In 2014, Katari Taiko, Canada’s first modern Japanese drumming ensemble, will celebrate its thirty-fifth anniversary. Over the past three and a half decades, KT has gone through many changes, but has always remained committed to bringing Japanese and Japanese-Canadian culture to the broader populace, to supporting community initiatives and progressive causes, and to finding a balance between tradition and innovation. What follows is a brief history of KT, including memories from former and current ensemble members.
The Beginning: 1979 – 1981
KT’s history story begins in the late 1970s, and has a lot to do with the development of the Powell Street Festival, a community festival that brings Japanese and Japanese-Canadian cultural traditions back to the old nihonmachi or “Japan-Town” on the Downtown East Side. The Japanese taiko group Ondekoza played at Powell Street in 1978, and the next year, San Jose Taiko played at the festival. Connie Kadota recalled that the San Jose performance in particular was “a real catalyst along with the fact that most, if not all of them were sansei [third-generation Japanese-Canadian] and mainly women.” Like the women and men founding other taiko ensembles in Canada and the US, the collection of individuals that became KT were also inspired by the social movements and liberation struggles of women, people of colour, gays and lesbians, and others. According to former member Lucy Komori, “a lot of the early North American taiko groups, started playing as an extension of their political work in the Yellow Power Movement (yes, there was such a thing). Racist policies of Canada forced separation, dispersal, and assimilation. Forming a group of all Asian members to play an ancestral music was not only culturally, but also politically, daring in the racist climate of North America.” And although taiko has its origins in Japan, from the very beginning KT has had non-Nikkei [Japanese descent] members. As Chinese-Canadian member Paul Yee put it, “taiko was an opportunity to reclaim visibility. All my life, I knew I had an Asian face. Most of the time, I had wanted to hide it, deny I looked different. But here, suddenly, my Asian face let me fit into a group that was Japanese, not Chinese, a group that wielded tremendous power through music.”
And so in late 1979, with a borrowed taiko and lots of old tires, KT began to learn to drum, first at the Buddhist Church in Steveston, a community with its own rich Nikkei heritage, and later at the Strathcona Community Centre in Chinatown. In the winter of that year, we invited Seiichi Tanaka of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo to give us a workshop. The only taiko sensei (teacher) in North America, and often credited with introducing the art form to the US and Canada, Tanaka-sensei stayed a week, teaching us the basic technical skills as well as some of the history and philosophy of taiko. Rick Shiomi remembered it this way: “There were some memorable moments, such as all of us at Strathcona Community Centre doing our ich nis for what seemed forever, while Tanaka-sensei went out for a walk. And of course, there was the infamous time when Tanaka-sensei made us go to hell and back again to get the last beat of one song together. I remember his disdain burning us like a torch and turning soft ore into steel. As Tanaka-sensei always said, no pain, no gain.”
Tanaka-sensei’s generosity and fierceness set us on the path, and we continued by learning new skills on our own, developing a KT style, and building a tradition of discipline and commitment. It wasn’t always easy; many members didn’t exactly know that what they were getting into. Joyce Chong remembers that “it was never like, ‘this is what you’re committed to,’ ‘this is what you’re gonna be doing.’ It’s like going along, going along, and it was all kind of a surprise.” And of course, actually coming up with drums was a huge issue. Jan Woo described the process: “Building your own means using barrels. Thirty years ago that meant Sweeney Cooperage under the Granville Street Bridge. Buy a bunch of barrels. They were about $20 to $25 each, so how many in a ‘bunch’ depended more on your enthusiasm and naïveté than it did on your wallet. Buy a bunch of skins…. Buy some Japanese taiko drum tacks – plan ahead as they take about six months to get here. Get some furniture tacks: cheap and easy. Of course after a year or two you discover that furniture tacks are made of two pieces (the head and the shaft) and the vibration of drumming will eventually loosen these pieces and cause them to turn into a rattle. Tacky.” Add to that drum stands, drum cases, percussion instruments, costumes, and everything else, and Jan points out, “believe me that we say this with pride: we build our own.”
As the group (and its instruments) took shape, we adopted the name Katari Taiko, which means “talking drums” in Japanese. And less than two years after we first came together, in the spring of 1981, KT gave our first public performance in – of all places – Faro, Yukon.
Making a Commotion: The 1980s and 1990s
As word got out that Vancouver now had its own taiko ensemble, KT found many opportunities to perform. In 1982 alone, we played at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and the Eardrum Festival locally, and the Winnipeg Folklorama further afield; we also held our first public workshop that year, and some members even were able to tour Japan, including a visit to Sado-e, the island home of Kodo, perhaps the world’s best-known taiko ensemble.
In the years that followed, the KT’s membership changed as people came and went (and sometimes came back), but we developed a tradition of performing at events that expressed our commitment to community causes and progressive politics. Some of these events focused on Nikkei issues. One early concert in 1984, for example, was a benefit for the Japanese-Canadian volunteer association Tonari Gumi, and we collaborated with Kokoro Dance in 1986 on a performance in Ottawa that was a commentary on the (eventually) successful movement seeking redress for those who were sent to internment camps during the Second World War. But we have also played benefits for First Nations land claims, performed in a women’s prison, participated in rallies for peace in the Middle East and against APEC, and held a show in support of the Ainu, the Indigenous people of Japan. And then there were all the school shows – in both BC and Washington State – where we introduced a new generation to taiko, and the various community festivals: Dragon Boat Festivals, the Vancouver International Children’s Festival, and of course the Powell Street Festival. Other performances took us further afield, whether to the interior of BC, almost every province in Canada, and even the wilds of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Somewhere along the way, KT started to act like a “real” musical group. We hired a manager, the indefatigable Diane Kadota. (A famous Diane-ism: “Blessed are those who write their names on their receipts. More blessed are those who write what they are for.”) In 1994, we recorded our first CD, Commotion, made of pieces composed and arranged by KT members. (Yes, Commotion is still available. Contact us to buy it, and to find about a more recent CD we put together with other local musicians, called Itadakimasu.) Perhaps one of the biggest challenges – and joys – of life in KT has been our big anniversary concerts, and member Atsuko Yamashita described what life was like during the (dare we say it) commotion of the CD-and-big-concert era: “It was a long, winding road to the [15th anniversary] concert, especially for the new inexperienced members…. It was my first experience to be in a performance of this scale. Combined with the releasing of a CD, it made me feel like a geihonjin, which is a term used to describe movie stars and singers in Japan.”
As we had in the beginning, we sought out new skills and perspectives. We continued to learn from other musicians – including, most notably, visiting members from Japan’s own Kodo – and collaborated with musicians from other cultural traditions such as Mexican performing artists in Querétaro, the Sts’a’iles First Nation dancers, and the Vietnamese duo Khac Chi. Eventually, KT also became one of the foundations for a number of other taiko groups in the Lower Mainland and the Sunshine Coast. Groups like the youth groups Chibi, Tera, and Tonbo Taiko, the women’s group Sawagi Taiko, Sansho Daiko, and the professional ensemble Uzume Taiko all have their origins in part in the history of KT. Today, there is a rich taiko scene in Vancouver, with each group having its own style and emphasis, which in turn enriches those of us who call KT our “home group.”
The Only Constant is Change: Into the 21st Century
Through all this, the KT roster has ebbed and flowed, from as few as four performing members to as many as twelve. Recruiting, especially through public classes and workshops, was key to keeping the group alive and bringing in new blood (or fresh meat, depending on your perspective). Reiko Tagami noted that that “the process bears an eerie resemblance to, say, Grade 8 girls’ volleyball team tryouts: a roomful of complete strangers assemble because everyone wants to play, but no one is very good at anything yet. The room is a cacophony of stilted rhythm, errant elbows, and misdirected hits. The trainers wince audibly, wondering to themselves if this year’s ‘team’ will ever be playoff-ready.”
Increasingly, KT has welcomed members who are not of Nikkei, or even Asian, heritage. One of these was Naomi Taussig: “It was a dream of mine, to play taiko. A dream I never truly imagined I could actualize, since I am clearly not Asian. I am about as white and tall and visually ‘not Asian’ as a girl could be! And a Jewish girl to boot! Taiko still involves very deep feelings within me. Now however, it means so much more than ever before. Taiko means acceptance, enrichment, fulfillment – hard work and incredible reward. A willingness on the part of Katari Taiko to reach out and allow individuals to bridge their cultural gaps, and to bond as a unique community.” This reflects what has happened to taiko more generally across North America, as former KT board member Miki Maeba said around the time of our 20th anniversary concert: “Taiko has evolved into one of the mediums in which many communities (Asian Canadians, First Nations, peace alliances, gay and lesbian groups, and others) have come together.”
However, the roots of KT remain firmly planted in Japanese-Canadian and Asian Canadian experience. “A group, which on the surface, seems like a bunch of fun-loving, Chinese food-eating, potluck-hosting, group-meeting addicts,” said board member Les Murata, “is in fact an organization who contributed to a movement which helped raise awareness of the history and important issues of Asian Canadians, and continues to do so.” But KT is not simply about traditions of the past. Rather, it is a constantly changing and intensely creative hybrid. Former member Vivien Nishi perhaps said it best: “North American taiko … is hip, cool, unapologetic, and relevant to our own identity and contemporary life. It has a definite root. It may need some pruning, but it is truly a species of its own.”