Jodaiko Plays the Cultch!
by Jacob Derksen
Jodaiko is an international ensemble of women drummers who have been performing annually in Vancouver since 2006. To be more concise they play taiko, Japanese drums, and do so very expertly. This year marks the troupe’s 25th anniversary, and it was a coup for Vancouver to have that honour.
A Google search reveals two groups named Jodaiko. One is a collegiate group, the other an all-woman ensemble of highly skilled professional or semi-professional players. The kanji for the collegiate group translates as “passionate drumming”; the other, while no less passionate, translates as “women drumming.” The Jodaiko we’re concerned with is headed by Tiffany Tamaribuchi who, in addition to being a winner of one of Japan’s most prestigious taiko contests, is recognized in the taiko community as one of the top teachers and performers in North America.
Taiko as a performance art dates back to 1951 when Daihachi Oguchi, a jazz drummer from Nagano prefecture, decided to introduce jazz elements to older Japanese rhythms. Other groups such as O-Edo Sukeroku, likely independent of Oguchi, developed later in the 1950s, but quite possibly the most influential group was Ondekoza. Ondekoza (or more correctly, Za Ondekoza) formed on Sado Island in 1969 under the leadership of Den Tagayasu. They sought a simple lifestyle rooted in the revival and preservation of traditional Japanese performing arts but quickly developed into a drum-focused ensemble. A rift between the very demanding Tagayasu formed in the group in the early 1980s, but by the mid-1980s Ondekoza, now comprised of new members, made their debut at the 1986 World Expo in Vancouver. In terms of groups who exemplify the level of skill and mastery that can be attained on the taiko, Ondekoza remain at the highest level. It was this group of new members that Tiffany Tamaribuchi was invited to join in 1993, a testament to the degree of skill she’d developed since beginning her taiko journey five years earlier under the tutelage of Seiichi Tanaka, the founder of North American taiko.
But back to the Cultch. Not only did this recent performance celebrate Jodaiko’s 25th anniversary, one of the highlights was a collaboration with Vancouver’s own Katari Taiko. Established in 1978, Katari Taiko have the distinction of being Canada’s first taiko group and have been a huge influence both regionally and nationally. Tamaribuchi composed a piece entitled – and my romaji may be shaky here – “Mochoi” which translates roughly as “just a little bit more” or “it can be better still.” In all art there is always room for improvement and pushing oneself further no matter how skilled one becomes.
As an audience member, one of the things I found engaging was that the pieces Jodaiko perform all relate stories. One of them is Takoyaki, a fun song about the life cycle of a tako – octopus – who ends up as a Japanese snack food item. An interactive piece that was a hit with the crowd, no pun intended, was Queer Box Camp featuring River “The Fox” Tucker, a local boxer and Olympic hopeful. Utsu Hachijo, an Ondekoza piece Tamaribuchi learned during her time with the group, tells the story of samurai Ukita Hideie who, after falling in the Battle of Sekigahara, washed ashore on Hachijo Island. His sword replaced with bachi – drum sticks – he is said to have drummed as he pined for a return to his former home.
Amadare, composed by former Ondekoza member Marco Lienhard and inspired by the brilliant avant garde composer Maki Ishii’s Monochrome, is another piece that was performed that night. The players are all seated and play on shime-daiko, the small high-pitched drums that often act as time keepers in taiko performance. Monochrome is a brilliant, intricate piece that has inspired many professional groups to compose similar shime-daiko driven songs of their own, and Jodaiko’s rendition of Amadare is equally inspiring. Yatai-Bayashi is another song with Ondekoza influence. Distinctive because the players are in mid-sit up position – which must take abs of steel! – the song was originally played during festivals in the Chichibu area of Japan on immense yatai or push carts that required the drummers to sit in a semi-seated position. A rapid tattoo of patterns is played on shime-daiko that instructs and guide people as they pull the carts through town. The encore piece, Kokorozashi, was written by Tamaribuchi. (Kokorozashi literally translates as will or intention in the sense of what a person sets their heart on accomplishing.)
Jodaiko bring a very passionate, empowered performance to the stage. In addition to Tiffany Tamaribuchi, this year’s line up included Kristy Oshiro, Susan Tanabe, Eileen Kage and Leslie Komori. Strong women with a progressive and queer-positive focus channelled their talent into this dynamic show at the East End Cultural Centre. They are a tremendously audience-friendly troupe, and if you have not yet experienced any of their performances, you’ll want to keep it in mind for next year. I believe they’ll be back, and I know I’ll be buying my tickets well in advance.
Jacob Derksen is a Victoria, BC-based taiko player. If the above piece seems even slightly biased it’s because he’s been over to see Jodaiko perform at least five times since 2006.