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[whitespace] Taiko Drummers
Photograph by Tom Conant

Striking Image: Watsonville Taiko drums up a storm this weekend.

Loose Intensity

Watsonville Taiko celebrates its ninth anniversary with rhythmic vitality

By Val Hall

THUNDERING PERCUSSION. Precision, high-energy dance choreography. Yells of excitement, release and wordless joy. These are the hallmarks of American Taiko drumming. Music and dance enthusiasts of the Central Coast will have heard of Watsonville Taiko, but for those who haven't witnessed the ensemble in action, the rhythmic experience is truly vital.

For Saturday's ninth anniversary performance at the Mello Center, Watsonville Taiko artistic director Ikuyo Conant has crafted a marvelously integrated retelling of an old Japanese folk tale called "The Blue Dragon of the Celestial Field."

The story tells of a small carp who discovers that he can become a dragon if he can swim all the way up a fast-flowing river past the "Dragon Gate." The group will perform the second and final chapter of the tale, in which the newly transformed carp ascends into the heavens as a great azure dragon. The show also features Shinsei Daiko and Shinsho Mugen Daiko of Monterey.

According to Sandi Crouser, former percussionist and current business manager of Watsonville Taiko, what sets the group apart from the other 100 or so American Taiko ensembles is that each composition--music, arrangement and choreography--is entirely original. Conant has been the artistic director and program manager for the group for more than eight years; in addition to these duties, she also regularly teaches classes.

Everyone who takes Taiko classes from Watsonville Taiko participates in each performance. Instruction is a key element in the group's overall mission, which includes the study of traditional and modern drumming styles, preservation of Japanese folklore, dance and history and the education of the public through performances, workshops and literature.

Jim Hooker, who founded Watsonville Taiko in 1991, was taught by Seiichi Tanaka of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, the man responsible for bringing Taiko to America. Sensei Tanaka's background as a martial artist helped shape his technique of drumming with a "loose intensity" and his hearty support of the "kiyai" (short, focused yelps) that accompany vigorous performance. It is his Taiko style that has influenced American groups (and especially Watsonville Taiko) more than any other.

Until the 18th century, the sound of Taiko was commonplace in Japan. Originally conceived as an instrument of war, used to intimidate opposing armies and coordinate troop movements on the battlefield, the huge Odaiko drums (which are still heard in modern Taiko ensembles like Watsonville's) found their way into village life.

Taiko was performed to provide a working rhythm for farmers, to celebrate harvests, to tell the time (in the same manner as a church bell) and to set the boundaries of a regional community--if you could still hear the local's Odaiko, you were still in its territory.

Watsonville Taiko exists as a synthesis of this rich tradition with modern musical aesthetics. Utilizing the full array of percussion (including some wonderful arrangements for the shime-daiko, a smallish, high-tension drum) in a fusion of improvisation and exacting coordination, the performance is sure to be athletic, energizing and very, very loud.

Watsonville Taiko, Shinsei Daiko and Shinsho Mugen Daiko perform Saturday (Oct. 21) at 8pm and Sunday (Oct. 22) at 2pm at the Henry J. Mello Center for the Performing Arts, 250 E. Beach St., Watsonville. Tickets are $6-$12. (Tickets available at Game-alot in Santa Cruz.) (Full Discloure: Metro Santa Cruz is one of the sponsors of this event.)

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From the October 18-25, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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