A Night of Taiko

Odaiko Sonora offers Southwestern-tinged drumming performances to Tucson audiences

Lay people witnessing a taiko concert might be inclined to compare the precisely choreographed and highly athletic Japanese drumming performances to martial arts.

Which, in fact, it is, says Karen Falkenstrom.

"Taiko is a martial art; it's just the least martial one," says Falkenstrom, co-founder and co-director of the 5-year-old Tucson taiko group Odaiko Sonora.

For the third year running, Odaiko Sonora is presenting the Southern Arizona Taiko Showcase. To be held this Saturday evening at the Berger Performing Arts Center, the showcase will include performances by San Jose Taiko, which at 34 is the third-oldest taiko group in the United States.

Also on the bill will be the Phoenix-based Fushicho Daiko and Tucson's Suzuyuki-ka MoGan Daiko, as well as Odaiko Sonora.

Thousands of years old, the art of taiko has served many purposes in Japan, from being an early form of communication on battlefields and among villages to being a feature of community festivals, Falkenstrom says.

A spiritual element also played a large part.

"My understanding from the Japanese is that, to some practitioners, the taiko represented the spirit, and playing it was a calling forth to open a sacred space," Falkenstrom says.

"After World War II, the movement in Japan started to remake taiko into a form of national pride. Taiko groups were founded by the government in every city, and it became the basis for widespread arts projects about heritage and tradition. There were thousands of groups. Every city had one, like its own baseball team."

Taiko's resurgence instilled not only a sense of national pride, but it became central to people's lives in terms of recreation.

Taiko groups began springing up in North America during the 1960s, Falkenstrom says. At first, they were primarily associated with Japanese-American cultural groups. But thanks to early pioneers in the United States and Canada, and under the influence of such Japanese groups as Kodo and Yamato, a performance-based form of taiko emerged.

Now, Falkenstrom says, more than 200 taiko groups operate throughout the United States, many of them featuring lots of non-Japanese musicians.

Falkenstrom is herself not Japanese, but half-Korean. Her co-founder and co-director, Rome Hamner, is a redheaded Welsh woman who spent many years in Japan, has lived in Okinawa and has studied Japanese language.

"Sometimes, people look at the two of us and think I am the Japanese person, but Rome is really the one who is more culturally Japanese," Falkenstrom says.

Hamner and Falkenstrom started studying taiko with sensei Stan Morgan, founder of MoGan Daiko, the first taiko group in our region. After a year and a half or so, they broke away to form Odaiko Sonora.

As a nonprofit organization, Odaiko Sonora operates a performing ensemble and teaches classes in technique, stage preparation and composition.

The performing ensemble, which usually numbers about seven, appears in public around 40 times a year at conferences, private parties, arts festivals, Asian cultural events, corporate team-building events and in-school residencies. The annual showcase concert is one of its only ticketed events, Falkenstrom says.

The members of Odaiko Sonora also build their own drums, practicing techniques taught to them by Morgan and Mark Miyoshi, who is recognized as the master taiko builder in the United States. With Falkenstrom often taking the lead during fabrication, Odaiko Sonora drums are primarily fashioned from old wine barrels. The drum heads are stretched rawhide.

After a brief scare when it lost its rehearsal space last summer, Odaiko Sonora recently found a permanent home in a 5,000-square-foot building near 20th Street and Tyndall Avenue. It includes storage for the company's 15 or so drums, as well as a 1,200-square-foot dance floor.

As in other martial and visual arts, the most important principles of taiko are "patience and acceptance," she says. "No matter how many times you do a kata or a brush-stroke painting, you can always learn something new from the practice."

Hamner and Falkenstrom chose the name Odaiko Sonora in tribute to the fact that their version of taiko was born in and reflects the culture of the American Southwest. The company--the members of which are mostly non-Japanese--performs both traditional songs and newly composed works.

Although the members of Odaiko Sonora recognize they are taking taiko in new directions, it is important as well to honor the tradition, Falkenstrom says.

"One of the great and horrible things about our (American) culture is that we learn things from other cultures and rework them for audiences here, sometimes in appropriate ways, and sometimes not in appropriate ways. ... We are not so strict, but it is important to treat the art with respect."

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