For the last 11 years, TaikoProject has been pushing the envelope of American taiko. (Photos provided by TaikoProject)

Rafu Staff Writer

Bryan Yamami will always remember when his group, TaikoProject, won the Tokyo International Taiko Contest in 2005. No American group had ever won first place before, and seven years later, not one has taken it since.

“We had worked ridiculously hard to learn and refine our set, and when we arrived at the contest we totally felt outclassed because we were just these random American kids wearing different T-shirts and sweatpants, and all the other taiko groups had matching, expensive-looking warm-ups,” says Yamami.

It’s not a difficult scene to imagine for any Japanese American who has been to Japan. As an island country much more culturally homogeneous than the United States, Japan gives off a collective, unspoken message that, no matter how Japanese you may feel or even look, no matter how well you may speak the language, a Japanese American will never quite be Japanese in the “ware ware” sense.

The message is not so much hostile as it is matter-of-fact. And applied to traditional Japanese arts, it explains why Yamami, TaikoProject’s founder and manager, decided to pursue taiko not in Japan, but in Los Angeles.

“I felt like American taiko drummers wouldn’t have to apologize for not being ‘authentic enough’ because we weren’t from Japan,” he says. For Yamami, taking first place at the Tokyo contest validated his decision to stay in the United States, playing taiko that is free to deviate from its traditional roots while at the same time acknowledging and honoring them.

“I really wanted to create a distinctively American taiko group,” he says. So in 2001, he started TaikoProject: [re]generation, a group whose long, unconventional name maps out Yamami’s expectations for the project.

“I envisioned [TaikoProject] as something where the top players from various groups could get together with other artists of a high caliber to create something really artistically exciting while remaining committed to their own taiko groups that they grew up in. So a ‘project’ seemed appropriate.”

As for the [re]generation, “It’s a play on words, meaning two things. First, it means ‘regeneration’ as in the renewing and rethinking of taiko as a new art form. Second, with the parentheses, it means ‘re: generation’ as in, ‘about this generation’… I wanted it to symbolize that the show tells the story of a new generation of taiko artists coming into their own.”

It’s easiest to see what makes TaikoProject unique in the performances that incorporate the old with the new, the traditional with the innovative and unconventional.

In a piece from a 2010 performance at the Torrance Arts and Cultural Center called “A Brief History”, performers beat solemnly at their drums as a bamboo flute plays a mournful melody. When the flute solo ends, the piece builds in intensity, performers letting out fierce groans and yips that sound nothing if not distinctively Japanese.

Then, around two minutes in, a new set of drummers leaps playfully onto the stage to join the group, and the beat changes, with rolls and rim shots, to one more befitting of an American drumline. But the longer the piece goes on, the more difficult it becomes to break the elements neatly into Japanese and American parts: in the end, it’s just its own joyful noise.

“I do feel we are doing something with taiko that no group has done before,” says Yamami.

TaikoProject brings thunderous beats and the traditional fundoshi (loincloths) to a new audience.

The list of examples he gives me goes on and on and includes blending taiko with video montages, beatboxing, koto, marimba, and klezmer-style clarinet. TaikoProject has performed on “The Voice,” at the Oscars and the Grammys, for Nike and Mitsubishi commercials, and with artists like Xzibit and Stevie Wonder.

But my favorite of their breakthroughs is, as Yamami puts it, “taking an odaiko/fundoshi performance and making it funny.” Combining a giant ceremonial drum, a pair of loincloths, a cheeky set of subtitles, and a lot of cheek-baring courage, the piece in question could almost be a bit on Saturday Night Live.

The irreverence seems like an American twist, but then I remember the crazy costumes and fearless physical humor of Japanese TV and again it becomes difficult, if not insulting, to break the performance into discrete cultural halves.

Then again, it’s the same with all of us as multicultural people as well. There’s nothing neat or easy about the way cultures come together. It turns out there’s no melting pot, only a wild meeting of sounds.

TaikoProject will be performing this Saturday, June 30, at 8 p.m. at the Ford Theatre in Hollywood. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

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