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Deconstructing intersections of Asian America

Up until 2004, I was a mere (and rather unreflective) spectator to taiko drumming. However, that year I fortuitously became involved as an oral historian in a Japanese American National Museum-sponsored project that culminated in a 2005-2006 exhibition at JANM titled Big Drum: Taiko in the U.S. Curated by Sojin Kim, it featured a new documentary DVD of the same name that included parts of the exhibition media installations as well performances by various taiko groups and videotaped interviews with key taiko leaders and practitioners.

The exhibition’s July 13, 2005, opening, according to a June 2006 Masumi Izumi review in the Journal of American History (pp. 158-61) attracted 800 people, while on that same day, 600 drummers from the United States, Canada, Japan, and Britain, congregated across the street in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center for still another opening, that of the 2005 North American Taiko Conference. Clearly, taiko as a performing arts ensemble had come of age since its early 1950s origins in Japan and its late 1960s beginnings in California.

At the time of the JANM project, the number of taiko groups in North America hovered around 200. Although taiko in the U.S. initially emerged as an art form practiced primarily by Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals, the JANM project was enacted when taiko ensembles, if still dominated by Japanese Americans, were increasingly peopled by other Asian Americans as well as those from different racial backgrounds.

In terms of gender, the number of women had exceeded that of men, yet men were still the main group leaders and the ones designated to play their group’s coveted roles as featured soloists.

As to the brand of cultural politics undertaken, as epitomized by 1973-formed San Jose Taiko, it primarily consisted of making connections between taiko and the politics of the civil rights-inspired Asian American Movement’s “ethnic consciousness-raising efforts as well as antiwar demonstrations, education reform, and grassroots activities focused on helping underserved communities” (p. 28), though connections were also forged between taiko and women’s rights and empowerment.

In contrast, when Angela Ahlgren undertook the 2006-2009 fieldwork for her 2011 University of Texas at Austin Performance as Public Practice doctoral dissertation (upon which Drumming Asian America, with some significant updating, is based), dramatic changes in the taiko world had already taken root. The number of taiko groups had nearly doubled, the proportionate percentage of Japanese American performers had substantially decreased, women (Asian American and non-Asian American) had not only become two-thirds of the taiko ranks, but also assumed more prominence as both ensemble leaders and high-profile entertainers. With respect to cultural politics, taiko now lent itself to becoming construed in terms of how its performance of “Asian America intersects with race, gender, and sexuality, understanding each of these vectors as both lived experience and as called into being through performances” (p. 16).

It is this cultural-political dimension of taiko that assumes prominence, on and off stage, in Drumming Asian America. An assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Film, at Bowling Green State University, Ahlgren, a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, middle-class woman of Finnish heritage, grew up in an isolated Minnesota community whose population was overwhelmingly Scandinavian and Germanic, and came of age in the 1990s. She describes her perspective on taiko being grounded in her “feminist, bisexual, lesbian self,” her eighteen years of experience as a taiko fan-drummer-teacher-scholar, her research orientation in dance studies, ethnomusicology, performance studies, and queer and feminist theory, and her focus on the “corporeality of taiko performance, how players move . . . and how those movements make meaning for players and audience” (pp. 15-16).

Not surprisingly, Ahlgren’s book “privileges women taiko players as interview subjects and gender as a category of analysis,” while devoting “attention to groups that have been led or deeply influenced by women taiko players” (p. 17). Accordingly, her four core chapters bear out this privileging and devotion.

The first of these chapters revolves around San Jose Taiko founding member P.J. Hirabayashi, a Sansei, and her group’s signature creation and embodiment of the taiko folk dance “Ei Ja Nai Ka” (Isn’t it good?), a participatory call-and-response folk dance that pays tribute to the pioneering Issei generation, through gesturing and mimicking the manual labor they executed, and thereby linking Issei to Sansei, past to present, and San Jose Taiko to the Asian American Movement.

The second core chapter shifts from the West Coast to the Midwest and the Minneapolis-based Mu Daiko taiko group, whose membership by 2001 had changed from mostly Asian American to half Asian American and half white performers, with women representing half or more of the ensemble, including some queer-identified members. Of special interest is Ahlgren’s foregrounding of Korean American adoptees such as Jennifer Weir and Josephine Lee, both socialized apart from other Asian Americans, and how their participation in Mu Daiko complicates the notion of what it means to perform Asian American both for them and for their almost exclusively white Midwestern audiences.

As for the third core chapter, Ahlgren investigates the intersections of gender and race by riveting upon the experience of white and black women taiko players, the former of whom in 2016 were pegged at 18 percent of all taiko players in North America, while the number of the latter was roughly two percent. In this connection, she pointedly explores a question oft-asked in the taiko community: how do non-Asian American players fit within an art form like taiko that, while open to everyone, is tied to Japanese tradition and Asian American communities? In response, she capitalizes on a song by Mu Daiko’s Iris Shiraishi, “Torii,” to suggest how “alienation can be a productive step toward developing cross-racial intimacies” (p. 86)

In her final core chapter, Ahlgren shines her spotlight on Jodaiko, one of the few all-women’s taiko groups in North America, and among the two or three comprised largely of queer Asian American and Canadian women. In this context she headlines the performance of the group’s leader, Tiffany Tamaribuchi in the piece “Kokorozashi” to explore how Jodaiko “queers North American taiko and argues for sexuality as a key lens through which to approach taiko performance” (p. 111).

Drumming Asian America is a book that is masterfully written, powerfully theorized, innovatively developed, and richly documented through archival sources and ethnographic fieldwork. Reading it brought me a great deal of pleasure and edification, even though I was challenged mightily at every turn to assay its complex message. Before you tackle it, I would recommend that you listen to the 2016 interview with Angela Ahlgren posted on Bowling Green State University’s Taiko Source site.

 

DRUMMING ASIAN AMERICA: TAIKO, PERFORMANCE, AND CULTURAL POLITICS
By Angela K. Ahlgren
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2018, 198 pp., $34.95, paperback)

 

* This article was originally published on Nichi Bei Weekly on January 1, 2019.

 

© 2019 Arthur A. Hansen / Nichi Bei Weekly

book review JANM project jodaiko Mu Daiko taiko