Walking toward the Japanese American Service Committee building on Clark Street near Montrose Avenue, there’s a 50 percent chance that the ground rumbles at any given moment. Fear not—it’s no earthquake. It’s just the kids.
The community center at JASC doubles as a faux concert hall for Tsukasa Taiko—one of the Chicago area’s few ensembles dedicated to taiko, or traditional Japanese percussion. Tsukasa will soon enjoy a high-profile platform when its advanced students perform in Taiko Legacy, two winter-solstice concerts at the Museum of Contemporary Art that are free for kids ages 12 and under. (Although this is the first year the concerts fall on the solstice, they’ve become a December tradition at MCA, beginning in 2008.)
Tsukasa executive director Tatsu Aoki was a taiko drummer long before he became a jazz musician. At the age of three, the Tokyo native began studying. With a pair of bachi sticks in hand and a roughly 50-pound barrel-like drum at his feet, he practiced for hours at the urging of his parents, banging away—until he decided to do something different. His folks must’ve been awesome to encourage him to drum, but did they realize he’d be seduced by the smooth sounds of the West? Soon enough, he picked up the bass guitar.
“I came to America and started playing jazz clubs,” explains Aoki, now 55. “Jazz was just so revolutionary at the time.”
A few years, some albums and tons of performances later, the minted jazz bassist felt the urge for yet another change. But this one, he says, wasn’t about revolutionizing the tunes of the future; it was about returning to the sounds of his past. Taiko, which means “drum” in Japanese, demands unblinking technique, unwavering memory and a bit of choreographic flash.
“The traditional Japanese practice,” he says, “is really not all about rhythm. It’s a dance and a performance.”
Amid craft tables and storage shelves at JASC, Tsukasa Taiko holds its classes. Like the drums themselves, the students vary in size; younger kids practice separately from more advanced teens. We recently watched the kids rehearse varied sets of drum beats, humming elongated syllabic sounds to memorize the rhythms. (It resembles the banging of drums, “to-ca, to-ca, to-ca.”)
Three of the smallest performers are eight-year-old Mia Finley, seven-year-old Hana James and 11-year-old Koki James, who fear no loud noises. These junior leaguers maintain a regimen of practice beyond the classroom.
“Sometimes at home, I have to stop them from hitting their plates,” says Rika Sato-James, Koki and Hana’s mom. The siblings are reluctant to talk, displaying stalwart taiko discipline. “As you see, they’re so shy. That’s why I think it’s good for them to perform in front of people—to conquer some of that shyness.”
Chris Finley, Mia’s father, points out reasons of culture for enrolling his daughter in taiko. “She also does piano, but we’re much more interested in investing time and effort into [taiko] because this does more than just the piano. It also connects her to a sense of Japanese culture, which we’re really interested in,” he says.
Getting advice from the three young taiko masters is a bit of challenge. They’re tight-lipped. When asked about the most important thing for a new drummer to know before performing, though, Mia is quick to answer. “You need to be careful not to hit people with your sticks, and you need to have rhythm,” she says. Mia pauses, glances up at her dad, and then adds, “Well, duh.”