When thinking of Japanese taiko drumming, some people might visualize a drummer standing on top of a yagura tower, accompanying bon odori dancers at Japanese cultural festivals. For others, the intense physical and musical spectacle of professional ensembles such as KODO, Drum Tao, or TaikoProject come to mind. Rich ethnic, cultural, and religious traditions, as well as diverse artistic innovation have shaped the art form of taiko, with the community surrounding it is steadily growing throughout the world.
One way taiko has progressed is through its meshing with other cultures—like how jazz was born in New Orleans by combining popular genres like ragtime and blues with African and Afro-American music culture. The invention of the popular style of ensemble taiko drumming—called kumidaiko—is credited to jazz drummer Daihachi Oguchi, who introduced his modern musical expertise to traditional taiko in the 1950’s in Japan. In the last few decades, there has been no shortage of innovation in the melting pot that is North America. Kenny Endo, San Jose Taiko, TaikoProject, and Unit Souzou, just to name a few, have made significant contributions to the art by drawing upon their own unique backgrounds and experiences in other world cultures.
There are many taiko players in the non-professional taiko community who are also exploring new cultural collaborations and pushing boundaries. Two such members striving to innovate and celebrate their Japanese American heritage happen to be my mother and I—through a cultural fusion of taiko with Hawaiian hula and electronic music production, respectively.
The Ito Family
My mother, Wendy, first tried taiko in the early 80’s with my grandfather, who played with a then-new taiko group at the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center. She only stuck with taiko for a short time back then. It wasn’t until some 35 years later in 2015 when she picked-up taiko drum sticks, or bachi, again at Asano Taiko U.S.’s Los Angeles Taiko Institute (LATI), after I began taking lessons there the year prior. Ever since, we’ve both been highly invested in the taiko community: we continue to take lessons at LATI, practice with a variety of different local groups, and participated and performed in two North American Taiko Conferences.
One of the reasons our family became interested in taiko was because it provided a unique artistic opportunity to be closer to our ethnic and cultural identity as Japanese Americans. My mom is a Yonsei, fourth generation, which makes me a Gosei, fifth gen. My mother’s great-grandparents emigrated from Japan to Hawaii, and later my grandparents moved to California.
Cultural Mash-Up: Hula & Taiko?
With an interest in Hawaii, the islands our family calls home and a place that offered refuge and opportunity for our forebearers, my mother delved into the world of hula and Hawaiian culture. She studied and danced for 20+ years under the direction of Keali’i Ceballos of Halau Keali’i O Nalani, and danced competitively at the prestigious Merrie Monarch Hula Festival on three occasions. Through hula and taiko, my mom says she has developed a deep respect and connection to indigenous art forms and our cultural heritage.
My mom once heard that hula is not just about the motions, but emotions—and we agree this idea holds true for taiko, too. Hula is a form of storytelling and at its essence, taiko is also an artistic tool for communication. Both art forms convey underlying stories and feelings through human physicality and dynamic movement to create rich resonance and connections. Since many aspects of taiko felt very reminiscent of hula, it wasn’t a far stretch for my mom to blend the two when challenged by our taiko teacher, Yuta Kato, to develop a Hachijo style piece based upon a personally meaningful story. Using Hawaiian chant and hula rhythms, my mom’s Hachijo solo tells of our family’s journeys across the Pacific ocean. She debuted this at the 2018 LATI annual student recital with taiko accompaniment by Ariel Ravid.
A few months later, another taiko mentor, Yeeman “Manman” Mui, encouraged my mom to further explore her hula and chant experience by developing a kumidaiko arrangement for naname, or slant style, taiko. They began creating a piece using an ancient style hula kahiko chant composed by the late Randol Ngum, called Nani Ka’ala i Ka Uluwehi. The song has special meaning to my mom and speaks of the highest mountain peak on the island of ‘Oahu, where my grandparents are from. Manman and my mom created taiko choreography akin to hula dancing to convey the lyrics and story of the chant, and used traditional Hawaiian instruments such as an ipu heke for the jiuchi, or backbeat. The ensemble had to learn not only taiko, but also Hawaiian chant. Though she is nervous about being accused of cultural appropriation, my mom expressed that she takes full responsibility for the project and obtained approvals and support from her hula mentors before starting the creation process. The work-in-progress piece debuted with the youth group, Straight Outta Taiko Together, at LATI’s recital in 2019. My mom hopes that her best intentions of sharing aloha are met with understanding and enjoyment.
While my mother’s taiko journey seems to bring her back to our family roots, the path I walk branches forward, finding new artistic connections.
All my life I’ve loved music—my dad will tell you all about how as a baby, he’d lull me to sleep with some of his favorite R&B and soul tunes, or how as a toddler I would wear out CDs from playing songs on repeat too many times. Though I’ve dabbled in many different musical hobbies growing up and still continue to pick up more of them—like piano, trumpet, and tap dancing—taiko drumming was the one I quickly became most passionate about.
While taiko’s connection to my Japanese heritage and its distinct fusion of instrumentation and choreography initially drew me in, it is the tight-knit taiko community that motivates me to practice harder and constantly strive to improve as a taiko player. There are so many interesting and talented people within arms reach to exchange ideas with and learn from. Beyond classes, I’ve now joined three different local taiko groups—Prota Taiko, TaikoEffect and UnitTwo—and keep in close contact with my friends from the collegiate taiko scene. I’m so thankful for these people and these opportunities.
I was particularly inspired by one of my teachers, Kristofer Bergstrom, who’s well known for creating one of the most choreographically unique pieces of the North American taiko repertoire: Jack Bazaar. Though he taught me many technical and conceptual ideas, the most significant thing I took away from working with him was his love of jamming over electronic music like you’d hear on the radio or in a DJ set. Until I met Kris, I always thought kumidaiko was supposed to be played by strictly acoustic traditional Japanese instruments. But he showed me that taiko didn’t have to be just a traditional Japanese art form: it could be played in numerous ways—a way that is perhaps uniquely American.
In 2020, I pulled together all my latest musical hobbies—namely bass guitar, beatboxing, and electronic music production—to create self-shot and self-produced music videos featuring unique taiko drumming styles. This style that I’ve been calling “new school” taiko, combines the drumming with original hip-hop, rock, and EDM beats. I’ve posted all my work on social media under the name KonoKotoDake (@kkd.beats on Instagram), translating to “only about this,” to represent the feeling of living and performing in the moment.
Through this, I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with other artists and taiko players around the world who also share a passion for taiko, music, and expansion of the arts. The projects I’ve been most proud of so far have been those that involved my friends and fellow taiko community members such as our virtual set for the 2021 Davis Cherry Blossom Festival. With the help of some friends, this 20-minute set consisting of five “new school” taiko pieces, an arrangement of Jack Bazaar, and a short beatbox duet, explores different genres of music by melding other instruments such as piano, guitar, and violin.
Taiko is truly crossing cultural boundaries and expanding into a multi-cultural art form. My mom and I are so grateful to have found taiko and our beloved taiko community and hope our small initial contributions thus far—exploring new avenues of creative expression—may bring joy and inspire others. It is our hope that the taiko community never loses sight of its roots as it works toward an inclusive and collaborative future that celebrates individual uniqueness and cultural diversity.