Taiko Voices

What is Taiko Voices?

Taiko Voices is the 50th Anniversary Song Commission sponsored by TCA that earned a highly competitive Creative Work Fund grant in October 2018. It is a collaboration between San Francisco Taiko Dojo, Kinnara Taiko, and San Jose Taiko. Their work started in January 2019. Heidi Varian is the Project Coordinator for Taiko Voices and is documenting the project in words, images, audio, and video.

Taiko Voices Journal: The Introduction

May 9, 2019

This is the first in a series of posts by Heidi Varian, Project Coordinator for Taiko Voices, the 50th Anniversary Song Commission sponsored by TCA that earned a highly competitive Creative Work Fund grant  in October of last year.

JANUARY: The Introduction

Taiko Voices was conceived by San Jose Taiko (SJT) General Manager and TCA Board Member Rome Hamner to honor fifty years of kumidaiko in America.

Rome did an amazing job in a short period, working with Ben Pachter and Tamiko Ooka  to outline a grant proposal on behalf of TCA for the Creative Work Fund that would create an copyleft piece of music inspired by the unique styles of three pioneer ensembles of Taiko: San Francisco Taiko Dojo, San Jose Taiko, and Kinnara Taiko. The project is to encompass performances, workshop, and teaching opportunities. Each pioneer leader chose the composition team member to represent the vision of the pioneer group in the composition process. Artistic Director Franco Imperial of San Jose Taiko was chosen as lead artist, Kate Meigneux was chosen to represent Kinnara Taiko and Ryan Kimura was the composer chosen for San Francisco Taiko Dojo.


When I first drove down from the North Bay to San Jose for the inaugural rehearsal between Franco, Kate, and Ryan, I was nervous. I mean, sure, we are all colleagues, but this project—a copyleft composition honoring fifty years of taiko in America— has a lot of implications for the future of taiko. Since the new Taiko Voices team had been collaborating by phone in advance (not to mention being deeply involved in the taiko community for decades) everyone immediately had an amazing rapport, stimulated by Franco’s always remarkable enthusiasm and coordination.

As project coordinator, I see my contribution as providing support to the composers to make this project a reality, to facilitate the creation of a copyleft piece that represents the spirit of taiko in America, omiyage from the pioneers and composers to be shared with thousands of American Taiko players.

So, yeah, I was nervous. I want to be responsible to the pioneers, to the composers, to the sponsors, to the taiko community. What I forgot was that the taiko community is a family, already a team. Members of the community may have different visions about the trajectory of taiko in America, different methodologies, but we all come together at annual gatherings – concerts and festivals and conferences – we discuss and debate, we collaborate, we honor traditions, and we build toward the future, together.


Indeed, SJT’s studio that morning was warm and inviting despite the January chill. Franco made the gathering feel casual and supportive and free, a comfortable environment to nurture creativity. But the rehearsal was not just a jam session, it was built around a predetermined structure that included a fair amount of discussion. The structure gave the lead composer the ability to share his beliefs and methodology about composition, to reach out to the contributing composers about their unique perspectives, and to support Kate and Ryan by honoring those perspectives, ideas, and skills.

As both a teambuilding exercise and to begin choreographing the composition, Franco asked each artist to create a movement inspired by their unique taiko tradition, to start the conversation about creating a uniquely JA Odori.

Taiko Voices Journal: The Pioneers

 May 16, 2019

This is the second in a series of posts by Heidi Varian, Project Coordinator for Taiko Voices, the 50th Anniversary Song Commission sponsored by TCA.

FEBRUARY: The Pioneers

The memorandum of understanding for the Taiko Voices project included an inspiration session to aid in the creation of the piece. A day was selected for the chosen composers – Franco Imperial, Kate Meigneux, Ryan Kimura – to spend bonding time with the pioneers of taiko over lunch and conversation at the San Francisco Taiko Dojo’s studio – Directors Emeriti PJ and Roy Hirabayashi, senior member Qris Yamashita, and Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka, respectively. Ryuma Tanaka facilitated the event, which was both filmed and audio recorded.

The composers had originally prepared interview questions for their respective group members and now distilled those answers and created special interviews for the pioneers.

The Interviews

The pioneers talked about motivations. Roy reflected on a love of jazz and the inspiration of his experience as a horn player. PJ related her love of dance. In another context, Qris mentioned that her favorite place to play taiko is at temple. Each answer reflects the importance of taiko in shaping identity, helping to restore a unique Japanese American voice in the roaring incarceration silence of a post-war American landscape.

Japanese national Tanaka Sensei was a young boy in Nagano Prefecture at the end of WWII. His response – “I had nothing else, knew nothing else to do when I got to America.” Only a few years older, his options and life choices were fewer and less free.


Today, a large segment of taiko is played by collegiate groups. There are community groups and temple-affiliated groups and professional performing groups and youth groups – a diaspora of a continually evolving genre. Which is why the composers and grant coordinator believed the inspiration phase of the project – honoring the pioneers, the ancestors, and tradition – was so important to the creation of the piece.

“What would you like to see for the future of taiko?” With the diversity of styles and teaching methodologies and personal philosophies, you would think that this question would elicit a myriad of dreams and desires and aspirations. But the consensus was unanimous – build a community and play with joy.


Taiko Voices Journal: The Spirit

 May 20, 2019

This is the third in a series of posts by Heidi Varian, Project Coordinator for Taiko Voices, the 50th Anniversary Song Commission sponsored by TCA.

MARCH: The Spirit

The third gathering was only a few weeks after the Pioneer Jam and the energy was humming. Did I mention there was a jam? Of course not. Because, if there is taiko, there is always a jam.


At the March gathering, the composers observed and reflected on the Pioneer Jam, the natural easy flow of the beats and transitions between the masters. The communication was felt, rather than cued. The connection between the drummer and the earth, the drummer and drum (and, by extension, the tree from which it was derived and all the drummers past who imbued it with spirit), and, of course, each other, is unique to those who have spent decades honing the art. Of course, improvisation is rife with stumbles and missteps (as any “master” will say), but easy camaraderie of experience makes those elements fade, like great jazz. By the way, “master” is in quotes because it is a misnomer. A fact about taiko that each of the Pioneers agree: it never stops evolving and so you never stop learning.

Kate Meigneux introduces a tenet of Johnny Mori: Kinnara only plays as fast as its slowest performer. Stop reading for a moment. Think about the conscious inclusivity that implies in today’s world.

Tanaka Sensei hopes that the word “taiko” becomes Americanized so that people have another way to recognize Japan’s contribution to the cultural landscape. PJ and Roy encourage both composition and collaboration and Franco and Wisa Uemura, current Executive Director of San Jose Taiko, carry the torch shining that light into the future of taiko.

The Taiko Voices team started the third gathering in different personal places, because they had already been changed by the experience thus far. Even though each composer has been influenced (in ways great and small) by these pioneers for decades, a new perspective allowed them to further recognize a cherished gift and become even further committed to paying it forward. And the development of the composition evolved.


Thus far, the choreography was beautiful but challenging, the rhythms syncopated. I was impressed by the composers already, their willingness and fearlessness to make mistakes over and over, or accept changes instantly to find the right path. In this day at SJT, the odori choreography was already in rough completion. But that milestone did not become the climax of the day, because the composers had the confidence to abandon their ego about their creations immediately. The adaption considerations for multiple skill levels began right away, so this open-source gift of composition could be given to anyone and everyone, furthering the tenet of inclusivity.


As we rush around in our busy lives inundated by media, trying to be the best and the brightest, sometimes the best lesson is just to stop and observe.

Don’t just listen to taiko leaders experience but see how their words and actions affect the community. Practice conscious observation, not just in taiko workshops but in life. Honor both your spirit and your community. Honor is a gift you give yourself.

As lion dancer Nosuke Akiyama has said, in a global economy, the terminus of the Silk Road is no longer Asia, because the vibrancy of creative innovation fuels both economic and artistic expansion. Okay, those of you who know Akiyama-san know I am paraphrasing, but what Taiko Voices has learned so far is this: taiko is no longer only the heartbeat of Japan.

Taiko Voices Journal: The Framework

 September 11, 2019

This is the fourth in a series of posts by Heidi Varian, Project Coordinator for Taiko Voices, the 50th Anniversary Song Commission sponsored by TCA.

APRIL: The Framework

“Every beat has a story and the sounds we produce are the projection of that story.” Ryan Kimura

This month, Taiko Voices added to the framework of the Taiko Voices composition. After each group’s ideology was distilled into choreography that each composer felt personified their ensemble’s contribution to the art of taiko, a synthesized movement/musical phrase was developed from the inspiration of the Pioneer’s Gathering. The piece is comprised of six elements.


A beginning rooted in gratitude and honor, a gathering of energy, a self-application of settling in and grounding to the Earth, and Buddhist traditions.


Pervasive in American taiko, the inspiration for the choreography is inspired by the athletic, the martial arts, the dance movements and energy that reflect the Japanese American taiko style. The original musical interpretation to accompany this choreography, however, is pared-down: a humble basic pattern supporting simplicity and a space to create energy, a space for others.


Inspired by Buddhist teachings and chanting, spiced with Reverend Masao Kodani’s love of Indian music. The movement is a visual representation of rhythmic counting and syncopation, teaching and sharing, and ma: the interval of intentional emptiness.


Represents a journey of the issei, first generation Japanese Americans, paralleled by a journey of the individual artist, a cultural exchange that echoes the diaspora of the Silk Road evolving to contemporary globalism, culminating in “GaZuut” or a connection to something greater than ourselves (a concept coined by PJ Hirabayashi).


A baseball metaphor inspired by Tanaka Sensei’s launching taiko in North America (plus, it’s pretty fun choreography to execute).


A metaphor for the gathering of stories from our pioneers, the energy of our groups and our community, the preparation of what is to come, and our gift of joy thrown into the winds of the future generations.

The choreography and music represent joining together, the time to listen to the heartbeat and the intentional intervals.

Taiko Voices Journal: In Gratitude

 November 3, 2019

This is the fifth in a series of posts by Heidi Varian, Project Coordinator for Taiko Voices, the 50th Anniversary Song Commission sponsored by TCA.

Taiko Voices Journal: In Gratitude

Made in America: Taiko Voices would like to thank the New Generation Nikkei Fund (supported by the Tides Foundation) for a grant to support this special ongoing special work.

Taiko Voice’s May rehearsal was different, as it was planned as a departure from the composition workshops. Composer Ryan Kimura welcomed a new son into the world and, in order to allow the freedom of time for parental bonding, composer Kate Meigneux and lead Franco Imperial planned to share their rehearsal progress with members of Kinnara Taiko at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, since the Taiko Voices team had already been able to be inspired by the two Northern California studios of San Jose Taiko and San Francisco Taiko Dojo.

Reverend Mas Kodani and Franco were able to have time to dialogue about musical and Buddhist philosophies, Franco being gifted the Reverend’s perspective, unique in the world of taiko. Franco initiated a syncopated jam with Reverend Mas that was, in Kate’s words, “simply amazing to experience.” TCA President Derek Oye and pioneer Qris Yamashita joined the workshop, and Franco and Kate shared movements and patterns from the evolving work. One of the lasting impressions from Derek was about how this odori is being developed from a taiko perspective and represents a large and growing community.