Katari Taiko: Celebrating 30 Years
30 Years of Katari Taiko
Sunday, November 1, 2009, 2pm
The Cultch, 1895 Venables Street
$20 (general) / $15 (students & seniors) / $10 (12yrs & under)
+ service charges
For tickets call The Cultch box office at 604.251.1363 • www.thecultch.com
For info call 604.683.8240
When Katari Taiko celebrates its 30th Anniversary with a concert at the newly refurbished Cultch (formerly the Vancouver East Cultural Centre) on November 1, it will mark three decades of dedication to not only the art of drumming, but the community that gave birth to the group.
Katari Taiko rose out of the burgeoning Asian Canadian movement of the mid-seventies, a time when many younger Japanese and Chinese Canadians were beginning to actively question their identities and to explore their Asian heritage. Tonari Gumi was open for business on Hastings Street; Sakura-so, a home for Japanese Canadian seniors, had opened on Powell Street; the Japanese Canadian Centennial Project had published A Dream of Riches, a photographic history of the community; the Japanese Canadian Centennial in 1977 had given rise to the annual Powell Street Festival.
A performance by San Jose Taiko at the 1979 Powell Street Festival was the catalyst for the formation of Katari Taiko, the first group of its kind in Canada. A Japanese group, Ryujin Daiko, had performed at the inaugural Powell Street Festival and the world-renowned ensemble Ondekoza had performed several times in Vancouver, but they were clearly Japanese in both their approach and aesthetic; while they were to be admired, they seemed somehow out of reach. San Jose Taiko, on the other hand, was something else again. As young Asian Americans, they exuded an energy and exuberance that was both inspiring and accessible. The majority of the group were also women, defying the stereotype of the passive Asian female—something that struck a chord with many in the Japanese Canadian community. Following their performance, the members of SJT actively encouraged the formation of a local group and with that, the taiko seed was officially planted on Canadian soil.
Once the enthusiasm generated by SJT’s performance wore off, however, the reality of starting a group from scratch set in. With no drums, no teacher, and the closest established group 1,500 kilometres away in California, there wasn’t a whole lot to go on. The first practices were held that fall at the Steveston Buddhist church, using a single taiko borrowed from the Steveston Kendo Club and a collection of spare tires propped up on chairs. The group members sacrificed their brooms to the cause, sawing the handles into foot-long drum sticks.
It soon became apparent that both drums and instruction were needed in order for a Vancouver taiko group to progress beyond an idea. Seiichi Tanaka, founder and sensei of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, was invited to give the group a week-long intensive at their new home at the Strathcona Community Centre. Tanaka is widely credited with introducing taiko to North America and had given SJT members their first instruction. He was, they said, a hard task-master, but would give them a good grounding in taiko skills.
If SJT made taiko look easy, studying with Tanaka brought the reality home: the joy expressed on stage during a taiko performance was only achieved through hard work in the practice studio. Tanaka’s style of drumming, influenced by his own teachers in Japan, owed a great deal to the discipline and repetition of martial arts and, like most senseis, he ruled with an iron fist. For the members of Katari Taiko, used to a more relaxed North American approach, it was a bit of a shock and some rankled at Tanaka’s my-way-or-the-highway style.
Still, by the time Tanaka returned to San Fancisco, the group had its first two songs under its belt, had learned how to make and skin their own drums using wine barrels and, more importantly, had learned the basic techniques and rhythms of taiko drumming. From then on it was a matter of developing their skills and forging an identity as a group. Responding perhaps to Tanaka’s autocratic style, the group chose to fashion itself as a collective, with a rotating leadership and all decisions made by consensus. While somewhat unwieldy, the collective model set the tone for the next 30 years. The endless meetings required by this mode of operation also gave the group its name—katari means “to talk.”
Katari Taiko was never intended to be a performance group, so in 1981, when the group was invited to send four members to perform in Faro, Yukon, as part of a Japanese cultural group it caused a mini-crisis within the group. With only two pieces in its repertoire, no uniforms and no method for selecting performing members, it wasn’t an easy decision to accept the performance request. In the end, makeshift uniforms were thrown together and four members were chosen to play what would turn out to be the first of many public performances in this tiny mining town perched on the edge of a mountain.
As word got out about the group and it became apparent that they would be getting more and more performance requests, it became necessary to increase their repertoire and several members began composing pieces. They also collected a few pieces from American groups, including a Buddhist group in Los Angeles, Kinnara Taiko. In 1982, six members of the group travelled to Japan, where they visited several groups and learned a piece from the group Kodo on Sado Island.
By the summer of 1982, Katari Taiko was beginning to receive attention within the mainstream community. In keeping with their mandate of supporting progressive causes, the group performed at several of the large peace marches held in Vancouver—performing one year for an estimated 80,000 people at Sunset Beach.
A big turning point for the group was an invitation from Artistic Director Gary Cristall to perform at the 1982 Vancouver Folk Music Festival where they debuted on the Friday night mainstage to a rapturous response from the crowd.
Before long, the group was performing at events across Canada, including Winnipeg’s Folklorama. In 1985, Katari Taiko represented BC in the cultural component of the Canada Summer Games in Saint John New Brunswick. The group also performed at the FolkLife Pavilion at Expo 86. Their collaboration with Kokoro Dance in the internment-based piece Rage marked a departure for the group, with a dance component that stretched the boundaries of many of the drummers. The multi-disciplinary piece was performed at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and the Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa.
In the early days, taiko was not widely known outside of Japan and as Katari Taiko began to attract a wider following, taiko itself was introduced to many audience members for the first time. And just as San Jose Taiko inspired the members of Katari Taiko to pick up drum sticks, so too did Katari Taiko inspire other groups to form across Canada, through workshops and performances. There are now groups across the country in most major cities. Vancouver alone now has half a dozen groups, each with its own approach to drumming, and the majority of them can trace their origins directly to Katari Taiko.
Group members have come and gone over the years—a recent survey came up with 60 plus members who have gone through the group at one time or another—but what has remained steady is a commitment to a collective model as well as a mandate to support progressive, community-based causes.
When the ten-member group takes the stage at the Cultch on November 1, they will be joined by a number of alumni and will also premiere a new piece.