Fat Drum

I was in Japan Town for dinner tonight and was reminded of the International Taiko Festival this weekend at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. I’m not going this year because I’m headed to Disneyland for Jessica’s birthday, but everybody else should go. Seriously. The shows are really spectacular on every level, breaking out everything short of pyrotechnics and lasers. In San Francisco, you’re lucky enough to have the top taiko dojo in North America right here, and you don’t even have to go to Berkeley to see them this year.

I’d forgotten the show was this weekend until I saw the book The Way of Taiko by Heidi Varian. It’s got some great photos of performances, as well as a history of taiko in Japan and the US, and an explanation of the different parts of the performances. It’s the kind of thing that would’ve been a perfect gift for me had I not already bought it myself.

The best line I’ve encountered so far is a quote that’s left unattributed:

It has been said of taiko that “rhythm and joy ride together on the end of a drumstick. Its closest cousin may be gospel singing.”

The introduction in the book goes on about “The Way of Taiko” and “The Spirit of Taiko,” and it’s hard for the cynical-minded (like me) not to roll our eyes at the suggestion that there’s as much a zen component of banging on a drum as there is to more obviously spiritual activities, such as serving tea or punching someone.

But even I can recognize that there’s something else going on at a taiko performance that’s more than just a drum corps. And the gospel analogy helps explain what it is — the taiko performers get so caught up in the spirit of it, and are encouraged by the vocalizations of the other performers (which I see in the book are called kiai and are the vocalization of chi energy), that you can see and feel it spread, and you can’t help but be caught up in it. The expression on the performers’ faces at the beginning of a show is one of concentration and discipline, and by the end when they’re doing the free-form piece called Tsunami, you can see it’s turned to one of power and joy. It’s not difficult to see the comparison to a gospel soloist belting out the end of a song with a huge chorus of happy, clapping people behind her.

The other reason I like the gospel analogy is because it suggests the multiculturalism that the SF Taiko Dojo seems to emphasize. And it’s not the weakened, meaningless concept that goes by “multiculturalism” these days — the kind of simple-minded, self-serving reverse-chauvinism borne from White Liberal Guilt. It’s true multiculturalism, a product of a Japanese folk art form growing inside San Francisco, forced to cohabitate along with dozens of other cultures fighting for dominance.

In his foreward to the book, Seiichi Tanaka says that one of the reasons he fought to bring taiko to the US is because he’s disappointed to see more of traditional Japanese culture being lost as that country becomes westernized. It’d be easy to interpret that as stereotypical Japanese xenophobia, at least it would if you’d never been to an SF Taiko Dojo performance. They are big on tradition, and always emphasize the clothing, music, theater, and folk legends of Japan, but are careful to present it along with reinventions and analogs in other cultures. One show began with a Native American drummer performing a blessing of the stage. Others have taiko groups that incorporate jazz, or electric guitars.

It’s not just some reactionary assertion that Japanese heritage must be preserved to the exclusion of all else, like the French insist that English words be expelled from their language. It’s an acknowledgement that true culture is a living thing (if you’ll excuse the Berkeley-speak). You can’t preserve the traditional culture of Japan, or anywhere, by treating it as something that’s in a museum that you have to pay attention to because it’s History and it’s Important. You can only preserve culture by showing people how it’s cool, how it’s relevant to them, and how it still exists; that’s how it spreads.

And as a result, you get situations like a painfully white southern boy who goes to Japanese restaurants to get comfort food (because katsu curry rice is closer to what I think of as southern food than anything else I’ve been able to find). And people who go to festivals where Asian drummers carrying on a tradition to honor bring forth animist spirits, are reminiscent of formerly African singers in Christian churches in America.

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