***

“Through innovation and excellence in taiko, Portland Taiko affirms Asian American pride, inspires audiences, builds community, and educates about our heritage and culture.” — Portland Taiko mission statement (“History & Mission”)

Though taiko first came to America over fifty years ago, it is relatively new to Portland. In the early 1990s, a small group of Portland-based Asian-American artists got together and began discussing “how we’d like to see a taiko group in Portland, that there wasn’t one” (Otani). At that point, Portland was the only major West Coast city without a taiko group (Hughley). “We started thinking about it, just trying to start to gain information, do some research on how to get drums, or make drums, and we started meeting and planning and thinking about that,” Valerie says. The group of artists contacted a taiko group from Mount Shasta who visited and held workshops on how to play taiko, how to make the drums, and how to run a group. They had the materials now all they needed was a spark. That emerged in 1993, when Ann Ishimaru and Zachary Semke moved to Portland. They had just graduated from Stanford, where they had helped to found Stanford Taiko, and went looking for a taiko group in Portland (“History & Mission”). Eventually, Ann and Zach got in touch with Valerie and the group of artists, and Portland Taiko was born.

Today, Valerie is the only founding member still with the group. At first, she was skeptical about taiko; but now, sitting in the small office at the top of Portland Taiko’s studio space, she seems completely at home. “I [didn’t think] I really liked to perform,” Valerie says, laughing (Otani). She has participated in countless performances — including playing for huge crowds at stage shows and festivals across the Portland metropolitan area. “I was mostly interested [because] I have two sons who are half-Japanese, and I thought, this is…a really dynamic cultural connection that’s not about being quiet and well-behaved and doing neat origami and not making a mess. This is about being loud. And really powerful” (Otani).

The inside of Portland Taiko’s studio doesn’t seem like the typical stage for an art as powerful as taiko. Though the outside of the studio brings to mind images of ancient gods and legendary battles, the inside is significantly more welcoming. A large, well-lit floor space, much like that of a dance studio, dominates the room. A handwritten sign next to a row of cubbies reminds members to take their shoes off and bow before stepping onto the floor. Racks of drums and boxes of colorful costumes line the walls, along with posters from the group’s previous shows. However, the true spirit of taiko is evident in the members’ clothing: everyone wears loose workout clothing, and some wear earplugs. Taiko is a physically demanding art. That’s part of what keeps the players coming back — Krista, a middle-aged woman with reddish hair in a low ponytail, was tired on the way to practice tonight, but that she got a rush of adrenaline as soon as she began playing. There are eight performers here tonight: six women and two men. This in itself is a hallmark of Japanese-American taiko, which is well-populated by strong women. Valerie remembers that when she first saw taiko performed years ago — on a flatbed truck in San Francisco during a cherry blossom parade — she was struck by “women who were playing who were … powerful and dynamic and energetic” (Otani).

The current drill involves a shime-daiko, a small drum whose high-pitched beat is used to establish a background rhythm (“The History of Taiko”), a set of four or five okedo (桶胴), tied drums played like a Western drum set (Machida), and two ōdaiko, large drums mounted four or five feet off the ground and played simultaneously by two people. The ōdaiko is the second-largest drum owned by Portland Taiko, the largest being an ō-okedo (大桶胴), which is just a very large okedo. This round drum, about five feet in diameter, stands perhaps ten feet tall and is occasionally problematic for the group. Lisa, another performer, explains matter-of-factly that the ō-odeko is “hard to get to places.” There’s a glint of amusement in Lisa’s eyes as she continues. “It doesn’t really fit in a car. It fits in our trailer but … that’s the only thing in the trailer, and then some venues don’t have a door big enough, and if you can’t get it in you can’t play it” (Tamura).

As practice continues, Karen Tingey, a middle-aged woman with a friendly face and brown hair knotted at the back of her neck, leads the group through today’s drills, throwing out commentary as necessary. Karen’s not the group leader, though; Portland Taiko doesn’t have one. Their artistic director of nine years, Michelle Fujii, recently left to start her own Portland-based group; while the group searches for a new director, they guide their own rehearsals (Ede). Krista isn’t displeased by this. She thinks the lack of a formal leader is drawing the group closer together, and cheerfully explains that since everyone learns taiko at their own pace, anyone can say “Can we go over that again? Can we do that ten more times?” The community of Portland Taiko is cited by every member I interview as being one of the main reasons why they keep coming back. Lisa, for example, enjoys “working together to put something together” (Tamura). She was in her high school’s marching band, and missed the feeling of being part of a group working for a bigger thing. Taiko has filled that void. At Portland Taiko, “everybody knows each other, and everybody’s really supportive of each other” (Tamura). Valerie tells the story of one of the group’s newer members, Gabriel Elmaleh, who recently moved to Portland and didn’t know anyone before coming to Portland Taiko, where the other performers “looked out for him” by helping him get a job and settle into the new city (Otani). For Krista, the best part of taiko is that “when we’re playing we become a family and give each other energy” (Ede). A bit of pride creeps into Krista’s voice as she explains that all the members get along really well so well, in fact, that they often get together outside of rehearsal and performances. The members of Portland Taiko “have a really strong sense of participation and community. [We take] care of each other” (Otani).

***

“The charm of the Japanese drums partly lies in the pressure of sound they release — you can feel it on your skin.” — Hiranuma Jin’ichi, founder, director and producer of Tokyo Dageki Dan (Chiba,

“The Japanese Culture Festival in Russia 2003.”)

Tonight, the group is working on a structured improvisational piece that they have not visited for some time. Karen plays a complicated rhythm on the okedo set, while the four members on the ōdaiko rotate through improvised routines. The drumbeats reverberate through my chest and catch in my throat, and the whole building seems to shake with each whack of the bachi (撥), or drumsticks, on the stretched skins of the taiko. The players stand with their legs shoulder-width apart for balance, necessary because of the great power that is put into each swing of the arm. Every move is deliberate, planned, graceful. When a performer is soloing, the bachi become extensions of their arms as they pound out a rhythm on the drum. There are some differences in skill evident in the way the players hit the drums — the best exaggerate their arm motions, swinging loosely away from the drum before snapping the arm back to hit the drum with incredible force. Muscles stand out on the players’ arms, and I am reminded again of the physicality of the art. It is hard to believe this piece is partly improvised. There are no awkward lost beats, no drops in motion. Each ōdaiko player comes up with something new to play, and their pieces all fit together beautifully.

As the piece progresses, the drumbeats speed up, and Karen and Lisa jump in. The higher notes of the shime-daiko and okedo set add a sense of urgency to the piece. Toshiki, the last ōdaiko player and a high school sophomore, plays with the most power and speed of any so far. My heart is racing along with the beats of the taiko, and I see why Krista finds this to be such an invigorating experience. Once Toshiki has had his turn at soloing, all the ōdaiko players join in together. While Karen and Lisa continue the fast beat from earlier in the piece, the ōdaiko players switch to a steady, slower rhythm. At this point the song pulls in elements of a graceful dance, as the ōdaiko players swing their arms low in a diagonal motion before lifting the bachi high for the next strike. The rhythm builds and builds and then drops, and the piece ends with one single, earth-shattering beat and a yell. After a few indecipherable comments from various members — “after the fourth one where you drop down, skip the last beat” — they all switch drums and begin the piece again. At Portland Taiko, everyone is equal. Toshiki Chiba, at fifteen, is the group’s newest and youngest member, but he is treated “just like everyone else” (Chiba). Toshiki is a quick talker who got interested in taiko a few years ago after seeing an ad in the newspaper. He says that though he generally plays the chu-daiko (チュー太鼓), a barrel-shaped drum mounted on an angled floor stand that is often used for newer members, there is a good deal of mixing among the members. Over the years, the group has learned “that it’s important for all of us to learn all of the parts” (Ede). When I interview Krista in the studio’s tiny office, she has to yell to be heard over the drumbeats. “That drill they’re doing right now,” Krista says, gesturing towards the door that leads to the studio, “the part on the shime and the okedo is difficult, [but] anyone who’s up to the technical challenge can try that” (Ede).

The members of Portland Taiko don’t just play different kinds of taiko — they are multitalented musicians, each bringing his or her own set of skills to the table. Krista, who took guitar lessons, counts off members on her fingers. Lisa plays the bassoon, Karen plays the ukulele and guitar, Toshiki plays Western-style drums, and Keiko is a professional violinist with the Oregon Symphony. Valerie, who has been with Portland Taiko since day one, has seen the group “work out different songs so that we can include violin” — for example, Salmon Ghost, Krista’s favorite piece, includes two drummers and a violinist. Now, in the little office, Keiko’s violin music, mixed with the strong beats of the ōdaiko and the quick, light song of the shime-daiko, drifts up from the studio. This piece is called Forest Festival, and it is one of Valerie’s favorites — and one she is very proud of. Forest Festival “was composed by Kenny Endo, one of the taiko luminaries in North America, as a special composition for Portland Taiko” (Otani). Mr. Endo must have been aware of Keiko’s talent with the violin, because this piece is exactly right for Portland Taiko. As Keiko’s violin trails through a forest of strong, proud drumbeats, lending an eerie, magical quality to the music, it is easy to picture the players as the gods and warriors of ancient Japan, come back to life to play the taiko in the industrial areas of North Portland.

Works Cited

Associated Press. “Daihachi Oguchi, 84, Japanese Drummer, Dies.”  The New York

Times. The New York Times Company, 28 June 2008. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

Chiba, Hitoshi. “The Japanese Culture Festival in Russia 2003.”  Look Japan. LOOK

JAPAN, Sept. 2007. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

Chiba, Toshiki. Personal interview. 6 Nov. 2014.

Ede, Krista. Personal interview. 6 Nov. 2014.

Fromartz, Samuel. “Anything But Quiet.” N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.

“History & Mission.” Portland Taiko. N.p., Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

Hughley, Marty. “For Portland Taiko, the beat goes on 15 years later.” OregonLive. The

Oregonian, 16 May 2009. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.

“Japanese-Americans.” The War. WETA, Sept. 2007. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

Machida, Raiki. “Taiko Drums.” Blog. Taiko Skin. Blogger, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Otani, Valerie. Personal interview. 6 Nov. 2014.

“Overview and History.” Rolling Thunder: Your Total Taiko Resource. Rolling Thunder,

  1. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.

“Taiko.” Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan. Vol. 7. New York: Kodansha International,

  1. Print.

Takata, Takeshi. “The Thundering World of the Taiko.”  Look Japan. LOOK JAPAN,

Jan. 1998. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Tamura, Lisa. Personal interview. 6 Nov 2014.

Tanaka, Takafumi. “Resounding Echoes.”  LOOK JAPAN, Oct. 2002. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

“The History of Taiko: The Heartbeat of Japan.” Taiko Center. Taiko Center Co., Ltd.,

  1. Web. 24 Oct. 2014.

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