Some of the most unique and surprising art forms spring from nothing more than a group of committed citizens in search of creative expression. Taiko, the traditional Japanese musical performance featuring large drums, is one such art form.
On Sept. 29 and 30, in Portland State’s Lincoln Hall, Portland Taiko will be performing their concert, “Making Waves.” The ensemble will showcase older pieces and debut new ones as an end to their season.
Taiko, or “great drum” in Japanese, began in the late 1950s and came to the United States in the late 1960s. Taiko provided an expressive outlet for the Asian-American community amid the tumult of the civil rights struggles of the ’60s, especially the attempts to redress the government’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
According to its website, Portland Taiko was founded in 1994 by two former Stanford University taiko performer and a handful of passionate community members. Ann Ishimaru and Zachary Semke found Portland to be an enthusiastic and welcoming artistic home, and in 2006 appointed Michelle Fujii as their artistic director. Over the past 18 years, Portland Taiko has released three CDs and one DVD, flourishing among Portland’s Asian-American community and beyond.
“Being in Portland, has been a very powerful catalyst,” Fujii said. “We were the first taiko group in Portland and now PSU has a beginning taiko class, so it’s growing.”
Over the course of their two-day stint in Lincoln Hall, Portland Taiko will interweave both old and new material in an 11-song event. Four of their pieces will be brand-new, heard first at PSU. One of those four, entitled “Poking the Star,” was written by Fujii herself along with co-performer Toru Watanabe. Portland Taiko musicians Dan Chin and Karen Tingey will join Watanabe and Fujii on stage.
“Taiko—in particular the style we do, called ‘kumi-daiko’—celebrates the idea of ensemble playing. One of the things I’ve seen at Portland Taiko is that the idea of unity is very empowering and important to the group and the Asian-American community as a whole,” Fujii said.
Performed to both culturally traditional and contemporary music, taiko utilizes sweeping arm movements and dance choreography to create powerful rhythms on large drums with sticks called “bachi.” Occasionally, the performers will “kiai,” or shout, to add flair to a piece.
“Taiko is something that demonstrates the diversity of an art form: the form of the body and the form of the instrument,” Fujii said. “There is a visual and an aural aspect to it that celebrates our creative voice as a company, a collective.”
As a community member, Portland Taiko offers beginning to advanced courses for folks aged four to adult. Members that make it into the highest level of classes are encouraged to join the performance group.
“I think that taiko has been a very powerful voice for Asian-Americans in Portland and, in general, the United States,” Fujii said. “In lots of ways, it is a way to break common stereotypes related to Asians, such as being generalized as quiet and submissive. It proves there are many ways to say, ‘We are Asian.’”