IF YOU DON'T KNOW what taiko is, just imagine the loudest and proudest art form possible. A type of ensemble drumming, taiko has a massive sound: the performers beat giant barrel drums, they raise their arms firm and high, and they shout. It's both a unique art form and a fairly new one in the US—Portland Taiko began in 1994, and this week they will perform their first home show of the year, titled Insatiable.
Taiko as an art form (the word is also Japanese for "drum") was brought to the United States during the civil rights movement as a rallying cry and a method of identification for Japanese Americans. With its roots in centuries-old Japanese ceremonies and festivals, the American adoption of taiko served to counter Japanese stereotypes. "It was the exact opposite of the stereotype. You know, silent people," says Portland Taiko Artistic Director Michelle Fujii. "Tiny people who follow the rules. Taiko is the opposite: It's loud, it's big."
Portland Taiko began decades after the first American chapters in the 1960s, but, as with the early incarnations, its focus is on finding a voice. "I'm really inspired by finding ownership, and by that idea of meaningfulness in the art form of taiko," says Fujii. "I think that there are two ways: For the individual, it could really move and empower someone through the physical act of playing, and secondly, that our programs can be a voice of reflecting the now."
The upcoming performance Insatiable deviates from tradition in several ways, one of which is in its size: A small ensemble of five performs the piece, whereas taiko performances are often big affairs with many more drummers. Taiko is normally focused on the drum, but Insatiable puts a big emphasis on movement, with inspiration coming from Japanese folk dance. Fujii says, "Instead of just importing a beautiful dance, I'm really thinking about: What is it that we're dealing with—what is industrial society? What is being green and progressive, and how can that be reflected in the drums?" With years of history behind it, Insatiable grounds itself in a time-honored tradition, but it also searches for its own footing.