Taiko: the Japanese word for drum. Developing out of ancient agricultural rites and the music of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, the beat of the taiko resounds throughout Japanese culture. Traditionally, taiko was used for ritual entertainments and festivals to summon gods and spirits, drive away evil forces, and give strength and courage to warriors. In the past 50 years, the word taiko has become a contemporary performing art, representing a new tradition of mass drumming that has spread across the globe.
In North America, kumi daiko (group drumming) took root in the late 1960s in Japanese American communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It has quickly spread to other cities in the U.S. and Canada, becoming a dynamic blend of sound, movement, and rhythm that fuses Asian roots with Western flair.
Soh Daiko History
In 1979, Soh Daiko was established as the first taiko drumming group on the East Coast under the guidance of the New York Buddhist Church. Among our beliefs, objectives, and purposes are:
- An appreciation of Japanese and Japanese American heritage.
- A belief in the oneness of the universe.
- A desire to promote and propagate an understanding and love for taiko music.
- The development of our taiko skills.
- The development of Japanese-American taiko music.
- A desire to learn about the history, tradition and values of taiko.
- The development of a spirit of togetherness, oneness and fellowship within our group.
The group began as a youth activity by members of the New York Buddhist Church after the Young Buddhist Association saw Chicago’s taiko group at an Eastern Young Buddhist League convention. Organized by membership chairman Mamoru “Mo” Funai and adult advisors – Jim Moran, Merle and Alan Okada – they started a taiko group with a grant from the Church. With this small grant, they learned to make barrel drums with help from Chicago and Kinnara taiko groups and David Matsushita.
Asking Reverend Hozen Seki for a name that would mean “peace, harmony, working together,” the group was given the name “Soh Daiko.” The name reflects the spirit of dedication and cooperation, which enabled the group to flourish from its beginnings. The group gained early instruction from taiko players, such as Reverend Ron Miyamura of Chicago’s Midwest Buddhist Temple Taiko Group, and Reverend Masao Kodani of Kinnara Taiko in Los Angeles. They taught Soh Daiko not only about drum building, but about basic taiko techniques and philosophy, resulting in the group’s evolution from a youth to an adult group.
Russel Baba, a musician and a former member of the San Francisco Taiko dojo, helped Soh Daiko to understand what taiko could be, and encouraged the group to seek more advanced instruction from Sensei Seiichi Tanaka of San Francisco Taiko Dojo. With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, Soh Daiko conducted two intensive week-long workshops with Tanaka-sensei. These workshops dramatically changed Soh Daiko’s style and repertoire.
Instruction from the Tachibana Dance Group and visiting taiko players, especially members of the Kodo taiko group, proved inspirational. This friendship with Kodo resulted in a unique joint concert, “Kodo/Soh Daiko: A Taiko Celebration” at the Japan Society in 1987. Shortly afterwards, Soh Daiko took its first trip to Japan, highlighted by a stay with their hosts, the Kodo group on Sado Island.
Soh Daiko Now
Soh Daiko’s current membership numbers about 16, with diverse backgrounds and professions. The group has steadily increased its varied repertoire to include traditional compositions from Shinto music tradition, adapting existing taiko compositions, and original arrangements by its own members. In addition to drums, the group incorporates accessories such as bamboo flutes, brass bells, conch shells, gongs, African shekere, and Tahitian toere (wooden slit drum). Much more than mere percussion, Soh Daiko’s presentation also features the visual element of movement and choreography, requiring physical strength, endurance, and energy that makes taiko such an exciting performance experience.
To promote and propagate an understanding and love for taiko music, Soh Daiko has participated in many local cultural festivities such as Brooklyn Botanic Gardens’ Cherry Blossom Festival, Smithsonian’s Folk Life Festival, The Asian/Pacific American Heritage Festival, Japan Day Festival in Central Park, and Summerstage.
Soh Daiko has also expanded its vision to share taiko with a broader audience, performing across the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and the United Kingdom, and at celebrated venues that includes Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the American Museum of Natural History, and Radio City Music Hall. The group’s debut recording, Soh Daiko, has been released by Lyrichord Discs.
Throughout its 30+ years, Soh Daiko has received critical acclaim from The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Dance Magazine. The group has also been featured on Public Television’s Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow, and National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and with artists such as Korn, Rob Thomas, and Kanye West.
Check out our entry on the J-COLLABO J-MAP of Japanese cultural sites in New York City.
Soh Daiko historical records are archived at the NYU Asian / Pacific American Archives Survey.