The wind from the impact of wood against leather blows against the first three rows of the audience. Twelve figures stand stoic on stage, dressed in happi coats cinched by a red sash around their waist. The atmosphere surrounding the performers is tense, as each drummer grips a stick in each hand, poised to strike. It’s hard to believe such force could be emanated by these elegant and precise movements. Chanting mingles with low and high pitched, fast and slow, light and powerful drumming, until, with the final meeting of bachi (drum stick) and taiko (drum), the crowd roars. The 12 performers, smiling ear to ear, bow and leave the stage to prepare for their next performance.
This is taiko drumming, an ancient Japanese art that can be traced back centuries. Initially, taiko (Japanese for “drum”) was used for military purposes, but it then evolved into an instrument that was regarded as sacred by Buddhist and Shinto religions. After the first showcase of taiko being used as ensemble instruments by Daihachi Oguchi in 1951, a resurgence of taiko drumming culture took place in Japan, and has since spread to the United States.
Zenshin Daiko is a nonprofit organization that is committed to teaching the art of taiko to the Maui community. They build their own taiko from used wine barrels and even help other taiko groups fix broken drums. Along with taiko drumming, members also learn about Japanese culture and values like discipline, respect, and perseverance.
“The children learn much more than taiko at Zenshin Daiko,” said director and co-founder Anthony Jones. “In fact, I tell people that ZD is not a children’s taiko group. ZD is a children’s group that plays taiko. The emphasis is on the children – not taiko.”
“Taiko allows [children] to be creative and explore the inner artist within you,” added one student.
In performances, every child has a chance to showcase a short solo sequence. Advanced students can develop their own compositions.
When she was in the seventh grade, Zenshin Daiko member Sidney Tanaka composed her own song called “Friendship” along with her cousin Peytynn Kubo. The song was created during school recess while the two sat at a cafeteria table and bounced drum patterns off each other. They didn’t think much of it at the time, but after sharing “Friendship” with Zenshin Daiko’s teachers, they were able to perform it at their annual concert.
“Overall, it was just for fun and to share the creativity that us two cousins share,” Tanaka said. This year, for Zenshin Daiko’s 20th anniversary performance, Tanaka is co-composing a song called “Keanae” with Kubo and another Daiko member. The group will also debut “Phoenix Rising,” composed by student Teisha Nishimitsu.
“Normally, we invite a taiko group to be our guest and ZD performs in one half and our guest performs in the other half,” said Jones. “However, this year we really wanted to feature songs that ZD members have composed over the years. So instead of inviting a guest group, we have invited guest artists. We are honored to present PJ and Roy Hirabayashi, founders of San Jose Taiko who celebrated their 45th anniversary last year. PJ and Roy have been friends with Zenshin Daiko from the very beginning and are considered pioneers in North American taiko. We also have Eien Hunter-Ishikawa who is a professional musician and composer who has studied taiko in Japan.”
“I joined at first to play with my family and connect to my culture,” said Kubo, who’s been in Zenshin Daiko with her two sisters since she was 6 years old. “I continue to do taiko because it’s fun and engaging.”
Whatever their individual reasons, watching the group perform makes one thing clear: Their bond is as strong as the leather that binds the drums they play.
Since 1999, Zenshin Daiko has performed at over 1,000 cultural and community events. They perform all over Maui, sometimes traveling off island and to the mainland.
Zenshin Daiko will celebrate their 20th anniversary at their annual concert on Sat., Jun. 22 at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center.
Images courtesy Zenshin Daiko