Taiko Drums Make Students Dance

Performers from the Taiko Center of Los Angeles visited Santa Monica College at its Corsair Field on Thursday, May 3 to play a form of Japanese drumming. The event was organized by the Japanese Student Association on campus, and their president, Cassandra Amzallag.

Taiko, which means “large drum” in Japanese, started out in Buddhist temples. Rob Friedrich, one of three performers that came, explained to the audience that the drumming started out as a way to keep time, but became an activity in and of itself over the years. After its popularity exploded in the 1970s, it has led to roughly 3000 Taiko groups in the United States, with about 300 around Los Angeles.

Amzallag, having visited Japan several times, wanted to bring Taiko back to campus after watching the Taiko Center play in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.

“I thought it’s a good way to bring a type of Japanese culture that people don’t normally know about because they normally know about samurai, ninja, sushi, things like that,” Amzallag said.

The drums are made out of natural materials, such as wood and cowhide, and the songs draw influence from nature. After playing several songs, they stopped to allow audience members to get behind one of several differently sized drums and taught the students how to play. The melodies are simple; for Taiko musicians, the songs do not follow written sheet music but are performed based on memorization of the beats.

Shih-Wei Wu has been playing with the Taiko Center for about ten years and liked being able to come out and share the fact that this art form can be expressed easily. “Compared to another drumming, ours is pretty athletic and also based upon martial arts,” Wu said. “It’s almost like drumming and dancing at the same time, which a lot of other drumming is not emphasized the same way as it is with Taiko.”

The three performers Friedrich, Lu, and Lili Miura that came to the college have been practicing Taiko for several years as a hobby, but have performed at locations such as the Hollywood Bowl. Friedrich learned about Taiko about 30 years ago from following the sound of drums and has been involved since then. 

“Most people, when they hear about drumming, they think about the kit drummer in a rock band or something,” Friedrich said. “We don’t have a kit of four, five, six drums around us, the tonality comes from the individual members playing individual drums that meld together.”

Students such as Nick Mancini got up in front and learned to play Taiko. “I didn’t know anything about it, so them coming out and sharing a little bit about their culture was really nice, it was very beautiful,” Mancini said.

Yutaka Akiyama, an international student from Japan, came up and played one of the drums. “I love the sound of Taiko, we always hear these when we’re young and so I could recall my memory of being a child,” Akiyama said. “It was interesting to see non-Japanese people playing Taiko and it’s a great cultural exchange.”

With over 30 students coming out to watch, students like Mancini were able to learn a little bit more of the culture within Japan, which was what the club had set out to do.