Drum team shares a Japanese tradition with Misawa Air Base
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — On Tuesday evenings, the Mokuteki Ballroom resonates with a “thump, thump, thump” once used to call soldiers to battle, entertain gods and drive away evil spirits.
These days, the venerable taiko drums are melding two distinct cultures as a group of Americans learns to beat bachi sticks.
The Dragon Eagle taiko drum team has played at weddings, local festivals, charity events and even an Aomori prefecture traffic safety promotion. On Saturday, the drummers performed a free concert on base celebrating the group’s seven-year anniversary, a milestone instructor Kazuko Igarashi never dreamed possible in the beginning.
Ten years ago, she started taking taiko drum lessons in Aomori City with the goal of teaching the ancient Japanese percussion to Americans. She found some Japanese opposed the idea of sharing with foreigners an art form steeped in tradition, dating back some 2,000 years. But Igarashi persisted, feeling that if Americans had a special experience in Japan that they would always look favorably on their time here. “If you move, you can talk about Japanese memory forever,” she said.
It seemed like an impossible dream at first: She had no taiko drum and no place to practice. But she spoke to the manager of the Mokuteki Community Center at the time, who said “let’s start,” Igarashi recalled.
At first, the team mostly practiced on tires. Taiko drums come in a variety of styles, but a traditional drum made from a hollowed tree can cost as much as $6,000, Igarashi said. Igarashi has since bought five drums, as have some of her students, who currently number about 15 Americans working or living on Misawa Air Base.
Chris Petrone, a Department of Defense Dependents Schools Pacific teacher at Cummings Elementary School, is in his fourth year with the group. Already a drummer, Petrone said playing taiko drums was at first like learning a new language.
“It’s more heavy, a lot more power, different sticks, a different feel to the drum,” he said. “A lot of sore muscles, a lot of popped blisters when you first start.”
The group practices once a week — every Tuesday from 7 to 9 p.m. — for $10 a lesson or $40 a month. Members who don’t have a drum practice on pillows or tires at home while listening to a DVD the team has recorded of their songs.
The American taiko drummers often play for Japanese crowds that respond with standing ovations, they said.
“One time, a mama-san was driven to tears, she was so happy to see us up there,” said David Wray, a Sollars Elementary School teacher.
“It’s been [Kazuko’s] dream to bring this very sacred and important part of Japanese culture to Americans on base,” Petrone said. “Some Japanese frown upon it, some don’t … but she’s stuck with it and it makes her so happy to be able to share this with us.”