Asia is big! Technically it begins in Turkey and ends not far from Alaska in the north west or Singapore in the south west. That’s a lot of turf and hundreds of cultures. Many of them are represented by significant communities in Canada, from Koreans to Armenians to Lebanese to Punjabis to Tamils to Vietnamese to Chinese and Japanese.
So, the concept of Asian Heritage Month, celebrated across Canada in May, has a lot of possibilities. As I considered the notion of music and Asian Heritage I decided to make the assertion that there is an Asian-Canadian musical form that is present across the country and that has transcended its origins to become distinctly Canadian. And that form is… drumroll, please…
Taiko! The Japanese percussion music that is simply iresistable.
Taiko means “big drum” in Japanese. Like the term “gamelan” in Indonesian culture, it refers to an ensemble of drums and related percussion instruments. The largest is the Odaiko, which can weigh tons. Shime-daiko are smaller and tsukeshime-daiko are smaller yet. The Odaiko is most impressive and gives taiko its individuality. There is nothing else like it.
Taiko goes back to 500 BC or so. The instruments came to Japan from China. According to its mythical origin story, the sun goddess was hiding in a cave and depriving the world of light. The goddess Ame no Uzume sought to draw her out of the cave, so she used Taiko drums to do so.
Traditional Taiko was part of military culture and used in agricultural and fishing rites in the countryside in the feudal period. Modern taiko is a product of the post World War II period in Japan. The first Taiko ensemble was started in 1951 by a jazz drummer, Daihachi Oguchi. He went on to form over 200 Taiko groups around the world. The first Canadian Taiko group, Katari Taiko, was formed in Vancouver in 1979.
Inspired by the San Jose Taiko Group at the Powell Street Festival, members of Vancouver’s Asian community came together to form their own Taiko group as a means of exploring and celebrating their heritage. Using a borrowed drum and beating on spare tires with sawed-off broom handles, members began learning the rudiments of the art form. Workshops with Sensei Seichii Tanaka of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo and Kenny Endo soon followed, as did a trip to Japan to learn from established groups such as KODO, Oedo Sukeroku and Osuwa Daiko.
Using a collective model with rotating leadership, Katari Taiko came to represent the emergence of a distinctive Asian-Canadian voice. The group gave its first public performance at a festival in Faro, Yukon and was soon performing at events throughout the lower mainland and across Canada. As word spread, the group was asked to give workshops in Japanese-Canadian communities across Canada, and these led to the formation of groups across Canada.
Hinode Taiko was founded in Winnipeg after a workshop in 1983 and has become a major multicultural ensemble. In Montreal, Arashi Daiko (“storm drums”) also started in 1983 after a successful workshop. In Ottawa, Oto-Wa Taiko was formed by the Ottawa Japanese Community Association in 1989, and in Toronto Gary Nagata has not only founded Taiko ensembles (his current group is Nagata Shachu), but now teaches taiko at the University of Toronto -a first for Taiko! Perhaps the most recent ensemble to the Taiko family is Uminari Taiko, Vancouver Island’s first ensemble, founded in 2002. Uminari is a Japanese word that can be translated as “roaring sea,” which refers to the sound of the crashing waves and the silence in between. The group feels that it captures the essence of taiko and their windy, wave-swept island.
Back in Vancouver, Katari Taiko has spun off various groups who began exploring different approaches. Present-day ensembles Uzume Taiko, Chibi Taiko, Sawagi Taiko, LOUD and Sansho Daiko can trace their lineage directly back to the early days of Katari Taiko. Uzume was the first professional taiko ensemble. Chibi Taiko is the first children’s taiko group, founded in 1993, Sawagi is made up exclusively of women, while LOUD; a duo of Elaine Stef and Eileen Kage, create original music ranging from the melodic to the extreme, using Taiko drums and electric guitar.
A powerful demonstration of taiko’s vitality in Vancouver came in April of 2011 when members of Chibi Taiko, Katari Taiko, Sawagi Taiko, LOUD, Sansho Daiko, Tetsu Taiko and Yuaikai Ryukyu Taiko appeared together on stage at an earthquake relief concert. The diversity of musical approaches, from traditional Japanese percussion to any number of hyphenated fusion forms is proof of Taiko’s deep roots in Canada. This is not “ethnic” music, but an indigenous Canadian music, more often than not featuring original compositions by group members that draws in performers from many backgrounds while still maintaining its commitment to a Japanese aesthetic.
If you live in or near a major city, the chances are that there is a taiko performance sometime this month close to you at an Asian Heritage Month event.