From Tradition to Innovation: ShastaYama 2011
By Will Newman
Change and evolution. Moving from the very traditional to embrace new visions and new ideas.
This has been the hallmark of Shasta Taiko from its inception 26 years ago. And nowhere could evolution be seen more clearly than in Shasta Taiko's premier event, ShastaYama 2011.
Taiko drumming is a form of Japanese artistic expression whose origins are lost in antiquity. As part of a culture that reverses tradition, taiko drumming often presents an "expected face." Things are done the way they have always been done because that is the way they are done. Such constancy is important for maintaining cultural identity regardless of the culture.
But art is as much about change as it is about tradition. What we call "classical western music" was frequently radical and challenging in its time. Thus so with the work of Shasta Taiko founding artists Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer. They have always demonstrated a strong commitment to maintaining taiko's traditional roots while at the same time expressing new and challenging musical ideas.
Over the last 7 years, Baba, Mercer, and producer Mario Rubino have used ShastaYama as the medium for that artistic exploration. This year's festival showcased three highly skilled and entertaining taiko groups -- Stanford Taiko, Portland Taiko, and Shasta Taiko -- of which shows similar commitment to tradition and innovation.
Stanford Taiko is a young, energetic, and passionate taiko group that is entirely student run. Their repertory in ShastaYama -- indeed their entire repertory -- consists of original compositions by its members.
Every piece they performed demonstrated individual and group talent. This is remarkable for an ensemble so young and one that has a regularly shifting group of members (due to graduation).
Stanford Taiko performed pieces with a more traditional flavor than most of those performed by the other two groups. This reflects a commitment to learning fundamental and advanced taiko drumming skills that will support innovative work later in these young stars' careers. But even in this more traditional flavor, the audience could sense modern overtones.
Two numbers in particular stand out in this regard. "Swing" was born of improvisation, exploring the voices of individual players. "Gai goku" (Foreign Country) celebrated Stanford Taiko members who are currently studying abroad. Both of these pieces showed the range and versatility of the troupe as well as their commitment to innovation within traditional structure.
Guest headliner Portland Taiko electrified the audience from the moment they began performing. They presented an exhilarating show filled with movement, melody, and rhythm, a show that openly and enthusiastically explored new and sometimes provocative areas for taiko.
For example, "News" was a stunning piece of work featuring paper, bamboo, and drums. It explored how our lives are constrained by passports, newspapers, maps, and artificial walls made by these pieces of paper. This piece showed that there is as much emotional power in the rustling of paper as in a powerfully struck drum.
Viewing "Slipping Though My Fingers" was like being caught in a nostalgic dream. Dissonant at times and beautifully lyrical at others, the performance and choreography of all the members of the troupe rendered a powerful image that emotionally stirred the audience.
Baba and Mercer faced a significant challenge in trying to bring taiko to a small, rural mountain community. When they founded Shasta Taiko, there were no taiko drummers in the area other than themselves. So they drew upon the minuscule population and trained their troupe started from the very basics.
That training has paid off over the years and continues to do so. Once again, Shasta Taiko put on a remarkable performance during ShastaYama 2011. They started the evening with "Shasta Taiko Matsuri," a very lively and traditionally oriented piece by Mercer. This piece is very much a call to bring the people to taiko and to engage the audience. And engage it did.
After this first piece, Baba introduced Lawson Inada, Oregon Poet Laureate. Inada performed "Something Grand" a poem celebrating the evening, the surroundings, and the people who had gathered that evening. He also performed two other times, once with Portland Taiko. This is the first time ShastaYama has featured a guest poet, and the reception Inada received indicates it will not be the last.
Shasta Taiko's next piece -- "Kokon" -- foretold the direction the group would take. This was a distinctive blend of traditional and new taiko. With Baba on flute, it starts traditionally but then morphs into a much more contemporary style.
"Full Circle" is Mercer's signature piece and an appropriate ending to Shasta Taiko's performance. A return to more traditional taiko with nuances of the modern, it expressed in Mercer's words, "the unity, balance, and cycles of life -- and the connection that all aspects of life have to one another."
The final piece of the evening, "Yorokobi," had all the performers meeting on stage in a grand drumming finale. Loud, active, passion-filled, and immensely entertaining, this piece is probably Shasta Taiko's fans' favorite. The piece not only showcased the skills of the many contributors to the evening, it was also emblematic of Baba and Mercer's willingness to share the spotlight with outstanding taiko performers.
Mario Rubino once again produced a professional event with high quality sound and staging. However, the environment is key to the success of this festival, and Rubino knows well enough to minimize staging that will detract from the beauty of Mount Shasta and surrounding Siskiyou Mountains.
The taiko performance were upstaged for a brief moment by a stunning cloud display, and that is why this festival is unique. The shear immensity of surroundings provides a perfect backdrop to the power and drive of taiko drumming or to the subtle rustling of paper streamers.
Shasta Taiko and ShastaYama 2011 wishes to thank all of the sponsors, supporters, family and friends, volunteers, the fantastic guest artists, and all who attended the festival at Mount Shasta's Shastice Park on July 30. Together, we all make ShastaYama very special. Even with the many local events happening that weekend, ShastaYama still drew over 1100 people. This fact alone bodes well for ShastaYama's future.
Every year, the response is "the best show yet!" It's hard to believe that ShastaYama keeps topping previous years, but it may be true. ShastaYama seems to be surfacing at the right time with the extraordinary development of taiko and related music. It's a very exciting time in the development of taiko world-wide, and ShastaYama is right there on this threshold and in some instances leading a way.
This year's show reached new levels in artistry, spirit, quality, variety, and depth. We all felt it - the audience, the crews, and the artists. The wonderful weather, dramatic clouds, Mount Shasta rising above, and the sunset over Mount Eddy and the Siskiyous heightened the experience for all. ShastaYama successfully combines nature and art, tying eco-tourism with cultural tourism to create something truly magiacal and memorable.
We also add a special thank you to Mario Rubino whose belief in us, in taiko and the arts has resulted in this beautiful festival. With Mario's support, we set a platform for the arts to bloom and a way to stimulate and inspire on all levels.
ShastaYama is a wonderful opportunity to establish a unique world-class event and an annual destination. Again, thank you!
Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer