Preeminent taiko performers from all around the globe will join together for Taiko Nation, a 3-concert series filled with intensity and fervor. The performance is hosted by the Los Angeles-based TAIKOPROJECT, which has showcased a modern combination of taiko, storytelling, music and choreography since its onset in 2000, as part of the inaugural World Taiko Gathering. Life in LA spoke with TAIKOPROJECT’s producer, Bryan Yamami, about the art of taiko and the upcoming show.
LifeinLA: Can you tell me about taiko — what it is and its history?
Bryan Yamami: Taiko is just the Japanese word for drum. The instrument itself has a very long history in Japan with being used in religious festivals, folk festivals, religious ceremonies [and etc.] for hundreds of years, but it really only took on kind of a prominent place on stage in what’s known as “kumi-daiko” or “group drumming” in the last 60 years. It was created by a man named Daihachi Oguchi and he was the first one to have the idea of taking a lot of the more traditional type of drums in Japan and putting them in the focus of a stage performance. From there, it kind of exploded all over Japan and became more of a performing arts. Same thing in the U.S. It started about 45 years ago and with the two main groups, the San Francisco Taiko Dojo formed in 1968 and, in 1969, a group in Los Angeles called Kinnara Taiko.
LifeinLA: What separates taiko from other styles of ethnic drumming?
Bryan Yamami: Based on what I know, taiko [drums] usually comes in larger sizes. A lot of other forms of ethnic drumming have been around for longer. The drums are much smaller or they have one kind of particular focus, whether it’s providing music for dancers or being part of a drum circle kind of thing. And taiko — because it is such a young art form and doesn’t necessarily have hundreds of years of history — can go in all of these different directions. Choreography can be used as a musical experimental instrument. It can be used for someone exploring hip-hop choreography. DJs and marching bands are adding taiko into what they do. [So are] movie soundtracks. So it really is kind of wide open.
LifeinLA: Can you tell me about this particular concert coming up?
Bryan Yamami: The concert is called Taiko Nation and the idea came about a couple of years ago and it’s something that we’ve seen via YouTube and Facebook and all that stuff. There are a lot of taiko groups in places we never knew had taiko — like in South America: Argentina, Brazil. In Europe there are a lot of taiko groups: in Belgium, Germany, the U.K. We saw not just people of Japanese ancestry playing taiko, but a bunch of random British people and people in Belgium and, for us, it was really exciting to see how big taiko is really becoming. We very proudly respect our traditions but we also really try to expand and teach, and to see it happening all over the world is really exciting for us. We wanted to host a world taiko gathering — kind of the first convening of international taiko groups to kind of dialogue and talk about taiko in various regions… to have workshops to kind of connect with each other and to hear what it’s like to play taiko in Australia, or be a taiko instructor in Buenos Aires.
LifeinLA: So how much practice and preparation has gone into this concert program?
Bryan Yamami: We rehearse about eight hours a week and we are constantly working on our set for the program. I imagine all of the other groups are putting in at least eight hours a week to put together their sets. During the week of [the show], everyone starts flying in and we start putting together the collaborative pieces.
Life in LA: Would you say that people in the community are aware of taiko and what it is?
Bryan Yamami: I think so. Taiko’s always been talked about as the heartbeat of the Japanese-American community. But a lot of taiko groups aren’t Japanese-American and they haven’t been for a long time. Asian-Americans saw [taiko] as something that was really empowering, and the students that we teach are of every race and ethnicity. Anyone with two hands can pick up the drumsticks and start playing and feel the power and joy that comes from beating a big drum. We like to say anyone can play taiko.
LifeinLA: So why should people come and see the show?
Bryan Yamami: Because it will be the most epic taiko concert ever. [Laughs] Our marketing line on Facebook is “A Taiko concert of epic proportions.” To me, it is. It’s the first time a taiko group from Australia and the U.S. and some of the top taiko soloists from Japan are coming together. It [features] the first taiko group from the U.K. that’s coming over to do a main stage performance. We have guests from Brazil and Argentina — all of these countries. We’re really pushing the envelope in having everyone perform in a collaborative opening and closing, and it will really be the taiko world on stage for the first time.
LifeinLA: What do you think people — both those who are new to taiko and those who already have an interest in it — will gain from the concert?
Bryan Yamami: I hope that they see how this instrument inspires people from all over the world and how each group or soloist from country to country has a specific style and specific expression that they take with taiko. Hopefully they see the joy and the connection that can be made. I haven’t even met a few of the players that are going to be in this concert, who I’m going to be playing with — but I really feel that there will be this connection and it will be really spontaneous and really genuine.
Taiko Nation will include performances by TAIKOPROJECT (Los Angeles); Chieko Kojima and Eiichi Saito (KODO); Kaoru Watanabe (New York); TaikOz (Sydney, Australia); Kagemusha Taiko (Exeter, U.K.); Taro Kobayashi (Tokyo, Japan); Sen-Rai (Sendai, Japan); and the “father of American taiko,” NEA Heritage Fellow Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka (San Francisco).
Taiko Nation shows on Saturday, July 19 at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, July 20 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets cost $30 for balcony seats and $35 for orchestra seats. It takes place at the Aratani/Japan America Theatre, located in Little Tokyo at 244 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. For more information or for tickets, call 213-628-2725 or visit http://www.jaccc.org.
Originally written for Life in LA: CLICK HERE FOR THE INTERVIEW.