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Show Review 2008

ShastaYama Taiko Drums Lift Spirits

July 2008
Mount Shasta Herald
by Will Duggan


Between the deep rooted traditional Japanese Taiko drumming that began Saturday night's fourth annual ShastaYama Festival and the avant-garde world fusion mix that followed the intermission, there was a spellbinding jazz improvisation number by Ted Taforo and Russel Baba that would have caused the legendary saxophonist Coltrane to want to join in.

Distance Floating Photo: Gary Ono

"It was a great blend of musical and community energies," said Ron Kapp, who was visiting from Ashland. "Every year it's the same but different as it lifts our spirits. It's as solemn as it is joyous. Taiko drumming resonates throughout one's being. There's nothing else like it. If I had the time I would love to learn how to drum Taiko."

Approximately 1,000 people enjoyed the show at Mount Shasta's Shastice Park, which lies at the base of the mountain.

ShastaYama Odori (dance) Photo: Tom Pava

Rebecca Duff, a four year member of Shasta Taiko, was still beaming the day after the Saturday night performance.

"Prior to when we started to play it seems like there was an interval when I just knew that I was going to be on. And this time everyone was perfectly synchronized too, which makes it all the better." Duff said. "It's a gift to be able to be part of this group in Mount Shasta. The commitment and training required is worth it."

Rebecca Duff - Shasta Taiko Photo: Gary Ono

Duff played her flute and drummed during the first half of the show. She was also one of the three dancers during the improvisational jazz composition by Russel Baba called "Distance Floating."

Distance Floating - Shasta Taiko Photo: Gary Ono

"What Baba and Taforo did with their horns was beyond words. And the dancers with their futuristic headdress and subtle movements was grounded but otherworldly as if some form of levitation had taken hold," said Hank Longo of McCloud. "The syncopation between the two saxophones and the drums was incredible. The piece went on an on and on and still I wanted more. The great spirit of John Coltrane seemed to be present while they played."

ShastaYama Odori Photo: Tom Pava

The concert lasted well into the cool night and concluded with some edgy pieces that incorporated Taiko and a range of fusion elements by featured guest artists On Ensemble, which includes Masato Baba and Shoji Kameda, who both grew up in Mount Shasta as members of Shasta Taiko.

Credit was given to the sound crew which had to go above and beyond the normal call of staging such a terrific event after they had their equipment stolen the day before the concert.

The classy duo of Allison and Victor opened the concert along with hardworking gypsy band Kazango Jazz.

With a drumming finale that was truly grand the concert concluded as the guest artists of On Ensemble joined in with the Shasta Taiko drummers in a joyful piece called "Yorokobi," once again raising the earthly beat of the heart drum within us all unto the mountain and the heavens beyond.

Russel Baba, Kris Bergstrom Photo: Gary Ono

ShastaYama: New Directions for American Taiko in the Shadow of Mount Shasta

August 2008
by Will Newman

Mount Shasta, California - For the past three years, ShastaYama - Shasta Taiko's annual outdoor festival - has showcased the very top taiko (Japanese drumming) artists in the United States.

Performers of the stature of Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka, internationally renowned taiko drummer Kenny Endo, and the award-winning San Jose Taiko have performed under the stars at the foot of majestic Mount Shasta in Shastice Park.

Shasta Taiko founders Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer have presented performers of this caliber as part of their personal mission to bring cultural diversity and appreciation to the people of far northern California. And the have succeeded in this mission with the previous three ShastaYama festivals.

But that changed this year with the 4th Annual ShastaYama. This year's guest artist ON Ensemble signaled a maturing of both the focus of ShastaYama and a broadening of Shasta Taiko's mission.

Shoji Kameda, Masato Baba, Kris Bergstrom - On Ensemble Photo: Gary Ono

ON Ensemble is a group of four performers - Masato Baba, Kristofer Bergstrom, Shoji Kameda, and Kelvin Underwood - whose music is firmly rooted in taiko traditions. But from that traditional base, they have constructed a musical structure that combines hip-hop, electronics, jazz, turntable "scratching" and other non-traditional music into a blend that is both deeply and emotionally satisfying and musically challenging.

The music ON Ensemble performed that evening may not have been what many concertgoers expected. But it did not stray far from the group's lineage. Co-founder Masato Baba is Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer's son. He began studying taiko with his parents when he was 7-years old. He did so with his best friend Shoji Kameda - ON Ensemble's other co-founder.

Masato Baba, Shoji Kameda Photo: Tom Pava

Given Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer's love of traditional taiko as well as jazz and musical experimentation, it is hardly surprising that ON Ensemble's music should incorporate the varied influences it did. To understand how ON Ensemble arrived musically where they are now though, one need only have experienced the Shasta Taiko's performance during the first half of the show.

Rebecca Duff, Richard Berchett - Shasta Taiko Photo: Tom Pava

Shasta Taiko's performance opened with a very traditional work: "Shasta Taiko Matsuri" by Jeanne Mercer. It began with strong, but simple, heart-pounding rhythms that gradually evolved into more complex rhythmic structures. Accompanied by Shasta Taiko's typically disciplined choreography, "Matsuri" gave taiko traditionalists a good taste of what they had come for.

From this point on, however, Shasta Taiko moved progressively further away from tradition as is typical of Baba and Mercer's musical and drumming expression. For instance, Mercer's "Full Circle" began with Baba playing a Mexican clay flute that is a cross between ocarina and melodeon.

At first the instrument's sound - part melody, part rhythmic tatoo - stood in conflict with the more traditional taiko drumming. As the intensity of the piece built, the two opposing rhythms moved closer together. Midway through the work, they joined and continued in unison, having come full circle.

Jeanne Mercer, Shoji Kameda, Kelvin Underwood, Ethan Catlin Photo: Tom Pava

Baba played flute on a number of other pieces during the Shasta Taiko portion of the concert. His flute playing always seems to stand astride two worlds: modern and ancient, Japanese and western, traditional and experimental. His playing reflects who he is, his experiences with life and music, his love and passion for taiko, jazz, and musical experimentation.

Michelle Fujii Photo: Gary Ono

This love of musical inventiveness came forth with the final piece of Shasta Taiko's first half performance, "Distance Floating." This open composition emphasized improvisation for music, dance, solos, accompaniment, and for the entire troupe. Reminiscent of performances by John Coltrane or Pharaoh Sanders, the focal point of the work was an improvised saxophone duet - sometimes discordant, sometimess melodious - with Baba and Ted Taforo.

Distance Floating - Shasta Taiko Photo: Gary Ono

"Distance Floating" was undoubtedly not a typical performance by a traditional taiko troupe. But for all their grounding in tradition and hard-learned taiko performance standards, Shasta Taiko is not a traditional taiko group and refuses to be stuck in any easily defined performnace slot.

And Baba and Mercer's careful planning of the show made "Distance Floating" an apt introduction to what the audience would experience in the second half: ON Ensemble.

ON Ensemble's performance was much too complex, much too engrossing to analyze piece by piece. Their performance was a "close your eyes, let your mind become part of the music" type of experience.

Kelvin Underwood, Masato Baba - On Ensemble Photo: Gary Ono

The quartet combined traditional taiko drumming with western drum-set, bowed koto with turntable scratching, throat singing (by Kameda) with melodic western singing, and improvisation with a ease and smoothness of performance that seems to flow naturally but comes only after much work and practice together.

Kris Bergstrom - On Ensemble Photo: Tom Pava

The entire evening - performances by Shasta Taiko and ON Ensemble - bring to the front the singular lack of vocabulary for the type of music people experienced that night. It is tempting to rely on simplistic expressions like "fusion" to describe the interplay of music, sounds, cultures, and ideas that occurred.

But this was no simple fusion, no easy melting and reforming as that inadequate term implies. What happened at the foot of Mount Shasta that evening was far more that simple fusion.

Michelle Fujii, Shoji Kameda Photo: Tom Pava

Imagine the children born of the coupling of two people of vastly different ethnicities and cultures. These children are not fusions. At any time all and all times they exhibit characteristics of both parents, both cultures. They exhibit characteristics both blended together and entirely separate. They are one parent and the other parent and both parents and something uniquely themselves.

And so it is with the music played by ON Ensemble and - less obviously but just as much - by Shasta Taiko. But each group is not the offspring of just two parents of different cultures and experiences. Each is the offspring of a world of cultures and many millenia of experiences.

The result is exciting, entertaining, sometimes unpredictable, but always worthwhile.

What will the ShastaYama festival offer next year? Regardless of what it is, you can be assured that after this year's performance, it will be an event well worth experiencing for its uniqueness, innovation, and high-quality musicianship.