Portland Taiko: Big Bang, Newmark Theater, Portland, Oregon, USA (September 2003)

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. So many good things happen in September and October...my birthday, the beginning of the school year, harvest time, Halloween. And a few years ago I discovered one more reason to love September: Portland Taiko's annual fall show. This is my fourth year in attendance, and every year they just get better and better.

This year's show, entitled Big Bang, was also the release party for their new CD of the same title. As such, they performed all of the pieces from the CD, though not in the same order that they appear on the album; they also performed three additional compositions.

The show opened with "Ha!", a piece written by Portland Taiko's head intern Kristy Oshiro and Portland Taiko member Karen Tingey. "Ha!" was one of my favorites at last year's show and it still is. An energetic, joyful piece, it has grown tighter and at the same time more fluid as PT has worked with it over the past year; it was an ideal opener for the show, gathering up the performer's energy, their ki, and showering the audience with the rhythm, music, and general good vibrations which the members of PT seem to spread so effortlessly.

There was no drop in vigor as they moved into the next piece, another showcase bit called "Oyakodon-don!" written by co-chairman Zack Semke. The program says this piece "features free solos built on a loose framework" but truth be told it's hard to tell when PT members are improvising and when they're note-perfect and on score; they're just that natural when it comes to their performance. There is never a stiff moment, never a move that seems rigid or formal, even in pieces like "Taikokinesis" which is obviously intricately choreographed. Even the occasional misstep is incorporated, handled, and quickly forgotten by an entranced audience.

I'm a percussion addict, and so for me the weakest moments in a taiko show are usually those pieces which heavily involve the fue (bamboo flute). PT member Teresa Enrico is gifted with the ability to play the fue beautifully, and two pieces in this show particularly display her talents. "Soliloquy" by Rachel Ebora and "All is Well" by Enrico herself rely much on her skills with the fue, and rather than finding them a lull in the show I found both works harmonious and fascinating -- a credit to both the performers and the composers. Ebora, longtime PT member and the playful jester of the group, also contributes a brightly comic composition called "Lima" which makes use of such nontraditional instruments as little squeaky bulb horns (from a child's bicycle, perhaps?) and much mugging on the part of the artists onstage.

Portland Taiko is dedicated to educating their audience about the Asian American experience, and to that end have written some exquisite pieces exploring the history of Asians in America. One of their most poignant and dignified pieces, "A Place Called Home", delves into the shameful internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; this work incorporates slides and the recorded voices of former internees, as well as fue and drumming, into a powerful work about remembrance, honor, and justice.

"A Place Called Home" is one of several PT compositions which have matured since last I saw them performed. "Salmon Ghost", "Home", "Taikokinesis" -- these are pieces which have been nurtured and grown over the past year. Portland Taiko is a dynamic group: Zack Semke, Ann Ishimaru, Teresa Enrico, Kristy Oshiro, Rachel Ebora, Karen Tingey, and Naoko Amemiya have all composed pieces, but each of the other performers (Aya Akiyoshi, June Arima Schumann, Dane Fujimoto, Mark James, Alix Koyama, Valerie Otani, Lisa Tamura, and Robin Van Tine) brings something to the mix. The interplay during the performance was magical.

Portland Taiko is a highly skilled group, and a group that continues to forge, shape, and mold itself into new forms. Not a rigidly traditional group, not an avant garde distortion of tradition, PT is a group growing and blossoming, but with roots deeply entrenched. Big Bang is without a doubt the most impressive and entertaining Portland Taiko show I've been to yet; I wouldn't dare to say they won't get even better, because they always do.


[Maria Nutick]

You can learn more about Portland Taiko at their Web site