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Sun Drumming

San Jose Taiko to debut four new works

By Todd S. Inoue

After watching San Jose Taiko amaze year in and year out, I decided to take one of their workshops. One hundred push-ups and 300 stomach crunches later, the "warm-up session" was officially over, and I was already gasping for air. But San Jose Taiko's P.J. Hirabayashi and Yumi Ishihara were sympathetic; they would let me stay, provided I proved my worth with a 4.6-second or better 40-yard dash.

I'm fantasizing about the last part, of course, but the workshop set me straight on one thing: Taiko drumming isn't easy. It's hard work to keep beat, dance, maintain proper form, not drop your bachis (drumsticks) and not bang into someone--all with a joyous look on your face. It's what San Jose Taiko has excelled at for the past 23 years--lifting spirits and creating musical magic centered around the traditional Japanese Taiko drum.

San Jose Taiko's annual spring concerts (March 29-30) signal the end of winter's long hibernation, awakening all with booming sound and precision athleticism. It's a spring tradition as welcome as the swallows in San Juan Capistrano or the Giants in Scottsdale.

It's been a tough year for arts groups since the NEA restructuring went into effect. San Jose Taiko fell under the "expansion artists" category that has been abandoned, erasing $16,000 from the group's budget. It came at a bad time because things are taking off for San Jose Taiko on other fronts. The troupe is in constant demand for theater and school performances, just this week released its second CD, Mo Ichido: One More Time, and recently got on the World Wide Web.

A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation has helped lessen the blow, but it's still tough getting by. "It's affecting everyone again, as usual," says managing director Roy Hirabayashi. "We're doing the best we can to maintain our work within the budget, eliminating things that we'd like to do."

Money matters aside, the spring concerts, titled Rhythm Spirit '96, give audiences new works to enjoy. Meri Mitsuyoshi will mount "AikoAja," a showstopper with spiritual influence from West African drummer Aja Addy. "It's about blurring of boundaries," Mitsuyoshi says. "I heard Aja Addy on Sado Island at an Earth celebration, and there's this West African rhythm he made that I recognized in a lot of rock shows."

As a veteran from numerous Grateful Dead shows, Mitsuyoshi aims to create her own funkier "Drums in Space" blend of vibes and culture. " ĆAi' means love, meet, see and open. ĆKo' is from Ćkokoro' for heart. And Aja is for Aja Addy, so it's a meeting of heart and mind, and the blurring of self and external," she explains. "I wanted people to have that feeling of freedom when they're playing, of having the self immersed."

Heidrun Hoffman-Rushworth, a new member, will present her first composition, "Haru no Hana." The Taiko players open "Haru No Hana" with hand "clickies" that sound like an impending locust swarm. The piece quickly expands with life-affirming beats and knife-edge choreography.

"Since I'm new in this group, and German, and studied many cultures' rhythms, I have a desire to find something that represents a certain mood that's kind of Japanese in layout," Hoffman-Rushworth explains. "I put the drums in a circle, and put [dance] steps in the taiko playing, so it might be a new direction for us."

Anna Lin, normally the most playful member of the troupe, will show off her mellow, ethereal side in an as-yet-untitled multiple-chapter work-in-progress. Roy Hirabayashi will be represented with "Stompin'," an attitude adjustment set to heavy feet.

And, as usual, old favorites ("Songs of the Sky," "Oedo Bayashi") and newer compositions ("Safara Weave" and "Matsuri Genso Kyoku") are welcome reminders of why San Jose Taiko continues to astonish audiences wherever it performs.

San Jose Taiko performs Rhythm Spirit '96 March 29-30 at 8pm and March 31 at 2pm at the Louis B. Mayer Theater, Santa Clara University, Lafayette and Franklin streets, Santa Clara. A special children's show, Kodomo Taiko, plays March 30 at 2pm. Tickets are $18/$20. (408/291-2255)

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From the March 28-April 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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