BY PAUL MORI
No Japanese American festival celebration today would be complete without the sound of the drums known as “Taiko.” But it wasn’t always this way. In the early 1970s there were only three performing taiko ensembles in America – San Francisco Taiko Dojo, Kinnara Taiko in Los Angeles, and San Jose Taiko. Thirty years later, the plethora of Taiko groups is practically countless. How did this happen? The Japanese American National Museum answers this question in “Big Drum: Taiko in the United States,” a special exhibition which chronicles and celebrates the evolution of this uniquely American experience.
The many dimensions of the American Taiko experience are presented through an array of items, photographs, and multi-media. No less than a half dozen flat wide screen video monitors and a number other small ones, help tell the story through a myriad of interviews, performances, and location filming. Although high tech, this is a warmly told human story of how Sansei generation found their voice in the community through the sound of the Taiko.
Japanese culture, once scorned because of the wartime persecution, was given new life when the Sansei generation sought out the roots of their parents and grandparents. The social activism of civil rights and related movements of the 1960s and 1970s fostered a newfound pride in things Japanese, and also in things Japanese American. The uncovering of the story of the Japanese American Internment and the subsequent Redress movement were a part of this renewal. But it was the infectious heart beat of the Taiko that brought passion to the pride. Interest and participation grew, as Taiko climbed to the heights of popularity well known today.
Although rooted in the Japanese festivals, American Taiko evolved on a separate branch. Fueled by necessity and nurtured by American ingenuity, Taiko in American has come into its own. This creative energy is concretely seen in the innovative ways American Taiko drum makers fashioned drums in new designs and methods, from improvised materials, such as wine and nail barrels. In one of the show’s centerpiece displays, a drum making jig made from bright yellow hydraulic car jacks tells its own story, while a video monitor tells the story of Japanese American innovations with first person accounts.
Other museum displays chronicle the American Taiko early beginnings, as told by the very performers who founded the movement. This well-told story takes the visitor up to the present, where Taiko has become not only a Japanese American phenomenon, but also an American one of multi-cultural dimensions. Three years in the making, this represents in spirit and presentation one of best exhibition yet from the Japanese American National Museum. Curator Sojin Kim and the large collaborative effort of the museums departments earn well-deserved kudos. Many in the Taiko community also lent their expertise, including Seattle Kokon Taiko’s Stan Shikuma .
The rather compact space of the first floor unfolds naturally with countless artifacts of historic festival posters, photographs, Taiko’ t-shirts, drumsticks, tools, and of course, Taiko drums. Not an inch is wasted, but the display is clean without clutter, is as logical as it is organized. Visitors are first greeted with a large “yagura” (wooden staging platform for festivals) and a color photographic mural of Seattle’s Obon Odori from 1978. This anteroom introduces the Issei and Nisei musical story.
Once within the formal exhibit, other photographic large murals seamlessly merge into tangible artifacts, expanding the confines by creating illusions of space, first mimicking Kokoro Taiko’s storage room, and then Victor Fukuhara’s taiko craft shop. The curved wall partitions nicely echo the shape of the drum, and warmly draw the visitor through the exhibit. The sights and sounds from the artifacts, video displays, and photographs together succeed in not only telling the story or American Taiko, but also in conjuring up the true passion that is Taiko.
The adjoining theater features a continual video presentation of various Taiko performances. Children will find joy in the hands-on displays, drums, as well in the Sony Playstation Taiko game in the exhibition’s last room. Child or adult, taiko performer or listener, all will find their time well spent in “Big Drum.”
The Japanese American National Museum will hold its annual “Oshogatsu: New Year Family Day Festival” and close its popular exhibition, “Big Drum: Taiko in the United States” on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2006. The festival’s activities run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and admission. Free.
The new DVD, “Big Drum: Taiko in the United States,” is now available for sale through the award-winning Japanese American National Museum Store. This DVD was specifically created for the National Museum’s landmark exhibition, “Big Drum: Taiko in the United States.” The DVD contains rare historic footage as well as new documentaries featuring performances and interviews with key figures in the development of group taiko (Japanese for “big drum” or “fat drum”) performance in America. The DVD is available for purchase for $19.95 through the Museum Store (www.janmstore.com). For more information, call the Japanese American National Museum at (213) 625-0414, or visit the web site at www.janm.org.