wynn kiyama

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.

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