Imagining a Future for Taiko

The first North American Taiko Conference was held in Los Angeles in 1997. At the time, I was a member of Seattle Kokon Taiko. I remember the excitement of performing in the Taiko Jam, as well as taking workshops from Kenny Endo (Tradition as the Basis of Innovation), Seiichi Tanaka (Masterclass) and Roy Hirabayashi (Creating New Songs).

I began studying taiko a few years earlier with Northwest Taiko, because I was a composition and ethnomusicology major, plus Northwest Taiko rehearsed in the Japanese language school a few blocks from where I lived. Little did I know that almost 20 years later, I would dedicate a significant amount of my energy and thought as a professional musician to taiko.

Portland Taiko welcomes RTG participants
Teaching the Composition Track at the 2012 Regional Taiko Gathering (RTG) hosted by Portland Taiko and Portland State University, I reflect on the 1997 conference as well as subsequent gatherings, conferences and summer taiko institutes. When Portland Taiko hosted the 2006 RTG, they lost more than $20,000. Along with being financially depleted, the amount of work coordinating drums and out-of-town guests proved exhausting. Portland Taiko's newly hired co-artistic director Michelle Fujii inherited a model that was unsustainable.

Even though 2011-2012, has been a challenging time for Portland Taiko (they have had a complete staff overhaul), Michelle wanted to try a new approach for RTG. Consulting with Stan Shikuma – long-time leader of Seattle Kokon Taiko and Kaze Daiko – Michelle proposed having four workshop tracks that lasted eight hours each, rather than having more than a dozen workshop leaders with concurrent sessions that lasted less than three hours. Stan said sure, let's try this.

The four taiko tracks were:
  • Foundation
  • Technique
  • Movement
  • Composition 
Along with these eight-hour taiko tracks, RTG 2012 included a low-key show-and-tell from seven groups, lunchtime discussion sessions with topics chosen by participants and an end-of-gathering happyokai sharing session.

Behind the scenes, Keiko Araki and a crew of volunteers gathered drums and equipment for the taiko tracks and sharing sessions. As a workshop leader, I was delighted to have drums for each of the composition participants. Teaching at previous conferences, I have had only one or two drums. I also remember when Toru Watanabe was scheduled to teach an afternoon workshop outside in Los Angeles. The organizers used a car stereo to play the music for his movement workshop. By having four taiko tracks at RTG 2012, equipment needs were more easily met and drum moving during the weekend was minimized.

After RTG 2012, Michelle and I laughed about past conference debacles. Out of curiosity, we dug out the 1997 booklet and read the Taiko Conference Goals:
  • Provide opportunities for networking
  • Document the History of Taiko in the United States and Canada
  • Deepen understanding of the connection of taiko in the United States and Canada with taiko in Japan and with Japanese cultural traditions
  • Encourage the continued growth and development of taiko groups in the United States and Canada 
  • Imagine a Future for Taiko in the United States and Canada
This last bullet point caused Michelle to gasp. "Imagine a future for taiko…" she exclaimed.

15 years later, taiko has made an impact around the world in venues that range from public schools to Australia's Got Talent. While amateur and professional taiko players have increased since 1997 – and the number of community groups has expanded exponentially – non-profit ensembles with paid artistic staff that have been formed can be counted on one hand. With this in mind, how can we imagine a future for taiko?

During one of her characteristic late-night creative outpourings, Michelle came up with the mission for RTG 2012:
  • Discover new taiko perspectives
  • Build meaningful relationships
  • Promote discussion, insight and innovation
  • Maintain an affordable and economically self-sustaining RTG
  • Foster the celebration of the art form of taiko 
Notice how the core values of the initial taiko conference are stream-lined. Idealism is tempered with pragmatism. When Portland State University's fire alarm resounded throughout the music building before the Sunday morning workshop, Michelle and Toru gathered RTG participants on the lawn outside for morning stretches. Breathing together in this impromptu exercise helped ground everyone. Similarly, as part of Eien Hunter-Ishikawa's Technique Track happyokai presentation, over two dozen taiko players from various groups played a super slow Don together. The quiet intensity that charged the musicians and open-eared audience reminded me how taiko has the potential to connect simply and directly.
Happyokai Presentation from the Composition Track
Innovation comes from sustainability. As a practicing artist in America, I applaud the courage of the RTG 2012 experiment where the "imagined future for taiko" happened and will continue resonating within individual taiko players and groups for years to come. Here's to continuing to imagine a future for taiko.
Dedicated to intercultural collaboration, Byron Au Yong composes songs of dislocation, music for a changing world. He teaches in Performing Arts & Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

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