Stanford Taiko celebrates 25 years on campus

The performance group that got its start with a research grant celebrates 25 years with a reunion and a performance in Bing Concert Hall.

Stanford Taiko alums descended on the campus earlier this month to socialize, eat, jam and perform with the current crop of drummers in celebration of the ensemble’s 25th anniversary.

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Kurt Hickman

Former and current members of Stanford Taiko celebrate a quarter-century of music and camaraderie in Bing Concert Hall.

The capacity crowd at the spring concert in Bing Concert Hall enjoyed an evening of original works for North American taiko performed by current and former members of Stanford Taiko. Making its debut was a ohjimedaiko drum made by the taiko drum maker to the Emperor of Japan, Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten. The ohjimedaiko was the largest instrument on the Bing stage and one of the concert instruments that is not constructed by students.

Taiko is a global phenomenon that is popular from Japan to the Americas to Europe. But in North America, the incorporation of vernacular music such as jazz, rock, funk and hip-hop contributes to a uniquely “American” fusion of musical styles and genres. North American taiko also has foundations in Japanese American history and is closely tied to the sansei, or third generation of Japanese American’s growth in social and political activism in the late 1960s into the 1970s.

The members of Stanford Taiko compose the group’s repertoire. Twenty years ago, they made the decision to feature only original repertoire and every year’s concert features several premieres of new pieces. The group encourages its members to compose and this year five of the 10 pieces on the spring concert program were premieres of new works composed by current Stanford Taiko members.

Since joining the group as a freshman, I have come to view Stanford Taiko as the defining feature of my Stanford experience.

Mark Nishimura

Electrical engineering major

Stephen Sano, professor of music and co-academic adviser for Stanford Taiko since 1993, acknowledges the history and legacy of the 25-year-old group. “For any performance organization, its evolutionary trajectory rests on the shoulders of those who came before. The foundation that Stanford Taiko’s alums have provided is the musical and organizational bedrock upon which the group continues to grow.

“Simply put, without our alums’ contributions, Stanford Taiko would not, could not be where they are today. For our current students to connect with alumni, to learn stories of the group’s history, to benefit from the wisdom of those who went through their Stanford experience playing taiko, and to build personal relationships with those members whose works they continue to perform is an experience that continues to contribute to the organization’s growth.”

The story of Stanford Taiko goes like this: In 1991, San Jose Taiko member and Stanford alumna Susan Hayase taught a class contextualizing the art of taiko and its link to the Japanese American experience as part of Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues. Two of Hayase’s students, Ann Ishimaru and Valerie Mih, were inspired to apply for an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Grant to research and build a taiko drum.

Unless you have had previous experiences with taiko, joining Stanford Taiko is sort of like jumping down a rabbit hole into a whole new culture of wonderful people, and a beautiful art form to devote yourself to.

Alexander Shufeng Wang

Computer science major

Upon completion of the drum in 1992, they recruited nine students, many of whom were completely new to taiko, to form Stanford Taiko. The group built the first drums collectively and learned basic taiko drumming from Hayase. Stanford’s Asian American Activities Center (A3C) provided critical practice and storage space. A3C also invited Stanford Taiko to perform in the early days, and the group quickly became one of the most visible and enduring performance organizations on campus.

“I’m so incredibly proud and excited that the group has not only continued but far exceeded the group’s humble origins,” said cofounder Ishimaru. “I remember going to Fleet Street’s 10th anniversary and thinking how cool it would be if Stanford Taiko could do that!” She and her husband, Zachary Semke, also a Stanford Taiko alum, cofounded Portland Taiko the year after they graduated. It continues to be one of the premiere taiko organizations in the Pacific Northwest.

Now an assistant professor at the University of Washington College of Education in Seattle, Ishimaru still feels connected to taiko. “The network stretches over so many people and years, but the camaraderie, commitment and sense of connection are the same,” she said. “Our daughter Mika got hooked on taiko after learning from Stanford Taiko and San Jose Taiko during summer taiko camp, and she made friends with kids of another Stanford Taiko member from our era! The beat goes on …”

Beloved on campus, Stanford Taiko also made a name for itself off campus with tours in Guatemala, Japan, Los Angeles, Seattle, Thailand and the United Kingdom. It is the only collegiate group ever to be invited to perform at the North American Taiko Conference’s headline event, Taiko Jam; to participate in a residency on Sado Island with Japan’s leading taiko group, Kodo; and to perform at the U.K. Taiko Conference. The members have performed on the Great Wall of China, at the National Theatre in Bangkok and in the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Freshman Maimi Higuchi’s experience with Stanford Taiko alums at the spring concert made an indelible impression on her. “I was amazed to see so many Stanford Taiko alumni come back. Every one of them was so kind and talented. It reminded me of the larger taiko community to which we all belong, and hearing their compliments made all the preparation leading up to the concert worth it.

“This concert has been the highlight of my first Stanford year,” she said.