Uzume Taiko combines dance and martial arts in postwar art form

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      On the occasion of her company’s upcoming concert, Uzume Taiko artistic director Bonnie Soon is musing on the origins of the music that has held her attention for much of her adult life.

      “This was a postwar art form,” she tells the Straight from Uzume’s East Vancouver studio, in a conference call with musical director Jason Overy. “The resurgence of interest in taiko drumming came as a means of allowing people to regain a sense of pride in Japanese heritage and culture. And it started mainly from a jazz drummer in Tokyo, Daihachi Oguchi, who was asked to resurrect a piece of music that was found in an old miso factory.

      “He couldn’t decipher this old-style Japanese notation, so once he had that pulled apart into some form that he could read, he wondered what it might sound like played on different taiko drums, the way he would play on his jazz drum set. That was kind of the birth of what we call kumi-daiko, or ensemble drumming.”

      When the style made its way to North America, in the 1970s, it quickly became a rallying point for young Japanese Canadians and Americans, many of whose parents had been interned and dispossessed during the Second World War. For them, taiko was a source of strength, community, and cultural pride—just as it has been for Soon, although she reveals that she has no Japanese ancestry herself.

      “Neither Jason nor I do,” she says. “I’m Canadian Chinese, and although I’ve grown up in this art form, I must admit that I still feel like an outsider. I don’t have a Japanese last name, and we don’t profess to pay homage to any sensei. So we’ve always drummed to the beat of our own hearts.”

      It’s not that playing taiko hasn’t given Soon considerable inner strength. “This was a really cool art form in which you could actually open your mouth and make a sound and not be this quiet, demure thing—especially the women,” she says. “I think it really helped many women find their voice and their power.”

      For Soon, taking up drumming was a natural way to build on the training she’d received in contemporary dance. Overy, in turn, came to the music by way of the martial arts. “The thing that drew me to Uzume Taiko when I first saw them perform was the fact that they weren’t locked into the ground,” he explains. “They used their bodies in a movement style that reminded me of my martial-arts training. It was more than just a drumming thing; it was actually an endeavour to create a spiritual emotion in the room, or create a special space.”

      Fusing dance, martial arts, and other percussive styles with taiko, Overy adds, is what gives Uzume Taiko its unique West Coast flavour. “It’s the freedom to make something new and present that to people,” he says.

      And although Uzume Taiko’s 30th-anniversary concert is, in a sense, a return to the troupe’s roots—this year, the focus is on the drums themselves, with less of an emphasis on tuned percussion—it’s also an opportunity to add Chinese contemporary dance to the mix. Dancers from Moving Dragon Contemporary Dance and the Lorita Leung Dance Company will join Uzume’s four core players on-stage, performing two new works that choreographer Chengxin Wei has set to pieces from the taiko group’s repertoire.

      “I knew that he was a beautiful dancer, so I asked him if he’d like to try playing taiko,” Soon says of their unconventional introduction. “And he had an immediate affection for a couple of the tunes, so that’s how it started. I’ve found in the past that the best collaborations begin that way; they just seem to happen like magic. It’s not like pulling teeth at all, and I’m just thrilled with what we’ve done.”

      Uzume Taiko plays the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday (March 17).

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