COURTESY RAYMOND YUEN
TAIKOPROJECT performs at Taiko Fest 08! with the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble.
Not your mama’s taiko
Drum ensembles expand the instrument’s repertoire and watch new fans roll in
As a schoolboy, Bryan Yamami's parents had to coerce him to take taiko drumming lessons. They probably looked to taiko to provide discipline.
"I was a punk kid," he said. "And, the teachers were very strict."
Yamami studied for four years before packing his drumsticks away when his family moved from California to upstate New York. "There were no Japanese or Asian Americans, let alone taiko," Yamami recalled.
When the art form was reintroduced to him during college, Yamami approached it with a newfound respect and eagerness to learn. And he found that his boyhood lessons stuck.
"It was relatively easy to pick up again," he said.
Today, Yamami is artistic director for TAIKOPROJECT, an ensemble with a slogan that reads, "This isn't your mama's Taiko, but it may be your hip younger cousin's."
TAIKO FEST '08
Place: Hawaii Theatre
Time: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Tickets: $25 to $34
Call: 528-0506 or visit hawaiitheatre.com
The ensemble has proven to be not just hip, but successful in competition as well. TAIKOPROJECT won the 2005 Tokyo International Taiko Contest. It was also the first non-Japanese group to participate in the competition.
"These competitions don't happen in the states - there are not enough groups to judge," Yamami said. "We challenged ourselves to play at a higher level than we've ever played before.
"In Japan, there are hundreds of Taiko groups. It's easier for American groups to think outside the box."
Yamami believes taiko's popularity took hold in the United States during the Asian-American movement in the 1970s.
"(Asian) Americans were searching to voice their identity in a loud way," he said. "Their parents grew up in internment camps and wanted their kids to play baseball and eat apple pie. Taiko spoke to them as soon as they found it."
ON FRIDAY, TAIKOPROJECT performs at Taiko Fest 08! with the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble. The two groups have a couple of crossover members who had played in each other's ensemble at one time or another.
Endo said this collaboration is rare, "something we don't do very often."
Both ensembles continue to find ways to expand the versatility of taiko, including adding elements of storytelling, theater and nontraditional musical instruments.
"We are not just regurgitating what's been done," Yamami said. "We want people to learn that taiko is not just a Japanese thing."
Outside influences don't discredit the tradition, said Endo. Rather, "We actually believe it's necessary to rediscover the traditions in order to have a greater palette to do these innovations."
"I grew up in Los Angeles listening to all different types of music," he said in explaining his approach, noting that the fusion of contemporary pieces that may include flutes, a saxophone or theatrics allows the audience to better relate to the music.
One of the show's highlights is the use of a 6-foot drum. "We take it out once every five years or so - that along with four other large drums is really something to see and hear," he said.
Endo has been traveling extensively this past year, from India and Sao Paulo and Brazil to Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston, New York and Philadelphia - all to share the art of taiko.
"People find it refreshing ... it brings them back to something they've forgotten," Endo said. "It's like the heartbeat of a mother when a baby is in the womb. It provides something in the modern world that's a little bit more basic and primal."