Watsonville Taiko breathes new life into ancient Japanese tradition
When Ikuyo Conant was growing up near Mount Fuji in Japan, she never imagined she would play the Taiko drums. Every summer, her family and neighbors used the instrument to celebrate the Obon, a festival which she compares to Christmas in terms of importance. But as a child and a female, the drums were forbidden to her.
“When I grew up, I wasn’t allowed to touch the Taiko,” says Conant. “It was a religious, sacred object."
A lot has changed since then. On Saturday, June 16, Conant will perform five pieces—which she wrote and arranged—with Watsonville Taiko at the Japanese Cultural Fair in Santa Cruz.
“Here in the U.S., 60 to 65 percent of (Taiko) drummers are women,” she estimates. “In Japan, most are men—but it’s changing.”
Conant came to Monterey Peninsula College in 1977 to study English. She eventually married, attended UC Santa Cruz, and settled down in town. But even then, she never intended to take up Taiko.
It wasn’t until Conant’s daughter asked for a Western drum set, that she considered the Japanese instrument as a more suitable (less noisy) substitute.
“I looked for an alternative and found a Taiko drum announcement at the Louden Nelson Center, and I signed her up for a Taiko class at Watsonville,” says Conant. “I wanted to give something of Japanese tradition to my daughter.”
Her daughter lasted only three months in the class, but when the group became in need of a teacher, Conant took on the job with pride. And she hasn’t looked back, serving as the group’s artistic director since 1992.
“Taiko represents many cultural elements, many different points of view—musical instruments, spiritual tools, meditation, singing, dance,” she explains.
According to Conant, Taiko has been a part of Japanese culture since the fifth century, and was used historically in battle. Japanese immigrants brought Taiko to America at the turn of the 20th century. And in 1968, Seiichi Tanaka opened the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, the first such school in the United States.
Watsonville Taiko practices Kumidaiko, a modern form of Taiko that is now prevalent in the U.S. and Japan. The group uses three types of drums: a flat drum, a slanted drum, and the “huge drum” or “Odaiko.”
For Taeko D’Andrea, Watsonville Taiko became an important outlet when she injured her knee while practicing and teaching Tae Kwon Do.
“That’s when I realized, Taiko is really like a martial art,” says D’Andrea. “I realized I could use the same form, and the same breathing. It’s like a grounding of your body—the whole awareness of the body is very similar”
She also compares Taiko to yoga, for its emphasis on breathing.
“Energy is like a wind inside of the body,” says D’Andrea. “Taiko is also the same way, I’m finding out.”
Both D’Andrea and Conant stress the need to utilize the energy of the entire body to strike the Taiko properly. “It’s not just hitting with your arm. You have to use the body,” explains Conant. “You really have to cultivate your body, which means you have to understand how the energy works in your body. We really have the form of martial arts—that energy starts from the center of the body.”
A drum incorrectly struck gives off an unpleasant resonance. When struck correctly, the vibration emanates from the “hara,” or the center of the body. D’Andrea and Conant describe a process of energy emanating from the body and transferring to the drum as it’s struck. The sound then transfers that energy to the listener, who becomes a part of the performance in consequence. It is a notion that D’Andrea never thought about, until she started drumming.
“I was not very spiritual in that way, being aware of the energy around you,” says D’Andrea. “But now I believe that (your) energy … totally affects other people.”
Watsonville Taiko will perform at 11:20 a.m. Saturday, June 16 at the Japanese Cultural Fair at Mission Plaza Park, 103 Emmet St., Santa Cruz. For more information, visit jcfsantacruz.org, or call 462-4589.
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