Queer Taiko founder and instructor Kristy Oshiro on Japanese Taiko drumming, local LGBTQ+ arts community

Kristy Oshiro/Courtesy

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Kristy Oshiro knew they wanted to learn more about Japanese Taiko drumming before they were even nine years old.

“As a young person, I used to watch this group perform — it was all young people like myself playing these really, really big drums, like hitting them as hard as they (could) and making this sound that just vibrated through my body,” Oshiro said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

Oshiro explained that as soon as they were old enough to enroll in the Taiko program in their hometown of Kona, Hawaii, they did. And in their words, they “just never stopped.”

Oshiro is now founder, current leader and instructor of Queer Taiko, an Oakland-based group of LGBTQ+ community members and allies “committed to building community and awareness through Japanese taiko drumming,” according to Oshiro’s website.

When Oshiro formed the group in 2013, they felt the representation and visibility of the LGBTQ+ community was lacking in their art form.

“In the Bay Area in general everyone’s pretty welcoming and all the groups, whether they say so openly or not, are welcoming to all people of all identities,” Oshiro said. “But there is a difference between, you know, assuming that that is the case and then being vocally present.”

For Oshiro, a self-identified member of the LGBTQ+ community, they said they would feel more comfortable approaching something new if they knew they’d be surrounded by “like-minded people” in a “queer-friendly space.”

More than five years since its conception, Queer Taiko has performed many times in the Bay Area, including at local pride events and, recently, the Japanese Heritage Night for the Oakland A’s — which Oshiro noted was especially cool because they all stayed after the performance to watch the baseball game together.

The performers and participants of Queer Taiko are ever-changing. The group functions as what Oshiro calls a “meetup group,” converging roughly once every two weeks at dates linked on Oshiro’s website. Because of the group’s informal structure, Oshiro is never quite sure who will show up.

“People say they’re going to show up and then they just don’t show up. It’s like if you get 50% of the people who say they’re going to show up, then you’re doing well,” Oshiro said, laughing. “There’s very much a kind of newbie atmosphere, but it’s super welcoming.”

Oshiro doesn’t expect any of the participants of Queer Taiko to have any previous musical knowledge of experience with Taiko drumming, and each session focuses on different skills and rhythms. Oshiro also does not expect anyone to pay for the lessons, although there is a suggested fee to help cover the cost of studio rental and the equipment they provide.

Oshiro said promoting this sort of laid-back atmosphere was a decision they made when they started Queer Taiko.

“Because Taiko is a Japanese cultural performing art form, especially being outside of Japan (and) being a practitioner of that art form … a lot of us in the Taiko community are very aware of its history, of where the art form comes from and are constantly trying to acknowledge, recognize and be respectful and grateful for that history,” Oshiro said.

In Oshiro’s many years of experience, they’ve encountered Taiko groups that incorporate various degrees of traditional Japanese-style learning or that operate as a dojo — a traditional Japanese school of learning. This can entail a large commitment with required practice and performance attendance, which, while they believe is reasonable, Oshiro also said may not feel “quite so casual or welcoming.”

According to Oshiro, this has led them to develop a less “formal or traditional style of teaching and operating the group” in a way that fits into everyone’s busy schedules —  even permitting interested members to perform with the group after only a few months of practice.

“Sometimes we’ve had people … come in and try Taiko for a few months, perform with us, and then I never see them again,” Oshiro said. “But it’s kind of cool that people can do that, that they can have that experience, you know, put themselves out there, try something new (and) be visible in the community. I feel really good about being able to provide that experience.”

When asked what Oshiro thinks about the community of LGBTQ+ artists like themselves, they were of two minds.

“You know Queer Taiko, because we’re a queer-identified peforming arts organziation, we get a lot of requests to perform at queer-related events. But not all of … those requests are coming with financial backing, to be quite frank about it,” Oshiro explained. “And … from one viewpoint it’s great that Queer Taiko can go and provide performances to the community … to provide that pro bono, without expecting anything in return. But from the other side, running an arts organization is not cheap, it’s not free, people’s time is very valuable. And if we want to see high-quality LGBTQ+ artists and art then we really need to be supportive of it monetarily as well.”

At the end of the day, Oshiro believes that although we have made progress in terms of the visibility and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, there is work to be done.

“I think that whatever level of visibility that there is, however many of us LGBTQ+ artists there are out there, I don’t think that it’s enough. We’re kind of an underrepresented minority,” Oshiro said. “And I would like to see more being done to help support LGBTQ+ artists, not just by outside organizations, but also within LGBTQ+ organizations.”

Olivia Jerram covers LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected].