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Dum-da-dum, dum-da-dum. The bachi, or drumsticks, arc upwards, with the arms swirling in a precise, graceful motion, landing on the taiko drum in unison. Each performer keeps beat flawlessly, and the collective rhythm starts to pulsate within the room. The taiko drums are placed in rows, with the small, high-pitched shime-daiko, the medium-sized chu-daiko, and the cylindrical okedo drums combining to beat out rhythmic patterns. I am watching the San Jose Taiko Company rehearse for its upcoming spring concert, Rhythm Spirit 2006, to be held in Campbell in April. The piece they are rehearsing celebrates San Jose’s historic Japantown.

Listening to taiko drums beat in unison connects one to ancient Japanese musical history, and the ways in which musical forms innovate throughout history. Percussion instruments were used in ancient societies, and taiko drumming was part of Japanese religious and imperial history, dating back 2,000 years. The imperial court and the samurai supported the art of taiko drumming. Instead of being confined to palaces and temples, taiko drumming was enjoyed by commoners too, as every harvest and festival was celebrated by dancing to the beat of a taiko drum.

In spite of its ancient history, taiko drumming changed dramatically about 50 years ago, with the innovation of ensemble taiko drumming. In the 1950s, Daihachi Oguchi, a jazz drummer in Japan, was asked to interpret an antiquated musical piece for the Osuwa shrine in Japan. The piece was written in an ancient Japanese notation, and an old musician helped him understand the percussive combinations. As he played the rhythm, he wondered how it would sound if a band of musicians interpreted the same rhythmic combination. He established a group that played taiko drums as an ensemble, and this innovation came to be known as kumi-daiko.

Today, over 200 taiko ensembles in the United States pursue this art form. Each group has seven to 12 members on stage playing taiko drums of different sizes, in different rhythmic and melodic patterns.

Even though it is presented as a performance art, taiko draws from several Japanese cultural and religious traditions.

“Taiko is not a performance art alone,” says artistic director P.J. Hirabayashi. “We try to attain the highest principles in Buddhist religious training by overcoming the ego. To do this, a player needs to have the right attitude and show respect towards his teacher, and his fellow learners. He or she needs to develop kata, or form, that is evident in the strong low stance and the powerful, fluid movements of the upper body. Musical and percussive technique to achieve perfect timing and tonal quality needs to be learned. We also incorporate martial arts and training in meditative techniques to train the body and the mind to perform at its best.

“Ki is the spiritual unity of the body and the mind and the end goal of all performers,” she says. “If the performer achieves this on stage, then all barriers are broken between the audience members and the performers, uniting them in the moment.” Indian artists use the word rasa to describe this oneness felt between the audience and the performers. When ki is felt, “we have audience members telling us that they were moved to tears,” says Hirabayashi.

Her husband, Roy Hirabayashi, managing director of San Jose Taiko recounts how they started the company. “Growing up in America, I listened to jazz, soul, and rock music, but nothing that was rooted in my cultural history. Then, at the Buddhist church, we heard taiko drumming and slowly became involved in popularizing it.”

This third-generation Japanese American (Sansei) couple started San Jose Taiko in 1973 “as a way to assert ourselves through our cultural and historical moorings,” says Roy Hirabayashi. “I feel happy that taiko has helped young Asian Americans develop a clear sense of cultural identity. We have also tried to incorporate modern sounds from African, Balinese, Brazilian, Latin, and jazz percussion. The resulting sound is contemporary, while still striking a resonant chord with the Asian soul in America.”

As I turn to look, a tableau of performers is depicting a village scene, where onlookers take sides in a contest between two rival drummers. And, amidst laughter and the sound of clapping, the sound of the drums rises again … dum-da-dum, dum-da-dum. When I leave the studio, the sonorous rhythm stays with me, and I step on the curb to the lively beat of dum-da-dum, dum-da-dum.

Rhythm Spirit 2006. Campbell Heritage Theater, 1 W. Campbell Ave., Campbell. Friday, April 21, 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 22, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. $25 general, $20 students/seniors. (408) 866-2700.

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is an Indian classical dancer, choreographer, and teacher, who writes about the arts.

Nirupama V.

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is a writer, dancer and choreographer. She was the former editor of India Currents magazine.