Kawa Taiko composes modern taiko music for the Treasure Valley
Shouting, rhythmic banging and laughter fill the hallways of Jewett Auditorium in Caldwell.
People beat large wooden dowel-shaped sticks on makeshift drums: large plastic trash cans, bottoms removed and covered with a thick layer of packing tape. Until March 2020 and the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, the local drumming group Kawa Taiko practiced together weekly.
The Japanese American Citizens League of Boise bought the group its first drums 20 years ago to nurture Japanese culture in the community and to have drumming at their events. They’ve performed throughout the Treasure Valley ever since.
Kawa Taiko is getting more recognition recently. Last year they performed at the North American Taiko Conference hosted in Portland, Oregon. This year, the group’s taiko teacher, Kristina McGaha, received a grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts to work with an apprentice, Ellen Burnell, to elevate her taiko skills.
“Taiko drumming is always a party,” said McGaha. “If you're at a festival downtown and you see a taiko group get on the stage, you know you're going to have a good time and it's just going to be a lot of booming and thumping sounds and everybody dancing and moving.”
Drumming practice looks more like an exercise class than a music rehearsal — drummers wear leggings, T-shirts and tennis shoes. They make sweeping gestures with their arms, squat their legs and breathe intentionally as part of the choreography of each taiko song.
McGaha exudes enthusiasm for the artform and her students mirror that energy when they play together. She first picked up the drum sticks as a child. Along with her siblings, she was asked by her Japanese grandmother to take up a cultural artform to stay connected to their heritage as Japanese Americans.
“Some of us went into martial arts. Some of us went into classical Japanese dancing. I was too loud and too noisy to go into anything like that, so I've been doing the drums for close to three decades now,” said McGaha.
Many in Kawa Taiko have ties to Japanese culture but not all, and it’s not a requirement.
McGaha’s apprentice Ellen Burnell has been practicing taiko for five years now. She connected to the art because of her musical background. A licensed, practicing music therapist, Burnell has ventured into both African and Middle Eastern drumming and is also a classically trained flutist.
“She plays the Shino Fue or the fue, which is the Japanese bamboo flute, for our group,” said McGaha.
The classical background can be a help and a hindrance for learning taiko. Burnell has the foundation of rhythm, composition and dynamics, but can be timid when it comes to performance.
“I love taiko, and I'm getting more party-ish on the stage now, but originally I was like really very precise and making sure everything was right,” Burnell said. “I'm still getting over some of the shy part of the performance.”
There’s a vocal component of taiko performing, called kiai.
“It's shouting. It's communicating through shouting,” McGaha explained.
The funny juxtaposition of such a shy person performing one of the more loud and boisterous artforms possible, is not lost on the group.
“So I always think I'm shouting and they say I'm not shouting,” Burnell said.
“I always say if you have a heartbeat, you can play drum. You have rhythm inside of you.”Kristina McGaha
Kawa Taiko members have a jovial rapport in general, which is the result of working so closely together. The connection helps them to be better drummers too.
“Modern taiko, as we know it now, is ensemble drumming. It's called ‘Kumi-daiko’. You play as a group. The closer knit the group is, you tend to have more fun, the more effortless the learning of new things tends to happen,” said McGaha.
McGaha’s philosophy of treating her taiko group as family comes from her own upbringing.
“My taiko group growing up was cousins, aunties, uncles. I mean, they were blood relatives. So, every rehearsal was a jam session and every performance was a party. And I try to extend that culture into any class or workshop that I teach,” she said.
Kawa Taiko not only plays as a larger group of eight to 15, they also break off into smaller sections for special pieces, like the song they composed in honor of the grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts.
“The song that we're playing today is called Mitsukawa, ‘Mitsu,’ meaning "three,” ‘Kowa,’ meaning ‘river’,” said McGaha, of the song.
The song is named for the three rivers that surround Treasure Valley: the Boise, Snake and Payette Rivers. The three female composers — McGaha, Ellen Burnell and their fellow drummer Pinpaka McCready — created the piece to mimic the ebb and flow of the bodies of water.
“Part of it is improvised, pretty much the general idea: flowing like a river, starting off slow, getting faster, and then slowing down again or widening out, and slowing down again,” said Burnell of her part on the fue.
The fue has an airier tone than the western flute, her first instrument. It also has different fingering; there’s a different size of fue for each key, so fue players own multiple flutes for each key they might play.
“If we were to assign an instrument to represent the water of this river song, it would definitely be the flute. I think Al [Pinpaka McCready’s nickname] and I are probably more like the rocks and stuff in the stream,” McGaha expanded on the river metaphor.
She is grateful for the opportunity to collaborate on the composition.
“It was a beat that I kind of had stuck in my head for a couple of years, actually, and it was looking for the right people, the right time, the right place to make it an actual multi-layered, full-length song,” she said.
The piece mainly lives in the trio’s minds, half structured and half improvised.
“Taiko music isn't written down, so it's just memory. I'm so classically trained, I'm used to a piece of music in front of me, that it took a while to get used to not having that,” said Burnell, who has gradually come around to the taiko way of learning songs.
To learn a new song, the group first listens to the beat, recited vocally by their teacher. Then they join the beat and learn it through repetition, creating muscle memory, rather than reading written notes.
An oral tradition, which has been passed down for generations, needs devotees like McGaha to share the subtle aspects internalized over a lifetime.
“There's always something that doesn't translate quite on paper, like how much you should hold a note for, or how much you should listen for the resonation of a drum to fill the room up,” McGaha said. “Those are just kind of things that happen with experience.”
Taiko players gain valuable experience playing on trash can drums, an affordable and lightweight entry point to the art.
“We'll often start beginners on trash cans or some type of alternate drum. But there's nothing like playing the live drum and the live instrument. That's really where you learn how to become a taiko player,” said McGaha.
“You learn so much about not just the players of the music, but the culture that the music is rooted in,” McGaha said. “When you watch a performance of taiko, you can learn about folk legends that are portrayed on stage or battles that took place or, you know, modern music trends that are currently happening overseas.”
In-person practices have turned to video conference sessions during the pandemic, making the key component of improvising almost impossible. McGaha is looking forward to performing again in the future.
She’s still hopeful Kawa Taiko’s energetic and modern performances of taiko can expand Idahoans’ definitions of Japanese culture.
“We all have that internal rhythm, so it just kind of connects. And modern ensemble taiko I think especially brings out the best and the funnest parts of Japanese culture to share with the world.”
This piece was produced for Expressive Idaho in partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program, with funding support from the National Endowment for the Arts and Suzanne Allen.