A Different Beat

Poetry veteran and taiko performer Karen Falkenstrom celebrates a much-deserved honor

Karen Falkenstrom has just gotten back from a gig in Arcosanti, playing Japanese drums for famed architect Paolo Soleri at his 90th birthday party.

Now all she has to do is get her giant taiko drum out of the van and into the warehouse studio she and her band, Odaiko Sonora, bought almost three years ago. The drum is enormous, and it looks to be even taller than it is wide. With a visiting reporter flailing alongside her, more hindrance than help, Falkenstrom eases it out of the van and onto a dolly.

"It's not really that heavy," she says after she parks the instrument inside the studio in the industrial area east of Armory Park. She's being modest. Falkenstrom is strong from drumming the last eight years, and her biceps are as buff as Michelle Obama's. A good thing, too, because Falkenstrom has been banging the drums almost nonstop the last two months.

"We've been more busy this May and June than ever before," she says.

After the star-studded Soleri gig over the weekend of June 20, she and bandmates Rome Hamner and Nicole Levesque were to head to Safford to do a residency at a high school where "90 percent of the kids are Apache." Then it was up to Triangle Y Ranch in Oracle for a leadership-training camp for UA students.

Falkenstrom has also been busy picking up prizes. The Pan-Asian Community Alliance named her Woman of the Year for 2009. Last year, she was a YWCA Woman on the Move, and Odaiko Sonora got a 2008 Lumie for emerging arts group.

But in June, Falkenstrom got the biggest arts award in town. The Community Foundation for Southern Arizona gave her the Arizona Arts Award, with a cool cash prize of $25,000.

"It's an incredible honor," Falkenstrom says. After 25 years of laboring in the art trenches, and writing endless grants, she is delighted to get an award that recognizes artistic excellence, pure and simple: "It's not based on need. It sees me for my art."

Falkenstrom was one of five nominees for the prestigious grant. The other finalists—poet and author Richard Shelton, Navajo poet Laura Tohe, painter Barbara Rogers and mixed-media artist John Salgado—each got $1,000.

"It was especially poignant for me to be with Richard and Laura," Falkenstrom noted; before she picked up taiko, she was a poet with a number of published works to her credit.

Artists can't apply for the Arizona Arts Award, and the five nominators and the judges are top-secret. Once the five are named, the artists are invited to prepare a presentation that must be left behind for the judges to view.

Falkenstrom and Hamner, her life partner and co-founder of Odaiko Sonora, "pulled out all the stops," Falkenstrom said.

They made a DVD that walked the judges through Falkenstrom's bio and introduced them to taiko. "I had to explain the art form first," she said, by drumming in taiko's hypnotic rhythms. The DVD also chronicled her dizzying array of arts-community enterprises.

In her 20 years in Tucson, Falkenstrom has worked everywhere from the UA Poetry Center to the Tucson Weekly to the Center for Creative Photography to the Tucson Pima Arts Council. She co-founded Kore Press with Lisa Bowden, and she was an organizer of the Among Other Things ... reading series. She worked with the Tucson Poetry Festival and was one of the founders of Don Gest's In Concert! presenting series. She played bodhrán with The Mollys and performed her poetry with the Bad Girls Storytelling Brigade.

And that was before she plunged into taiko drumming, built her own drums, composed new music, taught the art form and within a few years built up a thriving nonprofit and performing group.

Oh, and there's the little matter of the arts space she bought in 2006, to save Odaiko Sonora and other arts groups from the depredations of landlords and the threat of eviction. Dubbed the Rhythm Industry Performance Factory, it's now home to at least nine arts groups, including Thom Lewis Dance—which contributed the Marley dance floor—and Batucaxé.

"I'm not anybody's usual concept of an artist," Falkenstrom acknowledges.

Now 46, she grew up in suburban Washington D.C., in Fairfax County, Va. "Music was my first language," she said. Her father played violin in the U.S. Air Force Symphony Orchestra, and her mother, a Korean immigrant, was an opera singer and ballet dancer; she eventually switched to a career in education. Falkenstrom played violin and piano as a child, but gave up both in high school.

"I was supposed to be a doctor or an electrical engineer," she said. "I was a tomboy, and my mother wanted a princess." She did get a bachelor's degree in architecture in 1984 at the University of Virginia, but even as an undergrad, she wrote poetry.

After college, she worked by day as a draftsperson in an architectural firm in Richmond, but "my free time was spent on poetry and music." She immersed herself in the alternative arts scene, co-founding a co-op called Urban Artists Amalgamated. She loved studying the art of architecture, but found its practice dispiriting, "changing the door frame in anonymous houses. It was very male-dominated. I resented it, being 'little-lady-ed.'"

She came out to Tucson and enrolled in the UA's MFA program in creative writing in January 1990. Partly inspired by a history of women in architecture class taught by Abigail Van Slyck, her poetry thesis, The Mud Larks, was infused with architectural terms.

For a half-dozen years, she had that rare thing: a paying job in poetry. Alison Deming, the poet who then led the UA Poetry Center, hired her to organize a traveling exhibit and to coordinate events. "I sat in the kitchen, and Alison sat in the pantry," she says.

Falkenstrom was deeply involved in Tucson's poetry scene, as a publisher of Kore Press, at the Poetry Festival, and as a poet herself. She was publishing in the journals—Colorado Review, Prairie Schooner—that lead to book contracts. But by the mid-'90s, she burned out on the printed word.

"I got tired of poetry. If you work in a field long enough, you see what's not pretty." Still, she adds, "Poetry's rhythm and musicality planted the seeds" for the music she would later play.

Looking for a new focus for her life, she took a peaceful compositing job at a publishing company and then headed to Korea, her mother's homeland, where she lived and taught for a year. When she came back to Tucson, she worked a series of arts-related jobs. While she did editorial layout at the Weekly, she went to the Food Conspiracy Co-op for a story, and happened to meet Hamner. And Hamner happened to tell her she was studying taiko drumming right here in Tucson with Stan Morgan, a "stubborn white guy."

Falkenstrom had been entranced when she saw Kodo, a Japanese taiko band some years before, but she had never been able to find a teacher. She signed up for lessons, and before long, she was hooked. When Morgan fell ill, she and Hamner started Odaiko Sonora to keep the art form alive in Tucson.

"I became addicted to taiko," she remembered. "It used every part of me—intellectual, physical, spiritual and artistic. It worked all of that. It required me to use my highest and best self. Poetry helped me walk in the world, but taiko used everything."

After years of worrying about money, Falkenstrom is pondering what to do with her $25,000 windfall. Some of it will pay for taiko study in Japan and for classes in Okinawan dance in California. She may plow some of it into the Rhythm Industry mortgage. But she's tempted, she says, to buy an Asano, the Stradivarius of taiko drums.

Characteristically, she's also thinking of others who could use a chunk of her change. She's considering paying for a small fountain in the rock garden at the Poetry Center, or maybe funding a cash prize for the next winner of the Lumie emerging artist award.

"I'm trying to give back," she says.