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Different Drummers 

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

Wednesday, Nov 10 1999
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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.

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 Sun soundtrack 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.

His many projects leave Tanaka little free time for his other hobbies, such as shogi (a Japanese game similar to chess). When the professional students arrive for their class, Tanaka gets them started immediately. They run laps and do breathing exercises on the front lawn; they stretch, do push-ups, and sweat. None of the drummers seem particularly brawny, but they beat their drums with an immense ferocity that Tanaka says is not born from muscles but rather ki (energy, spirit) acquired through discipline.

Even when their drum-beating rises to passionate peaks, the players stay uniformly together. More a guide than a conductor, Tanaka provides a driving rhythm in the background. He seems very thoughtful throughout this particular session and listens patiently to feedback from his students after their rehearsal, even though he's often rumored to be one of the strictest senseis around. Tiffany Tamaribuchi, who joined the dojo in 1988 and went on to found Sacramento's Taiko Dan, recalls seeing students get hit or pushed during practice. "I've seen people get kicked in class," she says. "In the 'good old days' it was like a traditional martial arts dojo." Some students dropped out, but Tamaribuchi speaks appreciatively of the training she received. "A lot of what he did was meant to push people beyond their self-conceived limits. It got us to places; personally, it led me to do things I never thought I could do." Tanaka admits that he was once more strict, and attributes his current, softer approach to maturity and discipline acquired through the years.

PJ Hirabayashi, now the creative director of San Jose Taiko, was invited to study under Tanaka in 1973. She praises the opportunity she had to find an art form relevant to her culture, which also helped her broaden her ambitions and talents. In Japan, other art forms such as flower arranging, tea ceremony, and classical dance have traditionally been encouraged for women. But some women with Japanese roots, such as Hirabayashi, have found these activities aren't nearly as empowering as taiko drumming. For long-term drummers, taiko becomes a lifestyle. "I think that's what engages people as they do it for any length of time," she says. "You commit yourself to playing, but as you play a lot of other layers of self start to unfold." Hirabayashi refers to the training process as "the mind, heart, and body coming together and unifying as one, as player to drum to natural element to audience."

The "developing of the inner muscle" is how Tanaka refers to the taiko journey. His music has been inspired by everything from soul to Latin jazz, but his roots in Buddhism and martial arts remain prevalent in his practice of taiko as an art form. Though he's been sharing his style with students for over 30 years, he maintains that he is still learning himself, likening his pursuit of taiko to a quest to climb a mountain. "With more discipline, more effort, I can go up and see more of a view," he says. "I want to go up, and I will keep studying until my heart stops."

Seiichi Tanaka and the San Francisco Taiko Dojo host and perform at the 31st annual International Taiko Festival Saturday, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 14, at 3 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus. Also performing are the Sacramento Taiko Dan, Los Angeles Matsuri Taiko, Matsuriza, Shakto, Hachijo Daiko, and the Ernie Reyes World Martial Arts Association. Tickets are $20-30; call (510) 642-9988.

About The Author

Susan Derby

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