Thursday, April 5, 2012

Taiko Community (a rant)

The North American Taiko Community is an interesting one. We move forward by looking backwards. One could argue that we're not actually able to move forward because of this.

In the last couple of years there has been a big shift in interest towards the history and roots of taiko. More and more people seem to want to learn styles like Hachijo and Miyake, to learn from Japanese teachers, and get a feel for "traditional" rhythms/music/styles.

Even before that, there was a lot of energy spent into making sure the community knew how taiko started in North America, the pioneers, the groups, and all that was done to make it possible for us to do what we do now.

We've collectively turned our gaze back to the past and what's come before, and that action will shape the next generation of taiko groups and players. This in itself is neither a good nor bad thing in my opinion, I'm just stating my observations.

However, I feel that there is this feeling that people now have to "justify" their "authenticity", so as to combat those who question their right to play a certain song or style. This suspicion begets suspicion and then that sucks away the energy that could be spent encouraging and supporting the art within the community itself.

What if there was less focus on making sure every group that played Miyake learned it from an "approved" source? What if there was less worry where a group learned Yodan Uchi from? There will always be people who act as self-appointed Taiko Police, so do we as a community need to focus so much on it? I'll be there are some people are probably screaming "yes!" right now. Hmm.

It's never cool to play a song without proper credit - there's really no way around that. And there will always be groups who play songs that they didn't learn "properly", whatever that might mean. But how much energy do we want to spend on "fixing" it? The only way to do it effectively is to clamp down tight on what's out there now and spend a lot of effort keeping that up...but is that where our focus should go?

So we don't want people to copy styles without direct teaching and we come down on those who do. We have a very small amount of public domain songs available and those that are out there aren't always easy to play for some groups. We want taiko to grow as an art form but we tell people "you have to know what's come before" when so many people don't have access to resources or time to look backwards.

If you're an established group, you have luxuries many newer/smaller groups don't. I think that a lot of smaller groups, because they need the resources of the larger community, fall into line when it would be amazing to see them break away and be...subversive. Would people talk smack about them? Oh yes. But that happens in other arts ALL THE TIME. Why not taiko? The community offers support but it also limits us because of accepted norms and peer pressure. No one wants to be the black sheep!

I look at hip-hop and martial arts and there are similarities to taiko here. Both arts have history that students should learn about, like the importance of knowing key people or where where a style started out from. But in both arts, there are groups that break free from established organizations, regulations, and challenge what's established to find both creativity and new systems. They get flak, they face resistance, but sometime of they find ways to thrive and even take the art to another level.

This post started out as something else and turned into a bit of a rant, but I'm going to post it anyways. My goal isn't to stir up drama for the sake of drama, it's to make people think. To question. So there you go!


  1. I can definitely see where you're coming from.
    I guess, in one regard, there are people who want to have some sense of legitimacy that may take the place of accreditation (since it's not something we have in taiko.) A degree from Harvard, Yale, or Stanford endows a person with a fair amount of credibility in their chosen field. An autodidact, regardless of how intelligent he or she is, is unlikely to be hired for a position that calls for an MA. Even in hiring a tradeperson unknown to you, odds are you'd likely hire a ticketed professional over Joe Schmoe the handyman. As a martial artist I'm sure you can relate to having a preference to study karate with someone who has studied under Kanazawa Hirokazu as opposed to studying Joe Schmoe the unknown quantity (especially if he doesn't even know who Kanazawa-sensei is.)
    My taiko skills are limited by the lack of regular and ongoing instruction with a highly skilled instructor but I teach locally nonetheless. I do, however, encourage my teammates and interested students to take part in whatever workshops they can whether it's with Tiffany T., Art Lee, the KASA/Mix Tour to Sado, NATC, etc.

  2. I'm not sure I understand the 'rules'. What is a performance? A large theater with paid tickets, a school demonstration, friends getting together and playing in the park? Other forms of music in the US let amateur groups play their music if they don't pretend to be the author. Why the concern about style and accuracy. If you are the best player, audiences will want to see you and not an inexperienced beginner looking to learn. I want to learn more, but I can't find ways. I have to wait until my group leaders learn something new and teach it to us. My enthusiasm gets squashed by composers who won't share. Taiko purists may be the demise of their art form.

  3. People think of taiko as a cultural tradition, as something to be treated with great respect. They could think of it as a form of jazz instead -- more mutable and flexible. That wouldn't make it better or worse, but it's an option that seems more rarely explored.

  4. I'm honestly a little mixed on the issue. I feel that I should have respect for the culture behind it-- but honestly I don't care about that stuff at all. (Ironic because I learned from Ben Pachter, and he's getting a Ph.D in this stuff!)

    I'm glad that kumidaiko was created, because that means I get to have fun hitting drums and being active.
    Sure, you definitely have to cite songs if they're not yours, but honestly I am really more interested in composing pieces and figuring out awesome ways to use the drums and other instruments.

    And as the resident stand maker for the group I'm in, I get to take all those stands I see everyone else using and make my own--completely without an introduction on how to 'properly' use it. Do I care? Pssh! Where's the fun in that?

    So those are my thoughts. I use taiko very much an activity to simply have fun, and I'm not one to be bogged down by the history or details.