Local Groups Share Taiko Drum Heritage

At first, the visiting samisen master from Japan said nothing about the young Japanese-American taiko drum student chewing gum and blowing a bubble during a rehearsal of Los Angeles-based Kinnara Taiko.

But after returning to Tokyo, the master expressed his revulsion to an American percussionist studying taiko in Japan, knowing his opinion would reach the Southern California ensemble. The master’s message was clear: Tell your California friends that they insult the art of taiko and should not be allowed to use the word taiko as a part of its name.

“A lot of people went through a lot of changes because that was such a significant incident,” said Johnny Mori, 39, musical director of Kinnara, now in its 20th year and named for a mythical musical Buddhist being. “We thought about our purposes, questioned our goals and became more solidified as a unit. We found a new direction and accepted who and what we were.”

That was 10 years ago, and today Kinnara Taiko typifies the differences between Japanese-American taiko groups based here and the so-called “traditional” ensembles like Kodo, the “Heartbeat” drummers of Japan, who return for performances tonight at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium--and Wednesday and Thursday at Japan America Theatre.


There are now more than 30 taiko groups in the United States and Canada, seven of which are in Southern California. Many of them don’t use taiko as entertainment, but as part of their culture and religion.

In Japan, the large drum or odaiko used for centuries by warriors on the battlefield, by villagers celebrating plentiful harvests and by priests in temple rituals serves an important religious and cultural symbol. Kodo’s members play a 7-foot-high odaiko whose thunderous booms reverberate when its players’ arms slash downward to strike its surface and smaller drums mounted on wooden stands 2-to-3 feet above the floor. Performances often include a Japanese bamboo flute, bells and cymbals.

Originally formed as Ondekoza Demon Drummers, Kodo’s members have lived communally on the rugged and desolate island of Sado in the Japan Sea since 1971. As Ondekoza, following rigorous training, they made a splashy 1975 U.S. debut by running the Boston Marathon--and performing at the finish line.

Today, Kodo’s once ascetic life style and strict running regimen has been scaled down from two long-distance runs a day to one 10-kilometer run in the morning. Before last year’s fifth U.S. tour, new director Yoshiaki Oi described Kodo’s schedule as one calling for discipline, but not athletic fanaticism.


And Ondekoza too, currently headquartered in Atami just south of Tokyo in Shizuoka Prefecture, has scaled down its rigorous training and solemn performances. Directed by Den Tagayasu, Ondekoza has tailored its programs to appeal to wider audiences at the New Fujiya Hotel. Between 1986 and 1987, many members lived in Los Angeles to teach members of Zenshuji Zendeko, affiliated with the Zenshuji Soto Mission.

“Ondekoza are like a group of gypsies now,” said Etsuo Hongo, a former member of the renowned Oedo Sukeroku Taiko of Tokyo and today the director of Los Angeles Matsuri Taiko, made up of 11 members who rehearse in the basement of Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple near Little Tokyo. Formed in 1977, Hongo’s group--like West Covina’s 24-member Taiko Group--is not formally affiliated with the church. But Los Angeles Matsuri Taiko’s reputation is one of strictness, constantly striving for authenticity.

Where most ensembles construct their own drums from cowhide and oak kegs, Hongo’s Matsuri Taiko drummers have spent thousands of dollars on drums made by master craftsmen in Japan. And whenever a new member signs up to learn taiko, he or she may be allowed to hit only rubber tires for months before striking a drum.

“I have a responsibility to the audience to present traditional taiko,” Hongo said, pointing to third-generation Sansei drummers who neither speak Japanese nor have ever been in Japan. “When Japanese people see us perform and see our faces are Japanese and hear us play like Japanese, they think we must be Japanese from Japan. They ask us, ‘Where are you from?’ and that makes me feel good.”

But for most taiko groups, the focus is on religion and culture rather than athleticism and musical authenticity.

For Zenshuji Zendeko, teachings of Zen Buddhism serve as its foundation for existence. Three to four times a week, Zendeko’s rehearsals begin with 15-25 minutes of meditation. Even children as young as 5 meditate. “It gives them an inner calm and a peaceful feeling,” said Hiroko Seki, general manager and one of Zendeko’s 18 performers.

In addition to meditation, some groups consider sutra chanting an important part of taiko. Orange County’s Daion Taiko Group, formed in 1981 by members of Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, literally took its name from a sutra which translates to mean “great sound of enlightenment.”

And six adults and seven children who are members of Free Spirit Taiko Group at Gardena Buddhist Church will consider adding sutra chanting either to performances or rehearsals.


“We are, after all, a church-sponsored organization,” chairman Tom Fukuman said. “We have an obligation to teach Buddhistic ideals.”

Under the sponsorship of Senshin Buddhist Church, L.A.'s Kinnara Taiko traces its origins to 1969, making it one of the oldest taiko groups in the country. Since it was incorporated, Kinnara has expanded its focus to classical Japanese dance and classical drama.

“We went through everything,” Kinnara’s director Mori said of the group’s past two decades. “We’ve done stretching and calisthenics, we even did Zazen meditation and we tried chanting. In fact, that’s how Kinnara got started 20 years ago--by chanting.”

No matter what his orientation, the drummer’s ultimate goal, according to the Rev. Arthur Takemoto of Vista Buddhist Church, should be to find joy in playing and in the drum’s sound.