Drummers call taiko an affirmation of life
“Drumming is one way that people can find something so simple. It’s just the beat — a heartbeat and rhythm of nature.” —Russel Baba, Shasta Taiko Photo courtesy Plumas Arts
Plumas County is invited to experience the Japanese art of taiko when Plumas Arts presents Shasta Taiko at two public performances: Wednesday, April 20, at the Town Hall Theatre at 7 p.m. and Friday, April 22, at 7:15 p.m. at The Feather Community Art Center in Portola.
For Jeanne Mercer and her husband, Russel Baba, who founded the renowned Shasta Taiko group in 1985, the thundering rhythms of the taiko drum are more than just music — they’re an affirmation of life.
“The first time I saw a taiko performance, it just blew me away because it was so powerful and physical,” recalls Mercer, who is generally recognized as having the most years of experience among American women taiko players. “I thought it was wonderful, especially for the women, because it made them yell, shout and really express themselves in a very powerful way.”
“Taiko has helped me gain confidence in myself and build self-esteem as a Japanese American,” says Russel Baba. “I was born right after World War II and the attitude toward anything Japanese at that time had negative connotations.”
“But teaching taiko to non-Asians has shown me that something like taiko is sorely needed everywhere,” Baba adds. “There are basic life lessons that everyone could experience by active participation in taiko or other arts or cultural activities. There is nothing like playing drums with others and playing a big taiko is a very unique and powerful experience.”
“Almost all of my compositions, I would say, come from the connection with nature,” says Mercer.
“The material itself that we play on is natural,” Baba notes. “I really enjoy that feeling of the drum — just of the wood and the skin. Then, living in nature, I just absorb it. I don’t know if I consciously come out with compositions that way, but I feel that it does affect me. The presence of that mountain is there. And I also think of the connections to Mount Fuji in some ways, because my grandfather was from Yamanashi-ken, which is at the base of Mount Fuji.”
Baba has also used the rhythms and instruments of taiko for experimentation. A versatile musician who also plays saxophone and flute, Baba has incorporated taiko with jazz for many years. Finding a balance between the two sharply contrasting musical styles continues to be an exciting challenge for him.
“Japanese seem to always have a very formal approach to anything, especially the arts,” Baba says. “So for me, I feel like I’m between two worlds. Basically, taiko is formal. Everything is planned before — rehearsed and polished. The type of jazz I learned and love to play is more spontaneous, freer, looser.”
“I’m just beginning to feel more comfortable about being uncomfortable, realizing it is healthy and reflects where I am — as an artist and as a person — in so-called conflict,” Baba says. “Walking in two worlds — traditional/modern, East/West, form/freedom, mind/heart. And that may reflect where we all are living today.”
He expresses optimism for what music may reflect tomorrow. Baba and Mercer’s son, Masato Baba, is also an accomplished musician who has had a lifelong passion for taiko and has toured as a member of the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble.
“It is really a blessing to see Masato develop as an artist and into an outstanding person,” says Baba. “He is my inspiration and a teacher.”
“American taiko and the modern taiko movement is a relatively new, growing art form,” Baba observes. “Taiko is more than simply playing a drum. Playing music is more than hitting the right note or being on time. It may be more about centering and balance and maintaining tension, presence and effort with relaxation. It is a life experience and a nurturing experience. The act of playing and participating is life.”
Admission to the Shasta Taiko performances will be a $5 donation per person at the door, but greater amounts would be appreciated from those who are able to pay. No one will be denied access to the performance for an inability to pay. Guests are encouraged to arrive at least 15 minutes early as capacity crowds are anticipated.
These performances are funded in part by a music-industry antitrust settlement; the California Arts Council, a state agency; and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.