From our mother's heartbeat -- the first sound we hear in the womb -- to the pounding of waves on the shore; from the skipping of rope in the schoolyard to the marching of soldiers to war; from the rumble of thunder to the beating of rain on the rooftops; we live our lives to the steady accompaniment of percussion. Drums and rattles are the most ancient of musical instruments and can be found in prehistoric burial sites; the earliest written record of music occurs in Vedic scriptures and refers to several types of drum. And every culture imaginable has evolved its own distinctive and recognizable drum style and sound: Persian doumbek, Cuban bongo, Native American pumin, African djembe, Irish bodhran. Oh, and my personal favorite, taiko.
If you're unfamiliar with the art, modern taiko drumming (kumi-daiko) is something of a meditation, a bit of a prayer, a form of martial art, a heck of an exercise, by turns soothing and exhilarating, and in general an incredible experience. Portland Taiko, an 8 year old group based (lucky me!) in my hometown of Portland Oregon, is an enthralling group that combines traditional taiko with spoken word performance. Portland Taiko performs at cultural events and festivals, and does educational work with children. And each September Portland Taiko puts on a performance showcasing original pieces. This year's event, Taikokinesis, was one of their most exciting and appealing shows ever.
The members of Portland Taiko are an inspiration. The majority of the performers are women, and anyone who still believes in the archaic stereotype of the delicate subservient Asian girl needs to meet these ladies -- they could easily kick your Stone Age ass! It's exciting to watch their muscles as they beat the huge drums. Taiko drummers are not just musicians, they're athletes, and they play a magnificent nearly non-stop 2 hour show and finish barely winded. Now that deserves some respect!
PT is also one of the most engaging groups I've ever had the pleasure to watch. The group itself is vibrant, dynamic, and a nearly perfect example of teamwork. To a person, each individual brings a wonderful quality to the show: co-director Zack Semke, who looks a little like Anthony Edwards, a little like Peter Davison, and a lot like someone you'd love to have over for dinner and a movie; co-director Ann Ishimaru, who rarely loses her warm and delightful smile even during the most taxing moments; Rachel Ebora whose wicked and mischievous grin makes her seem to embody the Coyote/tanuki/Raven trickster; Teresa Enrico, who plays the bamboo flute as well as the drums and seems as though she's having the time of her life every moment that she's onstage; these are just a few of the outstanding performers that give Portland Taiko such a wonderful group charm and personality.
Though taiko is generally thought of as a Japanese musical form, PT has members of many different ethnic backgrounds, and they encourage Asian American performers of all types to join them. One of their missions is the empowerment of Asian Americans and the recognition of and fight against prejudice. With this in mind, the group has in the past put on some spectacularly theatrical celebrations of Asian community and explorations of past injustice.
"A Place Called Home" is a new piece in this vein, dedicated to the memory of Mitsuru Kai Shoji, a Portland Issei woman of great courage and determination. The performers combine a slide show and spoken poetry with drums and flute to heartbreakingly good effect. They recount the history of Japanese Americans in Oregon, from their emigration to their vicious and unjust incarceration in internment camps during World War II to their courage and perseverance in rebuilding their lives post-war. It was a lovely and dramatic piece, and I found the in-your-face, blunt yet humorous "Rock the Boat" entertaining and uplifting as well. The composers of this piece collected stories from many members of the Portland Asian community and wove an amazing if infuriating portrait of the kind of prejudice that still exists today; then they presented equally amazing and inspiring suggestions for solutions. Both pieces were fantastically well done, educational yet never dull or preachy.
My favorite pieces of the show included "Salmon Ghost", written by Zach Semke in memory of his father, and poignantly performed with just two drummers in the background, and Zach and Ann on violin (both are classically trained violinists as well as taiko artists); the hilarious comedy piece "Bug", written by group member Naoko Amemiya; and the title piece "Taikokinesis", written by Teresa Enrico, Ann Ishimaru, and Zack Semke. But my very favorite piece of the show was the incredible, the amazing, the absolutely invigorating "Ha!", co-written by group member Kristy Oshiro. With all of the group members performing, using all of the drums including the big drums, the sound filled the theater and rolled over the audience in throbbing waves of exhilarating, booming sound.What a piece!One of the most thrilling aspects of taiko is the feeling of the music in the pit of your stomach, and "Ha!" more than satisfied the audience in that respect. Of course, I made sure that I had front row seats for a reason...
The only low point in the show was the appearance of this year's guest artist, choreographer Minh Tran. Along with dancers Jae Diego and Jennifer Hong, he performed a piece he called "3X's", which according to the program was meant to be "a dance essay exploring the romanticism of femininity in its different facets". Unfortunately, while the dancers were obviously highly skilled and the dance itself was gracefully done, it was much too clinical and free of passion for my taste. Music for the dance was composed by Ann Ishimaru, Zack Semke, and Teresa Enrico, and was fine music, but in order to focus attention on the dancers the taiko artists had to restrain themselves, and the energy level of the show suffered for it. Fortunately "Ha!" was the next bit on the program, and the energy level skyrocketed once again.
There is one problem with a taiko show in a theater, though. Unlike a performance in a park or a folk festival, it's not possible for the audience to release all of the raw power and energy that the performers generate. Even with a bit of audience participation during their encore, it's still possible to leave a Portland Taiko fall show wired and high as a kite. We got home from the show around 11:00 p.m., which is an hour past my normal bedtime, and I didn't get to sleep until well after 2:00 a.m. I hope that Portland Taiko never decides to turn their vast powers to the Dark Side...
I'll leave you with a few words that evoke Portland Taiko for me...Rumble. Exhilarate. Energy. Vibrant. Dance. Laughter. Joy. Courage. Boom. Crash. Sweat. Hope. Thunder. Wow! Yes!
For more about Portland Taiko, visit them here
If you'd like to know more about taiko in general try this