by Will Newman
August 4, 2009
If someone watching this year's ShastaYama Taiko Festival thought they were only seeing an outstanding display of the art of taiko, they would have been mistaken.
This Festival was far more than a drumming performance. It was both an expression of cultural identity and a melding of cultural and musical styles. And most significantly, it expressed the universality of music as a tool for education and inspiration.
Certainly, this event brought together three renowned West Coast taiko groups. The quality of the performances by Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka and San Francisco Taiko Dojo, Jun Daiko, and host Shasta Taiko entertained and moved over 1,000 people who gathered outdoors in the shadow of Mount Shasta.
|Shasta Taiko Matsuri||Photo: Gary Ono|
The evening began with a very short set by Shasta Taiko, led by Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer. The first two pieces - "Shasta Taiko Matsuri" and "Flight" - were very traditional in drumming style. They were also very typical of this troupe's highly energetic and active approach to taiko staging.
Shasta Taiko's third presentation reprised the very successful audience participation from last year's ShastaYama performance. For "ShastaYama Odori" dancers and taiko performers Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe instructed the audience on a dance choreographed by them.
|ShastaYama Odori||Photo: Gary Ono|
This dance and the audience participation clearly demonstrated how this festival has become a vehicle for both cultural expression and inspiration. After the intial instruction, audience members were invited to come to the front of the stage and dance. This ethnically and culturally diverse group included people of all ages, from three and four year olds to people in their eighties and beyond.
Asking for group participation in an event such as ShastaYama can be a tricky affair. the performers never know how well received their request will be. But in this case, the rquest was not only well received, it provided a standard for involvement throughout the rest of the program.
The audience members were no longer passive viewers of the performances. They were actively and personally engaged with the offerings of all three performing groups. The adults expressed their involvement through facial expressions and subtle, rhythmic body movements.
Children were less restrained in their involvement. Quite a few could be seen drumming silently in the air. And one 5-year old drummed on the ground with light-up drumsticks or on his mother's back with his hands. A few youngsters danced to the taiko performances.
This aspect of ShastaYama typifies Baba's and Mercer's commitment to educating people of all ages about the beauty of taiko and its Japanese cultural context and heritage.
Jun Daiko performed the second set of the evening. This Mountain View, California taiko group formed from friendships developed through drumming with Kenny Endo, Stanford Taiko, Zenshin Daiko, and Kona Daifukuji.
|Jun Daiko||Photo: Sarah Diaz|
Most of Jun Daiko's pieces were composed by Jun Daiko members, demonstrating both the enthusiasm and skill they bring to their performances. While all the pieces rang strongly of traditional taiko, several - such as "Inferno" by David Ishimaru - incorporated jazz and blues rhythms.
|Jun Daiko||Photo: Sarah Diaz|
Jun Daiko's appearance marks the first time this young, emerging group of taiko artists has performed at ShastaYama. Baba explained why he and Mercer were excited by Jun Daiko's appearance. "They are a new taiko group of outstanding players. A part of Shasta Taiko's vision is to encourage and present emerging artists at ShastaYama."
|Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka||Photo: Sarah Diaz|
Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka's appearance with San Francisco Taiko Dojo marks the return of the master to ShastaYama. Tanaka has been recognized by both the Japanese and US governments for his efforts in promoting the traditional art of taiko and expanding cultural awareness and understanding.
"Tanaka Sensei is the central figure and the most influential individual in the development of traditional and modern taiko in America," Baba explained. "He was deeply moved by Mount Shasta's presence the last time he performed at ShastaYama. We are honored again to present our teacher and San Francisco Taiko Dojo."
|San Francisco Taiko Dojo||Photo: Gary Ono|
San Francisco Taiko Dojo always presents a stunning and powerful performance. Whether executing intricate, rhythmic movements among their drums or performing seated on the stage as if they were in traditional Japanese floats, the group excited the audience with every number they performed.
Seiichi Tanaka provided the focus for the troupe's performance - sometimes performing masterful, energetic movements while drumming, or standing quietly, tapping out rhythms on traditional Japanese bell-like percussion instruments.
|San Francisco Taiko Dojo||Photo: Tom Pava|
San Francisco Taiko Dojo's set ended with their signiture piece "Tsunami" by Grand Master Tanaka. This piece builds in intensity like a real tsunami, gaining power and impact as it brings together every drum on stage. This piece is always a crowd pleaser and received a loud, sustained ovation when it came to a thundering conclulsion.
The final full set of the evening was performed by Shasta Taiko who were joined by dancers Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe and taiko artist Masato Baba - Russel and Jeanne's son.
|Michelle Fujii & Toru Watanabe||Photo: Gary Ono|
If the performances of Jun Daiko and San Francisco Taiko Dojo were touched by cross-cultural influences, this last full set by Shasta Taiko was awash in them.
Baba and Mercer have always shown both vision and courage in stirring non-traditional and traditional music into the taiko mix. This last set however, went far beyond simple mixing. It pulled together jazz, blues, and traditional taiko with Australian aboriginal didgeridoo performed by Masato Baba.
|Russel Baba & Masato Baba||Photo: Gary Ono|
During several pieces of this set, Russel played blues and jazz saxophone. This was no ordinary fusion of cultures. What we saw that eveining was Shasta Taiko's vision of a new, exciting form of music that incorporates and transcends all the many cultural influences that have gone into making it.
Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer began Shasta Taiko 24 years ago but not as a typical taiko group. "We were looking for a place to raise our son, Masato," Jeanne said. "With master taiko maker Mark Miyoshi's help, we made our first taiko and formed a family group with friends and their children.
|Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka & Masato Baba||Photo: Tom Pava|
"We realized that taiko was a gift to be shared with our community. So with grants from the California Arts Council and support from the Mount Shasta Recreation District, we opended classes to the public."
Since those first days 24 years ago, Shasta Taiko has grown and expanded its mission and influence. That expansion and the impact it has had on the rural communities of southern Siskiyou County were amply demonstrated when almost all the audience stayed for the evening's finale "Yorokobi" in spite of an impending lightning storm.
|Yorokobi - ShastaYama Finale||Photo: Gary Ono|
The final number brought together all the performers on one stage. The power and intensity of the music crowded out the thunder that sounded almost continuously during the 10-minute performance.
With lightning flashing on all four sides, the performers demonstrated their commitment not just to the music but to everyone who had come to share in this truly unique musical and cultural expression.