Taiko goes boom

Maybe you’ve heard it in an old movie: the beat of drums stifled by the savage cries of soldiers ready for battle. Or maybe you heard its echoes hanging precariously over the miasma of a war-torn field littered with corpses. Maybe you’ve heard it outside a mini-mart. Or maybe inside a music hall.

The sound of the Japanese taiko drum is something most of us have heard at some point in our lifetimes, though the significance of that resounding boom has taken on vastly different meanings.

Though taiko can be heard many places in the world today, the connotations of that boom and how it has metamorphosed may be difficult to understand from an outsider’s perspective.

Thanks to Portland State’s Center for Japanese Studies and the School of Music, tomorrow night in Lincoln Hall from 7:30-9:30 p.m., the city will be treated to an evening with PSU Taiko Ensemble and Dr. Shawn Bender, a professor in the department of East Asian Studies at Dickinson College. Bender will be presenting a talk on his latest work, Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion.

At the event, which is part of PSU’s community celebration Portland State of Mind, Bender will discuss his book as well as shed light on the history and popularization of taiko and where it stands in contemporary music.

“People are attracted to taiko for many different reasons,” said Wynn Kiyama of PSU’s School of Music, who is leading the Taiko Ensemble. “It can be viewed as a cultural activity connected to Japan, it can reinforce a sense of identity in diasporic communities. It can be experienced as an intensely physical activity, or of course, it can be performed just for the fun of it.

“There are thousands of taiko performers in Japan, from local groups affiliated with schools, religious institutions and community associations, to professional groups that tour nationally and internationally,” Kiyama continued. “While the taiko has been used for centuries in Japan, group drumming is a postwar [post-WWII] phenomenon. In this way, it uses traditional Japanese elements while displaying international influences.”
While taiko has become a worldwide phenomenon, it is especially prominent and successful on the American West Coast. This is especially true of cities in Hawaii and California and in our own Portland.

“Portland has four active taiko ensembles [Portland Taiko, Takohachi, En Taiko, and PSU Taiko Ensemble] with a supportive Japanese American community,” Kiyama said.

The PSU Taiko Ensemble was formed in spring of 2011 and regularly performs contemporary and traditional works both around campus and the city at large. The group will be performing a set of traditional and contemporary works before Bender’s lecture.

“I think drumming is basically primal,” said Susan Leedham, vice president of Portland’s Japanese American Citizens League, which is co-sponsoring the event. “It just appeals to populations, to people. Japanese taiko in particular has a lot of showmanship and it’s very entertaining.”

“Curiously enough, Japan’s popular culture is popular throughout the world, in spite of all the language barriers,” said Director of the Center for Japanese Studies Ken Ruoff, who is also a professor of history at PSU.

“Things like animated films, Japanese-style comic books and taiko, these are the aspects of Japanese culture which are very popular worldwide. Professor Bender has studied [for over 10 years] what makes taiko so popular.”

The experience of a taiko performance is exhilarating in and of itself. The primal nature of drumming contributes to why taiko has become so widely successful, but there’s more to it than that.

“You have these huge drums that resonate throughout the crowd, throughout the auditorium…it’s a lot of fun,” Ruoff said. “But it’s also a way that many Japanese Americans have found to be useful in reconnecting with their heritage.”

Marked by heritage, history and primal human nature, the resonance of taiko reaches beyond crowded music halls and festivals. It reaches back through a rich tapestry of history that connects the listener with the lush, ancient culture of Japan. Whether through connection or reconnection, taiko promises an experience unlike any other in the world.