Taiko Voices Journal: The Pioneers


Photographs by Lisa Duncan Photography.

This is the second in a series of posts by Heidi Varian, Project Coordinator for Taiko Voices, the 50th Anniversary Song Commission sponsored by TCA.

FEBRUARY: The Pioneers

The memorandum of understanding for the Taiko Voices project included an inspiration session to aid in the creation of the piece. A day was selected for the chosen composers – Franco Imperial, Kate Meigneux, Ryan Kimura – to spend bonding time with the pioneers of taiko over lunch and conversation at the San Francisco Taiko Dojo’s studio – Directors Emeriti PJ and Roy Hirabayashi, senior member Qris Yamashita, and Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka, respectively. Ryuma Tanaka facilitated the event, which was both filmed and audio recorded.

The composers had originally prepared interview questions for their respective group members and now distilled those answers and created special interviews for the pioneers.

The Interviews

The pioneers talked about motivations. Roy reflected on a love of jazz and the inspiration of his experience as a horn player. PJ related her love of dance. In another context, Qris mentioned that her favorite place to play taiko is at temple. Each answer reflects the importance of taiko in shaping identity, helping to restore a unique Japanese American voice in the roaring incarceration silence of a post-war American landscape.

Japanese national Tanaka Sensei was a young boy in Nagano Prefecture at the end of WWII. His response – “I had nothing else, knew nothing else to do when I got to America.” Only a few years older, his options and life choices were fewer and less free.


Today, a large segment of taiko is played by collegiate groups. There are community groups and temple-affiliated groups and professional performing groups and youth groups – a diaspora of a continually evolving genre. Which is why the composers and grant coordinator believed the inspiration phase of the project – honoring the pioneers, the ancestors, and tradition – was so important to the creation of the piece.

“What would you like to see for the future of taiko?” With the diversity of styles and teaching methodologies and personal philosophies, you would think that this question would elicit a myriad of dreams and desires and aspirations. But the consensus was unanimous – build a community and play with joy.