Portland Taiko: Rebuilding community through music

The Portland percussion ensemble embraces diversity in its music and projects

At the end of Portland Taiko’s fall concert at Portland’s Catlin Gabel School, the performers strolled offstage and lined up outside the exits, smiling and thanking the departing audience members who’d just enjoyed a superb concert. The friendly farewells finished off an event that had a family feel throughout. The Portland-based Japanese percussion ensemble played the first half, and their guests, Los Angeles’s TaikoProject, the second.

The two groups collaborated on a couple of pieces involving a variety of traditional Japanese drums, with choreographed movement and playing that ranged from subtle interaction to powerful pounding. And as Portland Taiko Executive Director Wynn Kiyama, who’d just completed his first season as director, noted from the stage, the ensembles enjoy several connections: former Portland Taiko Artistic Director Michelle Fujii, for example, once played in TaikoProject, which also includes Kiyama’s brother.

Portland Taiko at its fall 2016 concert. Photo: Brian Sweeney.

The concert continued Portland Taiko’s resurgence after one of the most trying periods in its history. At the group’s annual summer 2014 concert in Washington Park before he joined, “I was impressed by their musicality,” Kiyama recalls, unaware that the group was in the midst of a difficult transition. Fujii and her husband, star dancer Toru Watanabe, left the group shortly before the concert. Under Fujii’s direction from 2006–14, the group had broadened its appeal and artistic focus to emphasize folk-dance movement and theatrical elements. In the wake of her departure, Portland Taiko’s direction seemed uncertain.

Since Kiyama assumed leadership last year, the group has welcomed back several former members, restored its annual benefit banquet, and embarked on a series of performances, like the collaboration with TaikoProject, that embrace both music and community. They were even wearing spiffy new costumes at the November concert. This week, the group performs at a Portland Japanese American cultural celebration and in a Portland concert with the venerable Japanese taiko ensemble Kodo.

Founded by a pair of taiko-playing violinists in 1994, Portland Taiko offers classes, workshops, and performances throughout the region. Its shows incorporate other instruments like violin and flute along with the many drums, presenting a broader range of music than most other taiko ensembles, here and in the homeland.

“Performers in Portland Taiko have a wide range of influences,” Kiyama explains, “so if you’re hearing African American or salsa rhythms in the music, that’s not an accident. It does the open-source, traditional festival music that most taiko groups do, but arranged so it sounds unique to Portland Taiko. The vast majority of the repertoire is not traditional works but is music written by the performers.”

Physicality And Community

Kiyama’s taiko connection began when he was growing up in San Jose, California, home of North America’s third-oldest taiko group. He saw the group perform at summer Obon festivals, part of the Japanese Buddhist custom of honoring the spirits of the ancestors, joining the group as a teenager. After years of enduring the physical and emotional challenges of repetitively practicing piano alone in dimly lit practice rooms, Kiyama was drawn to the community and physicality of taiko.

“It’s joyful in a very different way,” he explains. “You’re using your body, and it’s part of the performance, so you take care of your body. It felt really exhilarating and different from piano technique.”

Portland Taiko performed with TaikoProject. Photo: Brian Sweeney.

Taiko offered a sense of community with the other players—and a larger community. “I felt like I was connecting to my identity as a Japanese American,” Kiyama says. He joined New York’s Soh Daiko when he moved to New York University to study ethnomusicology. Not long after moving to Portland to teach at Portland State University, Kiyama helped Portland Taiko put together a benefit concert for victims of the 2011 tsunami and stayed in touch with the organization, finally taking over as executive director in August 2015. The genial Kiyama still performs with Portland Taiko, teaches taiko at PSU, and works on the school’s renowned Kabuki theater productions.

Theme and Variation

Portland Taiko’s fusion approach contrasts with Kodo, the traditional taiko ensemble from Japan that headlines their joint Feb. 1 concert at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Kodo’s Dadan production eschews singing, dancing, flutes, and even female performers, focusing exclusively on a variety of taiko drums attacked furiously by young male performers, all of whom live in Kodo Village on Japan’s Sado Island. To provide contrast, in Portland Taiko’s opening set, Kiyama explains, “we’re emphasizing more melodic material in our repertoire. We’re playing in the lobby, so it’s going to be more of a chamber music arrangement — we’re the amuse-bouche” to Kodo’s main course.

Wynn Kiyama.

On Jan. 29, Portland Taiko performs at the annual Mochitsuki Japanese New Year’s celebration created by Ann Ishimaru and Zack Semke in 1996, two years after they founded Portland Taiko. It also plans to perform in this year’s Rose Parade and in a fall 2017 event bringing together all the taiko groups in Portland, including Unit Souzou, the taiko/dance group Fujii created after leaving Portland Taiko. It’s even preparing for its 25th anniversary in 2019, which Kiyama envisions as 25 vignettes that include various-sized performances, media presentations, and storytelling, bringing back performers from throughout the group’s history.

These projects, like the collaboration with TaikoProject, share that communal nature that drew Kiyama to taiko in the first place. “We’re getting back to the core reason why we play together,” Kiyama says: “the physical joy of playing as an ensemble, the feeling of community.”

Portland Taiko performs at Mochitsuki Portland, Jan. 29 at Portland State University’s Smith Memorial Student Union, 1825 SW Broadway. Portland Taiko opens for Kodo Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, Portland. Call 503.228.1353 for tickets.

This story originally appeared in ArtsWatch’s partner publication, Artslandia

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