Different Drummers

For over three decades, the San Francisco Taiko Dojo has offered a fresh approach to traditional Japanese percussion

Egg cartons paper the walls of a practice room in an industrial neighborhood in South San Francisco. It's a modest space, save for the cowhide-topped barrel drums of all shapes and sizes scattered about, including a majestic drum in the corner that weighs 1 ton, is crafted from a tree trunk, and is engraved with the image of a dragon. The eight drum-players appear to be striking wildly at everything within reach, and a noise like the steady, subtle rhythm of raindrops begins to take over the room, rapidly increasing to a rolling thunder. The floor shakes, and the Grandmaster urges his protégés along. "You have lots of power," he says, stoically.

Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka, founder and instructor of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, is teaching one of his several daily classes. In 1967, at the age of 24, Tanaka arrived in San Francisco from Nagano, a move inspired by the words of William Clark, who went to Japan in the Meiji Era in the 1860s and founded Hokkaido University. "He said, 'Boys, be ambitious.' These words are very famous among Japanese people. So I've always been ambitious, and I came to the United States," says Tanaka.

Though his original intent was to pursue martial arts, Tanaka switched gears a year after his arrival when he attended San Francisco's Cherry Blossom Festival. "I found it was a very Americanized festival with no taiko sounds," he recalls. Moreover, taiko seemed nonexistent in America, even among Japanese-Americans. So at the 1968 festival, he debuted the native art of ritual drumming in America, pounding out a drum solo.

Seiichi Tanaka, founder of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo.
Seiichi Tanaka, founder of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo.

Taiko performance drums, made from a Japanese wood called zelkovia, are representative of the instruments used in ancient Japan. Fourteen hundred to 2,000 years ago, when it's estimated that the first taiko drums were made, it's believed that the drumming was used as a military tool to frighten enemies. Taiko was also used to repel evil spirits and encourage bountiful crops during harvest season; the rumble of the drums acted as a call for rain. The rhythms of taiko drumming were later adopted as imperial court music, and could be heard in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines as well.

But the taiko ensembles that had begun to spring up in Japan the decade before Tanaka left represented a new wave of the art, born after World War II. Etsuo Hongo, founder of Los Angeles' Matsuri Taiko, says the taiko that we know now is a style that was created about 50 years ago by Daihachi Oguchi of the Osuwa-Daiko ensemble in Japan. A drummer with a great love of jazz, Oguchi -- who has tutored Seiichi Tanaka since the late '60s -- turned the monotony of old taiko ritual into something more musical, using more drums and varied rhythms. Though the public often perceives modern groups as having a "traditional" Japanese sound, Hongo says few groups stick with that style. "People now are dealing with different generations of Japanese-Americans, and what they leave [in the music] is totally different. ... In my style of taiko, I want people to play what they feel."

Tanaka's curriculum strays from traditional as well. What he calls "Tanaka-style" taiko -- involving martial arts, philosophy, and a respect "for the class, for the building, for the drum, and for the teacher" -- has spread across the state as well as the continent. The national taiko circuit is an intimate one, and Tanaka's name comes up routinely. San Francisco Taiko Dojo is the premier taiko group in the country, says Hongo, and Tanaka has directly or indirectly spawned many taiko groups from San Jose and Sacramento to Winnipeg, Canada, setting himself up as the father of the movement in America. "But there are so many young people," Tanaka says. "Maybe now I am the grandfather."

"My father's dream was to spread taiko," says Ryuma Tanaka, Seiichi Tanaka's son. And it has spread. The San Francisco dojo currently has 200 students, and past members have played everywhere from Kimball's East to Carnegie Hall. They have performed with Tony Bennett (in 1996) and gave a command performance before the late Emperor Hirohito in Japantown in 1975. They've recorded music for Hollywood films including Apocalypse Now, The Right Stuff, Rising Sun, and Return of the Jedi Special Edition.They are the only group that produces an international taiko festival annually. Individual members perform in Union Square and local dance clubs, and generally thump their drums for anyone who is willing to listen. Over the last 16 years, the Taiko Dojo has recorded a handful of records, including its 1983 debut Sound Space Soul, a 1988 live album that features Dennis Banks and Kenny Endo, among others, and the Rising Sunsoundtrack in 1993, featuring the Taiko Dojo's signature piece, "Tsunami." This month the group releases its 30th anniversary album, Sacred Drum, compiling the dojo's pieces and those of other performers at last year's anniversary concert.

One of those performers was Narada Michael Walden, who played drums with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the '70s but is more famous for his production and arrangements for Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, and Natalie Cole. "He's brought so much discipline and creative spirit through the Taiko Dojo," he says of Seiichi Tanaka. "He's been the man -- the man to bring that force here to San Francisco and keep it alive and thriving." Walden describes the Taiko Dojo's performance as "uniform, like watching ballet" and recalls his surprise last November in seeing the number of people who had come from all over the world to play and take part in the anniversary festivities.

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