Linda Uyechi and Steve Sano, the faculty supervisors of Stanford Taiko, discuss taiko’s growing influence at Stanford and around the world. For part one of this interview, click here.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): How has your perspective of taiko changed throughout your career? Has it remained constant?
Linda Uyechi (LU): I don’t think it has changed. I still believe that it’s an art form rooted in the Japanese American community here in North America and that it is a powerful art form anyone can play. We’ve been really fortunate to help drive some of the growth in the organizational part of taiko, not just the art. We’ve learned more and more about the generosity of the people who actually started the first groups here in North America because [we’ve gone from] three groups to over 500 now in North America. In the last couple of years, I’ve learned even more about the spread of taiko in Europe. I’ve been fortunate to go to the European Taiko Conference (ETC). Last February was the inaugural… People from Europe, as far as northern Sweden and as far down as Spain and Italy — [there were] 60 of them representing 17 countries. It’s ridiculous. And then, more recently, just last month, I met taiko players from Brazil and learned about taiko playing in South America. I think, if anything has changed for me, it has been a deeper awareness of taiko as an art form and a continued interest in learning about it.
TSD: How about Stanford Taiko? How has it changed throughout the years?
LU: When we started in early ‘90s, Kenny Endo [a famous American musician and taiko master] called us something like inaka, or country. We were like country kids, and we were. We were not very sophisticated. Membership-wise, it has changed a lot because it’s also rooted in the Japanese American community at Stanford. When we first started it was like 80 to 90 percent Japanese American. And look at it today — three [people of Japanese descent]. It has gotten very diverse.
Artistically, it has grown tremendously. We started out by playing in White Plaza. Artistically, Stanford Taiko has grown leaps and bounds. The group played at the Taiko Jam [a North American conference] — which was a real honor back in 2005 — for national audiences… Stanford Taiko used to practice in the Asian American center, and it was because we were fighting for space and time, so that’s a huge change from when the group first started… When we first started, we had no idea we were a part of a bigger taiko community… There has been a lot of touring — how many countries have we hit? Thailand, Japan, the U.K. It’s a lot. Spring Concert evolved too; first it was outdoors, then it was in Dink, then eventually we were able to move it, with the Music Department, to Bing. Big changes, when you think about it!
Steve Sano (SS): I think it’s followed an evolutionary path that’s very typical of many musical organizations in terms of increased structure. In the beginning, you know, we didn’t do auditions — you asked your friends. Then there became a structure for how you audition [and] for how the group is governed. All of that kind of grows as the group evolves. So it becomes more codified, and more jobs get identified as the group undertakes different activities. So I think in terms of organizational sophistication, that’s a very natural evolutionary progression. Artistically, it’s kind of parallel with what’s going on with North American taiko in that there’s increased sophistication to what the group does. If you looked at performance videos over the years, especially compared to the really early ones … oh my.
SS: It’d be embarrassing now for the group to do what it used to do in public. So I think the musical sophistication, writing composition, production values — I mean performing at Bing is really different than performing in that grassy area next to Kimball Dining, which doesn’t exist anymore.
LU: Oh that’s right!
SS: No lights, no tech. What happens if it rains? It’s completely different. This whole idea of: “When it’s tech day, make sure the lighting director is in lighting booth at 2 o’clock to write all the lighting cues, the 109 cues for your show,” it used to be different. This other thing is the types of gigs the group does. Now, school shows, international touring, corporate gigs, those things didn’t exist years ago.
TSD: What’s the most enjoyable or “worth it” aspect about taiko?
LU: Taiko is a [fun] lifestyle. PJ Hirabayashi said “taiko is a lifestyle,” so I think it’s the community we’ve become a part of. It’s been a huge part of our lives and it’s because it’s our community.
SS: Well, I’m not a [taiko] player, so…
TSD: Do you have any fun memories?
SS: I mean, I played for one summer. That’s kind of it. I think for me, personally, the most rewarding and gratifying thing is seeing Stanford Taiko members go out into the world and either staying in touch with taiko for their own playing or becoming leaders in the field. When you think of the impact that those people have had on the greater community, it’s pretty awesome, and that’s something special.
TSD: Who are your heroes when it comes to taiko? Who are your sources of inspiration?
LU: Oh my. Our pioneers. I think, of those, PJ was actually one of my teachers, because I did go to work at San Jose Taiko for a couple of years… Roy, too — so all the pioneers: PJ and Roy Hirabayashi, Jeannie Mercer, Russel Baba has been heavily influential — he was one who inspired the ITI (Intercollegiate Taiko Invitational), Kenny Endo was kind enough when Steve cold-called him to come participate with us, and he’s been a great proponent of Stanford Taiko. Alan Okada… Johnny Mori, we could go on and on, but all those pioneers of taiko are amazing. Personally, as far as having the spent the most hours in the studio, I think it was PJ and Roy because I worked in San Jose Taiko with them.
TSD: If you were to introduce a complete beginner to taiko, what would you recommend?
LU: We start with the history of it! So it would be, you know, talking about the start of taiko in North America. But we also go back to Osuwa Daiko and Daihachi Oguchi-Sensei and Oedo Sukeroku and Kodo, and all of those people. Of course, in North America, our influence has been more direct.
TSD: What about listening to taiko music?
LU: You gotta go experience it! You gotta go see taiko, and feel it and experience it!
Her eyes light up. It’s one of those moments she so strongly believes in: Ahe stares at me, at once solemn but and enthusiastic, as if taiko music is something palpable. And it might just be. For those who experience taiko, it’s an art, a choreographed performance, a symbol of empowerment, a lifestyle and an unforgettable, life-changing experience.
Contact Maimi Higuchi at maimih ‘at’ stanford.edu