Taiko Voices Journal: The Spirit

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

MARCH: The Spirit

The third gathering was only a few weeks after the Pioneer Jam and the energy was humming. Did I mention there was a jam? Of course not. Because, if there is taiko, there is always a jam.


At the March gathering, the composers observed and reflected on the Pioneer Jam, the natural easy flow of the beats and transitions between the masters. The communication was felt, rather than cued. The connection between the drummer and the earth, the drummer and drum (and, by extension, the tree from which it was derived and all the drummers past who imbued it with spirit), and, of course, each other, is unique to those who have spent decades honing the art. Of course, improvisation is rife with stumbles and missteps (as any “master” will say), but easy camaraderie of experience makes those elements fade, like great jazz. By the way, “master” is in quotes because it is a misnomer. A fact about taiko that each of the Pioneers agree: it never stops evolving and so you never stop learning.

Kate Meigneux introduces a tenet of Johnny Mori: Kinnara only plays as fast as its slowest performer. Stop reading for a moment. Think about the conscious inclusivity that implies in today’s world.

Tanaka Sensei hopes that the word “taiko” becomes Americanized so that people have another way to recognize Japan’s contribution to the cultural landscape. PJ and Roy encourage both composition and collaboration and Franco and Wisa Uemura, current Executive Director of San Jose Taiko, carry the torch shining that light into the future of taiko.

The Taiko Voices team started the third gathering in different personal places, because they had already been changed by the experience thus far. Even though each composer has been influenced (in ways great and small) by these pioneers for decades, a new perspective allowed them to further recognize a cherished gift and become even further committed to paying it forward. And the development of the composition evolved.


Thus far, the choreography was beautiful but challenging, the rhythms syncopated. I was impressed by the composers already, their willingness and fearlessness to make mistakes over and over, or accept changes instantly to find the right path. In this day at SJT, the odori choreography was already in rough completion. But that milestone did not become the climax of the day, because the composers had the confidence to abandon their ego about their creations immediately. The adaption considerations for multiple skill levels began right away, so this open-source gift of composition could be given to anyone and everyone, furthering the tenet of inclusivity.


As we rush around in our busy lives inundated by media, trying to be the best and the brightest, sometimes the best lesson is just to stop and observe.
Don’t just listen to taiko leaders experience but see how their words and actions affect the community. Practice conscious observation, not just in taiko workshops but in life. Honor both your spirit and your community. Honor is a gift you give yourself.

As lion dancer Nosuke Akiyama has said, in a global economy, the terminus of the Silk Road is no longer Asia, because the vibrancy of creative innovation fuels both economic and artistic expansion. Okay, those of you who know Akiyama-san know I am paraphrasing, but what Taiko Voices has learned so far is this: taiko is no longer only the heartbeat of Japan.

Photograph by Lisa Duncan Photography.