Once upon a time I saw Kodo perform at the Power Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and realized I was witnessing the most awesome musical force ever assembled on our planet. Wouldn’t it be cool to play drums like those guys? I fantasized about it for years.
Shortly after moving to Phoenix, I picked up a bulletin at the Burton Barr public library. I needed something to do and knew zero people. A guy named Tony was going to give a demonstration of taiko drumming at one of the library branches. I drove up there to check it out. Within minutes, Tony Trapasso went from performing to teaching. He didn’t just give a demonstration. He taught us how to play a rudimentary song – a practice song, really, not a complex composition. It was still a lot of fun. Suddenly, I was doing that stuff Kodo did! Yes!
After the seminar, Tony gave out his number in the event that any of us wanted to take lessons with his student group. That’s how I joined the student group of Fushicho Daiko, led by music teacher Eileen Morgan – Fushicho literally translating as “not dead bird,” or a Phoenix. I studied briefly with Tony before his commitments in China made him unable to teach consistently here. Tony and I also made some practice drums for a project of his. In his garage, we built drum heads on stands, basically. He took them to juvenile detention centers as part of music therapy for the kids there. Tony moved to China eventually, but not before meeting him had changed the course of my life over the next two years.
Eileen took our student group to several performances. We rocked out in the middle of the streets in Tempe as part of a Festival. Ok, we had to move under an awning, as it was raining that day. We almost got the middle of the street. For a first time performing as a group – and really the first time many of my clasmates had ever perfomed music publicly in their lives – this date went really well.
A few of us performed on a flatbed trailer hooked to a truck as part of an annual gay pride parade here. But it was a very informal affair. We even improvised a little bit, which you don’t really do with the kind of compositions we tackled. I remember a woman with glittery rainbow hair yelling at me to “beat that proud drum!”
The entire group put on a seriously tight show at the Chinese Cultural Center, a shopping center here that hosts an annual festival, too: food, art, shopping, booths, the usual stuff. The stage there had zero shade and I remember we were mostly in black – plus, I had taken my bicycle there. I put on my motorcycle gloves to prevent dropping the sticks from my profusely sweating palms.
It felt kind of rock and roll – a traditional Japanese rock and roll with a big freakin’ drum! It was kind of against the dress code, but – I have to confess that beating these big drums in public was more rocking than some hard rock gigs I had played as a guitarist. I don’t think my intensity level was shared by other members, but this was like living out a better fantasy than, say, being in Metallica for me. These drums went beyond metal. Beyond – Anyways… Onward!
There were a couple others after that, but the highlight was Matsuri, a pretty major Japanese culture festival. Matsuri translates as Festival, and it happens every year downtown. Our student group got to play a well-attended stage – major adrenaline high for me. All those drums… all those people… And compositions like Buchiawase rock pretty hard. It’s like being part of a thunderstorm or something elemental when the group really gets the groove.
That show had a unique challenge for me. Along with Diane, a really cool pilates instructor in our group, I did a duet. It involves multiple drums on racks, spaced so that the drummers dance around, between them, through them, playing every head at some point. The rhythm of the drumming is complex enough. You take a non-dancer like me and give him footwork… wow! It was tough but oh so worth it. Diane and I practiced relentlessly, memorizing this long, choreographed affair. As you see in the photos, Eileen kept a beat for us on a shime. It was probably the toughest musical performance I ever did, and a major rush.
Afterwards my focus turned to guitar, and I would spend the next four years or so performing solo and small combo shows. Also, I and this lovely lady with the parasol in the picture above rented a house for a bit. In the addition, I set up a typical typical rock drum kit, and started applying what I had learned about rhythm with one drum to a whole mess of drums. With the taiko group, you couldn’t really “do your own thing.” There was not a lot of individual expression. It was a regimented group affair, very much composed and choreographed. So, small jazz and jam combos gave me some freedom I lacked in taiko. But, I miss it. I miss the rush of those big drums. Maybe I will look them up again.