East meets West 

Uzume Taiko percussion troupe a universal experience

Who: Uzume Taiko

Where: MY (Millennium) Place

When: Saturday, Feb. 14, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $17 - $20

If the United Nations ever needed a signature band, Vancouver’s Uzume Taiko would be an excellent choice.

Best described as a combination of music, percussion, martial arts and modern dance, the ensemble’s signature "Taikophony" is rooted in the deep, sensual sounds of the traditional Japanese Taiko drum.

Instrumental collaborators include Japanese shakuhachi flute, highland pipes, cello, Latin and African percussion, and saxophone. Virtually unclassifiable, the troupe has landed performance dates with jazz festivals, folk festivals, world music events and even contemporary big bands.

"The drum kind of goes with everything," says artistic director/drummer Bonnie Soon. "We’re always trying to collaborate with people who excite us."

The group members themselves represent east-meets-west-meets-north-meets-south. Taiko drummers Boyd Seiichi Grealy and Jason Overy are Anglo Canadian, and Soon is third generation Chinese Canadian.

Saturday’s performance at MY Place also includes the sounds of highland piper Michael O’Neill and shakuhachi flute player Alcvin Ramos, a Filipino-American born in Japan.

"For Uzume Taiko, always the goal was to make Taiko drumming a living art form and create new contemporary Canadian composition. Base our music on the traditional festival drumming style. But we’re not a traditional group because we’re not Japanese," says Soon.

"The main thing is we’re all Canadian and we’re trying to express our music using Taiko as the core."

That core has very deep roots. Traditional Japanese Taiko drums were used in religious ceremonies, Kabuki theatre and festivals, but not as ensemble performance instruments, Soon explains.

North American Taiko drumming, which tends toward grouping players into ensembles and embraces women players, she deems a relatively new phenomenon.

"It’s only in the last 40 years that the drum became a group event," says Soon. "The Taiko drumming movement in North America happened in the ’70s as a way for Japanese Americans to come together and rebuild links to their culture after the Second World War. So that’s why initially a lot of people got involved with Taiko, as a community building exercise."

The North American Taiko movement has also broken with tradition in terms of instrument construction says Soon. In Japan, Taiko drum-making is a craft passed down through generations, with instruments constructed using the trunk of a single tree.

"Very heavy and very expensive," says Soon. "Taiko making is not open to just anyone who wants to make a drum."

North Americans, she says, have developed an innovative way of constructing Taiko drums using recycled oak barrels, making the instruments more accessible and portable. "So there’s a freedom here that if you want to, anyone can make their own Taiko drum," says Soon. "It’s very different than in Japan."

While Uzume Taiko may count itself among the new school there are undeniable links to the old country. The group’s name references Uzume, the Shinto goddess of laughter and revelry, considered the first Taiko drummer. And in terms of choreography, there is a definite nod to traditional ways.

"The movement style is based on a martial art," says Soon. "So there’s a form and a discipline that we bring to the Taiko drumming that’s rooted in Japanese culture even though we’re Canadian. There’s a spirituality to the playing that comes from that study of martial arts and the Japanese culture. It takes us to a place that is very personal and expressive."

Having just returned from a tour of northern continental Europe, Uzume Taiko is playing several independent shows over the next month and will continue bringing Taiko workshops to kids in schools. In the same way the sound bridges cultural differences, it has managed to bridge age differences and generation gaps.

Soon says her world has become much smaller through Taiko.

"It comes from the heart, what can I say," she says. "When you watch it, I guess you know that people are putting themselves on the line."

The Uzume Taiko Ensemble fills MY Place with sound and spectacle this Saturday evening. The event is part of Celebration 2010 — The Whistler Arts Showcase. Tickets are $20 for adults, $17 for students and seniors. Call 604-935-8410 for information.

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