Taiko: A Passion and a Path, Part II
By Judith Bess
Emeryville Taiko offers Japanese martial arts and performance in OPEN EXCHANGE's Martial Arts category.
Susan Horn arrived back in San Francisco knowing she could do anything she set herself to accomplish. Her three months with the Kodo taiko troupe had been intense, constantly challenging, and transformational. She had brought back with her a treasure the pair of bachi (taiko drumsticks) that she had made by hand for herself.
The personal pair of bachi is one of a taiko drummer's most precious possessions. The drummer keeps them in a special bag and develops a strong personal connection with them, one that is respected among drummers. No one would think of using another's bachi without express permission. Susan's bachi were sacred objects to her, imbued with the magnificence of Kodo.
It was 1995 Susan devoted herself to her study of taiko at San Francisco Taiko, where she was a student assistant (senpei). Her first opportunity to teach came when a fellow student, Yuri, wanted to expose her two children to Japanese culture. She asked Susan to help her start a Taiko class for children.
The class, offered through Yuri's church, was a great success. The kids loved it. The parents, who brought their children and then stayed during the class to provide support, seemed to love it too. They enjoyed watching their offspring pound away at the drums, focusing their boundless energy to drum in concert and actually producing, very quickly, some compelling rhythms.
Susan noticed the parents responding to the rhythmsa heel pumping along with the beat, a head bobbing rhythmically. After the class had met for several sessions she started thinking what a shame it was for the adults to just sit and watch. So she began teaching Taiko to them after their children's class was over. The parents loved the class, and word spread. More people came. The class thrived. Then after about two years, Yuri and her family moved to Japan, leaving Susan in charge of the class and, without a connection to the church, needing a new venue. Where could a Taiko class find space to keep its big drums and make its big, booming sounds?
One of the students, Lynne, came through. She had a big old barn in Martinez, so the group moved to that space. But Lynne's husband Joe had not been around when the group brought in their drums, and Lynne had neglected to tell him about the class.
Joe, a Filipino, was a passionate conga drummer. On the day that the taiko class began he was on the roof of the house, doing some repairs. The drumming started. He stopped his work abruptly. "I hear taiko!"
He climbed down from the roof, repeating "I hear Taiko!" He sprinted back and burst into the barn. "I hear taiko!"eyes wide, arms spread open, rapturously embracing the room. "I hear taiko!" He was alight with delight.
Grabbing the precious bachi out of Susan's hands he leaped about, hitting everything in sight, grinning and bellowing exuberantly, "I hear taiko!" as he cavorted and jumped, beating the bachi against the walls, the posts, the drums.
Susan watched in shock, as her bachi rapidly acquired scratches and dents. Anger struggled with pleasure. She was horrified and furious at Joe's reckless treatment of her bachi, but delighted to see him so full of joy. Finally she got them back, battered but still usable. And who could hold a grudge against such innocent exhilaration?
The group practiced every Saturday, and gave a few performances. Now Joe was part of their performance; he would open it by describing the bachi incident and playing conga drums. His presence brought a special quality to each performance, and when Joe was there the group always made it into the newspaper.
The class enjoyed the barn for several months, but the coming of the rainy season dampened their pleasure. They needed to find a new, dry space quickly.
Susan had opened a toy store, Kimono My House, in Emeryville, which is still there today selling anime and science fiction toys. The space in the back of the building, a former auto body shop, had long been vacant, and the landlord agreed they could use it for their taiko classes. So the group spent three months cleaning it and transforming it into a dojo, and Emeryville Taiko was born.
The grand opening was held on New year's day 1998. They celebrated with a taiko performance and a mochitsukia traditional Japanese mochi-pounding ceremony. In this exciting process the cooked rice is placed on a large stone or wooden mortar, and two people work rhythmically together. One pounds the rice with a big mallet, which he swings up over his shoulder and brings down on the rice; the other turns the rice over and over between pounds of the mallet. The mochitsuki went on for two hoursa lively communal follow-up to the taiko performance.
Emeryville Taiko stayed at this location for eight years, but after one year the charismatic Joe died. His memorial service was, like most successful ones, the celebration of a life as well as the communal sharing of grief. A diverse crowd was therepeople from the Filipino community, the taiko community, artists and musicians. The taiko drummers were to perform, and Lynne had asked Susan to speak.
"I had no idea what I was going to say," Susan recalls. "Then I saw my beat-up bachi. I remembered how mad I'd been the day Joe grabbed them and put all these dents in them. So I shared that storyhow wild Joe had been, how furious I had been. Then I said, 'I was mad then, but I forgive you, Joe,' and we started to drum."
Since that time hundreds of students have studied at Emeryville Taiko, and many have performed, drumming in a wide variety of venues including the Solano Stroll, the Julia Morgan theater, and cherry blossom festivals in Cupertino and Morgan Hill. How are people's lives touched and changed by taiko? The third article in this series will explore that question.
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