Cal Raijin Taiko drums up history

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There are certain elements of attending UC Berkeley that truly epitomize the student experience: football and basketball games, a cappella concerts, protesters, picket lines and late-night cram sessions, just to name a few. There’s one element of the student lifestyle everyone recognizes — but few truly know about it. Students have often had the deafening experience of walking across Sproul Plaza on Tuesday or Thursday evenings to find it has been monopolized by 20 students with drums playing on Mario Savio Steps.

Some students might walk by earlier in the evening to observe these same students doing push-ups and sit-ups, then taking off on a run, sprinting into the distance. Passers-by might imagine these students to be members of a club sports team or distance-runners in training. The last thing anyone would expect this active group to be doing is preparing for a musical performance. It is here the roads of music and athleticism meet in the form of an omnipresent student organization: the name behind the face of “those drummers on Sproul,” Cal Raijin Taiko.

Cal Raijin Taiko is UC Berkeley’s Japanese drumming ensemble. Taiko, which means “drum” in Japanese, is a cultural tradition that traces its roots back more than 1,000 years in Japan.

They were originally used as military instruments and as timekeepers for daily village life. Due to its sheer importance as a Japanese cultural icon, Taiko also came to be affiliated with religious activities and ceremonies. In later eras, Taiko was played as a centerpiece at festivals, celebrations and other public events.

Cal Taiko was founded nine years ago, with humble beginnings, and in 2005, two driven students organized and launched UC Berkeley’s premier Taiko ensemble. Working with practically no budget, the founders and first generation of members found creative solutions to remedy the struggles that they faced early in their careers. Without a regular rehearsal space to call their own, Cal Taiko began in the basement Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a fraternity of which one of the founding members was a part. Without the funds to purchase authentic, professional drums for performance, the group made use of hollow rubber tires serving as drumheads and folding chairs borrowed from the student union’s Pauley Ballroom as stands for those “drums.” More than a decade later, Cal Taiko has grown to establish itself as a prominent cultural and performance group on campus.

Despite being traditionally Japanese, Taiko culture has changed dramatically over the years in the United States and on campus alike. “As Taiko has spread across the world, it’s taken on different forms depending on global cultural contexts,” reflects student director Mia Tong, a fourth-year anthropology and Arabic student. “Taiko in the U.S. focuses a lot on the Japanese American experience and how different cultures have come together and changed over time.” This cultural blend is evident in Cal Taiko; group members and alumni hail from all ethnic backgrounds, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Latino and white. The group prides itself on welcoming all interested students, regardless of prior experience or cultural ties.

For Cal Taiko, culture plays a major role in not only performance but also in their inspiration for their compositions and lifestyle. “Ichi, ni, san, yon, go, roku, nana, hachi, kyu, ju!” The shouts of members counting their stretches in Japanese can be heard echoing throughout the plaza.

“Taiko comes from a tradition that combines music and discipline,” Tong describes. “It focuses a lot on lifestyle, in a way similar to martial arts. I’ve always done sports and music growing up, and so, for me, Taiko allows me to combine them in a meaningful way.”

In many ways, Cal Raijin Taiko epitomizes the blend of cultures that is so prominent in the UC Berkeley community. As a melting pot of ideas, people and cultures, Cal Taiko’s unique experience reflects its history. UC Berkeley is often criticized for not upholding the ideals of diversity and equality for which it is so prominently known — but for Cal Taiko, these values are a living, breathing reality.

Contact Nick Cotter at [email protected].