I’m about to run my first full marathon, an event that I’ve spent an entire year training for.
At the base of Hurricane Point, I hear the steady, powerful and reverberating taiko drums. The drumming melds with my intense heartbeat, gasping to give myself the maximum amount of oxygen. The steady beats help provide a pace and rhythm for us runners as we take on this marathon one step at a time.
That was my first exposure to taiko.
The summer before college, I ran into taiko — our very own Cal Raijin ensemble — again, at San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers race.
I watched the ensemble through the metal fence that followed the race course, mesmerized by the group’s energy and camaraderie. Under the intense heat, the group continued to move fluidly, with members smiling at each other and making music. Seeing them so happy, I yearned to one day try it myself.
Luckily, in the spring of my first year at UC Berkeley, I was accepted to the taiko decal. On Tuesdays, we learned the theory, history and culture of playing taiko. On Thursdays, we learned how to play the drums.
Outside of the regular decal facilitators, many team members regularly came to mentor and coach us. I grew to look forward to taiko class every week.
At the end of spring semester, I attended the annual taiko showcase at the Chevron Auditorium in International House.
You don’t just hear the drumming; you feel it viscerally through your body. The vibrating gym floors dance in cadence and you feel the music spreading through your feet.
The members “kiai,” or shout shortly at each other to help keep tempo, hype each other up and pump up the overall performance energy.
I could not stop smiling at my friend and excitedly pointed out all the different members I got to work with. Seeing their outstanding performance solidified how much I wanted to join the team.
The following summer, I attended Obon festivals, read up on taiko and joined taiko communities online. I even serendipitously met Galen Rogers, the director of Jiten Taiko (a post-collegiate group), who invited me to an experimental performance.
Sadly, I did not make it the following fall when I tried out for the team. Luckily for me, Raijin decided to hold tryouts again during this pandemic year.
I decided to take a leap of faith and try out again. Fortunately, I made it after four weeks of Zoom auditions.
Since spring 2021, Cal Raijin has welcomed and embraced me as a member of its community. Each week, I get to spend dedicated time with the group, learning the art of taiko drumming and forming bonds with other Raijin members.
One of the questions that many people ask me is: “How do you do taiko online?”
The answer: We improvise. Because we don’t always have access to our club equipment, we make makeshift bachis, or drumsticks, out of taped rolled paper and create drum surfaces from pillows or books. We also try to keep Zoom practice as close to what it looks like in person, with stretching, bowing in, learning songs and bowing out.
Even online, the team has crafted a rewarding and fruitful experience. As a new member, I am learning so much and having a lot of fun.
The next question I’ve often been asked is why people choose taiko.
Different members of the team have talked about the various reasons they’ve joined the group. Some of them used to play percussion and sought something new. Some of them were drawn in by the thundering sounds. Some of them were searching for a community.
One factor for me is feeling like it’s okay to be a beginner. Many people started taiko drumming in college, making me feel like it was an art medium I could jump into even without much prior knowledge.
Taiko is taught orally through kuchi-shoga, which literally translates to “mouth singing,” a phonetic system representing the drum sounds. Before we learn songs, we first learn basic hits. There are big hits “DON KON,” medium hits “Do Ko,” side hits “Ka Ra” and smaller hits “tsu ku.”
We then learn the kuchi-shoga of a song bit by bit. Kuchi-shoga allows us to learn music without needing to know formal music notation. The older members always say, “If you can kuchi-shoga it, you can play it.”
On the team, I have the least amount of taiko experience. There are many things I struggle with, from saying the kuchi shoga correctly in tempo or understanding how the syllables are split in complicated patterns.
Sometimes, I feel frustrated when I’m not able to get something, even after repeated attempts.
The team has been endlessly patient and kind to me, supporting me in every way. We work on breaking down the tasks into smaller tasks and practice until we get it right.
The team has also dedicated Tuesday practices to the new generation, teaching them songs, techniques and encouraging us to ask questions. Playing taiko has taught me to embrace my beginner’s mindset and to keep trying.
Taiko has been an incredible experience to participate in. It’s not only artistic as music, but it is also physical as a sport and as social as an ensemble experience. I can’t imagine how it will feel this upcoming school year when we can play taiko together in person.