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Taiko Time

[whitespace] San Jose Taiko
C.I. Photography

Drum of the Parts: Three members of San Jose Taiko show off some of the drumming troupe's unusual instruments.

San Jose Taiko celebrates 25 years

By Justin Berton

INSIDE A SMALL elementary-school cafeteria in downtown San Jose on a quiet Sunday morning, 23 adults have gathered to whack the hell out of some cowhide. The cowhide is stretched tight over large, hollow drums the shape of wine barrels. The sticks used to pound these drums resemble small baseball bats.

These people, they run around in knee braces and sweat-filled bandannas. They shout wildly. They smack the cowhide-covered drums with such collective force they rattle and loosen the folded-up lunch tables, the square clocks on the walls, the metal radiator covers that wrap around the room.

The continuous pounding travels down the streets and brings neighbors out of their homes. They watch in silence as grown men and women continue to run around and smack the drums with great might and in awesome synchronization. One neighbor asks in a slow, concerned, albeit intrigued voice, "What the hell is going on?"

San Jose Taiko, one of North America's oldest taiko troupes, is rehearsing for its 25th anniversary performance, at Stanford Memorial Auditorium on Saturday (Sept. 26).

To celebrate its quarter-century of existence, San Jose Taiko founders P.J. and Roy Hirabayashi commissioned internationally known taiko artists Motofumi Yamaguchi and Shohei Kikuchi to choreograph two new pieces. The concert, "Rhythm Journey: Expressions in Time," will tell the story of Japanese immigrants to the Santa Clara County.

"This is not just a celebration of our 25th anniversary," Roy Hirabayashi says, "but also an explanation of what taiko is, and how we got here." To give the commissioned artists a sense of local history, the Hirabayashis guided Yamaguchi and Kikuchi on a walking tour of San Jose's Japantown and provided documents detailing immigration to the area.

Bringing international artists to work with the troupe is a long way from what the couple ever imagined when they started San Jose Taiko. "I had no idea that it would grow into the musical ensemble that it is now, or the art performance it has become," Hirabayashi says.

When the Hirabayashis founded San Jose Taiko in 1973, it was only the third taiko troupe in North America. A small group of young, third-generation Japanese-Americans--known as Sansei--gathered at the San Jose Buddhist Church seeking a way to express their experiences through performance and, in the meantime, learn more about their own culture.

Now there are more than 100 performing taiko groups in North America, most of which have followed the lead of San Jose Taiko. "What we have been doing has kind of helped set the pace," Hirabayashi explains. By including world rhythms, such as African, Latin and American rock and jazz, San Jose Taiko has created a unique Japanese-American sound while maintaining its historical meaning.

The Japanese drum, or taiko, is an instrument considered to "embody the spiritual essence and heartbeat of Japan and its people, replete with continued possibilities, renewal and transformation." The physical act of performing--arms swinging like hyper windmills, bodies hopscotching between drums--is not only a visually impressive experience but also a stunning demonstration in physical endurance.

"When you tried to define Japanese-American music, it was really hard," Hirabayashi says. "It's not rap, it's not R&B, it's not salsa--then what is it? Taiko has become that musical, cultural sound."

As the thumping rehearsal in the cafeteria continues, the curious neighbors are relieved to learn that their local school has not turned into a weekend training ground for stress management. One of the neighbors backs away from the doorway, gladly muttering, "Now, you don't get to see that everyday, do you?"

Rhythm Journey: Expressions in Time takes place Saturday (Sept. 26) at 8pm at Stanford Memorial Auditorium, Palo Alto. Tickets are $20/$25. (650/725-ARTS)

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From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.

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