International House to host Taiko Drummers

By RENA SLAVIN
Global Voices Fellow

On the evening of Friday, April 28, the International House Global Voices Performing Arts Series will host the Tsukasa Taiko and Fujima Ryu ensembles for an evening of traditional Japanese music and dance. Taiko, a centuries-old Japanese drumming tradition, appears throughout Japanese history in both religious and folkloric contexts. It was essential in warfare as a means of communication and in theater as an underscore to dramatic content. Founded in 1996 by Hide Yoshihashi, Tsukasa Taiko introduced a new kind of taiko ensemble, one that is accessible to the community and independent of religious institutions. Since then, many have followed in Yoshihashi’s footsteps, creating a rich taiko culture in Chicago.

The masters of classical dance of Fujima Ryu of Chicago will join the expert Tsukasa Taiko drummers at the International House performance. The Fujima School has maintained the highest standard of the Japanese dance tradition since its creation in the early eighteenth century. For the last 40 years, Fujima Ryu of Chicago has had a consistent presence not only among Japanese-American immigrants, but also among the larger Chicago community.

Tsukasa Taiko and Fujima Ryu are two of the programs of Asian Improv aRts Midwest (AIRMW), a non-profit geared toward the advancement of Asian American art and culture in Chicago. AIRMW brings together local artists, community organizations, and cultural institutions to present Asian American culture through the performing arts. Tsukasa Taiko’s partnership with AIRMW has allowed for continued growth and a larger community presence in the Chicagoland area. Thanks to the support of AIRMW, Tsukasa Taiko is now the largest community taiko group in the Midwest. It offers taiko instruction for a wide range of ages and experience levels.

Tatsu Aoki, artistic and executive director of Tsukasa Taiko and AIRMW, grew up in an artisan family in Tokyo where he learned about the various aspects of Japan’s rich musical and cultural history. He credits his upbringing with providing a profound connection to the authentic Japanese tradition. Aoki is an incredibly versatile musician known for his bass and shamisen (Japanese lute) skills. In 2006, Aoki formed the Gintenkai Performance Unit of Tsukasa Taiko, which consists of more experienced artists and performs at a professional level. The Gintenkai Unit’s goal is to preserve, develop and spread the centuries-old traditions of Japanese taiko. Aoki sees a void in the taiko community when it comes to honoring the classical techniques, and his mission with Tsukasa Taiko is to fill that niche.

Aoki has observed the tendency of modern taiko groups to want to reinvent classical taiko techniques, particularly with regard to the rhythmic aspect of performance. The new generation prioritizes fast rhythmic and choreographic sequences, which are commercially successful but often lack what Aoki calls “the essence of taiko drumming.” In fact, taiko comes from a very rich theatrical tradition that values the full range of aesthetic parameters, not just speedy rhythmic execution. Far from being critical of the current trends in taiko, Aoki instead believes in a balance: “We have to have both of them, the new [form] and the old [form].” In a world that constantly seeks to modernize and update existing customs, Aoki’s goal is to expose members of the community to the classical styles of taiko drumming so they can ground their understanding of modern taiko in its authentic, historical tradition.

Tsukasa Taiko has performed in several prominent venues in the past, including the Chicago Symphony Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago. However, their past performances at International House at the University of Chicago are of exceptional value because of their educational component.

“What helps me a lot is that International House is within the domain of an educational institution; as much as we enjoy the performance, I can also have this educational part and I am able to talk about the piece and explain [the performance],”Aoki said.  

The Tsukasa Taiko Concert will take place in the Assembly Hall of International House, 1414 E. 59th St., on Friday, April 28, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. It will feature the musicians of the Gintenkai Unit of Tsukasa Taiko and the dancers of Fujima Ryu of Chicago. A casual discussion with the artists will be held after the performance. This event is free and open to the public. The Tsukasa Taiko Concert is sponsored by the International House Global Voices Performing Arts Series. For more information about other Global Voices programs and co-sponsorship opportunities, or for persons with disabilities who may require assistance, please contact Mary Beth DeStefano at (773) 753-2274 or mdestefa@uchicago.edu.