Booming beats of taiko embrace Japanese tradition

Japan 2020

Since 1994, Portland Taiko educates about Japanese and Asian American culture

PORTLAND, Ore (KOIN) — Since 500 AD, the booming beats of taiko have been a Japanese tradition used by the military, for communication, entertainment and, more recently, social movements.

Taiko means drum in Japanese. The musical group Portland Taiko has been around since 1994 and they’ve been educating others about Japanese and Asian American culture.

“It’s the drumbeat, it’s the pulse that attracts people and I think brings everyone together because we all have a heart beat. We all feel that pulse,” said Portland Taiko Executive Director Wynn Kiyama.

The energy, the beats, the movements, the loudness all grab your attention.

“Taiko is a Japanese drumming tradition that blends music and movement and for Portland Taiko we combine that with an Asian American sense of identity, creativity and empowerment,” Kiyama said.

In many cultures the drum is the earliest musical instrument besides the voice. Takio started as a drumming phenomenon in the 1950s.

“And now,” Kiyama said, “you’ll find taiko groups all across the world.”

Portland Taiko has performed throughout the Pacific Northwest, sharing their music and their passion in more than 1500 performances.

But like many things, they moved online during the pandemic. And they practiced using tires.

“Taiko is kind of like an exercise and a performing art form together,” said Meredith Chan, the artistic leader and performance coordinator for Portland Taiko.

“We worked on building tire taiko so they are not as loud, so we keep the neighbors happy here,” Chan said. “They are not exactly like real taiko but they do give kind of the same feel and they have the deep sound.”

They were finally able to leave Zoom rehearsals and play together again.

“Taiko has given us a vehicle to have a voice and in a way to protest and bring everyone together,” she said.

They came back together in March to perform at a Stop Asian Hate rally following the murders of 6 Asian women in Atlanta.

“We hadn’t met in person for, gosh, a year. So we were asked to perform at one of those rallies,” she said. “The group thought it was really important for us to be there to perform for the Asian American community.”

This art form is intrinsic to not just the Asian American community but for those who stop to listen.

“I want them to feel inspired. I want them to feel empowered.”

“As you can tell taiko is infectious not only to performers but hopefully for the audience members as well,”Kiyama said. “It’s a visceral experience and for Asian Americans it’s creating that loud noise in a big presence that is important for us.”

Portland Taiko will have performances in July and throughout the summer.

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