Hello, I’m Joe Small. I’m was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and play taiko drums. To write about my own taiko experience is a little embarrassing as I do not tend to write about myself, nor do I find myself a particularly adept writer. Moreover, there are countless people in the community far more thoughtful and skilled than I am in taiko – that’s not a diffuse compliment meant to make me look humble, but what my experiences have repeatedly indicated to me. So, I do not purport to be an expert – I’ve learned enough to know that I really don’t know much, and can only speak from my own experiences as well as what I’ve remembered or recorded.
Looking over what I’ve written below, I’d say that my personal history reads ‘wider’ than ‘deeper’ – I have not studied for a relatively long period of time; nor solely under one style, group, or teacher. I don’t see ‘accomplishments’, but the somewhat sporadic behavior of somebody with a lot of enthusiasm and curiosity – someone who clearly loves taiko and has tried to embrace all of it despite the truth of impossibility – there is no end to what one can learn or do in the art.
Performing my responsibility as a reflexive graduate student, I will acknowledge that I have enjoyed great privilege of body, gender, education, time, and funds to access so much opportunity – particularly as I’ve managed somehow to bounce back and forth between (and within) Japan and the United States several times. But, one benefit of this travel is a breadth of study has allowed me to maintain an open mind about the myriad ways in which people construct ‘taiko’ – as ‘tradition’, as ‘stemming from tradition(s)’, as ‘non-traditional’, as a transglobal art form, as something not yet encountered or considered yet, etc. While I cannot say ‘it’s all good’ –and that I have not found certain aspects or attitudes more agreeable than others (there’s certainly any number of issues and statements out there to make one’s eyebrows arch), my mentality for the art seems to align around those with a good deal of compassion (I should be circumspect as to whether or not I play or approach taiko in that manner), particularly based out of teachers/artists who have made a significant impact on my personal development and understanding of the art. My subsequent writing for this TCA blog will hopefully reflect that to some degree.
Anyway, my practice of taiko started in January 2002 as a first-year undergraduate at Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia, under the instruction of my dance professor. I had no prior knowledge of the art form, nor much of Japanese culture, yet, at the first class I instantly felt a joy in generating motion and striking the drum. Perhaps more so than the loud sound generated was the swift action of striking with an audible, tactile result – my body felt empowered. My teacher encouraged me to delve into taiko and explore the relationship of percussion and choreography, so during the summers of 2002 and 2003 I received my first formal instruction in taiko under Kenny and Chizuko Endo at the Taiko Center of the Pacific. They were extremely generous and welcoming to me, and after practice I would sit and observe rehearsals, mostly with my mouth hanging open in awe. During this time, TCP also gave me an introduction of the greater taiko community at events such as the 2002 Summer Taiko Institute in LA (again, taught by Kenny Endo), and the 2003 North American Taiko Conference in Sacramento. Returning to college, I set about making taiko pieces without thinking too deeply, and I ended up establishing and co-directing Swarthmore College Taiko along with a good friend who has now played with San Jose Taiko for some time.
A semester as an exchange student Tamagawa University in the Fall of 2003 followed, where I was able to study taiko and nihon buyo, performing as a member of the performing arts department’s taiko/dance ensemble (which for the past eleven years has toured the American northeast every April during Cherry Blossom Festival season; I’d encourage you to see a performance if you’re in the area at the right time). Returning to the USA, I continued duties as co-director of Swarthmore College Taiko and for the final project of my dance major, produced a concert featuring the work of the student group as well as my own original compositions. In the interim summers I acted as an administrative summer intern at San Jose Taiko. Following graduation I also held an summer artistic internship at Portland Taiko in Portland, Oregon (during a transitional period from leaders Ann Ishimaru and Zack Semke to Michelle Fujii) and received some instruction in both locations.
In the Fall of 2005, I moved to Osaka, Japan and embarked on a one-year Fulbright Fellowship based at the National Museum of Ethnology (Kokuritsu Miinzokugaku Hakubutsukan) under the advising of ethnomusicologist Prof. Yoshitaka Terada. I played at the Seigakukan Taiko Dojo under Asuka Minehide, leader of professional group Wadaiko Hiryu, while conducting observational and participatory research across the country for the purposes of examining cultural contexts and choreography in Japanese Taiko Drumming. These experiences allowed me to travel across the country for local/regional festivals, concert performance, and workshops – and brought me into contact with a number of groups and artists including but not limited to Amanojaku, Art Lee and Tokara, Batiholic, Eitetsu Hayashi and Fu-Un no Kai, Ikari Daiko, Kodo, Tokyo Dagekidan, Oedo Sukeroku Taiko, Wadaiko Hiryu, and Wadaiko Matsumura Gumi. It was fun, exciting, and a wonderful learning experience – but also similar to sitting and watching people eat a variety of delicious cakes. Simply, I realized I wanted to partake and the year had flown by quickly.
With that in mind, I considered the suggestion from a friend on Kodo’s staff and decided to apply for the Kodo apprenticeship in order to expand upon my understanding and experiences in Japanese performing arts and culture. From the spring of 2007 to the beginning of 2009 I lived on Sado Island as an apprentice. Although I did not advance to junior membership, I managed to survive and complete the program – a reward in itself. Returning to the United States, I did some instructing back at Swarthmore while receiving instruction myself from former Kodo member/artistic-director Kaoru Watanabe as well as former Za Ondekoza member Marco Lienhard, both of whom are based in NYC. I also toured as a member of Marco’s group, Taikoza.
From September 2010, I relocated to Los Angeles and entered the MFA dance program at UCLA’s World Arts and Cultures/Dance department to do choreographic experiments combining taiko and contemporary postmodern choreography and performance art (and did a little playing with the pick-up group Prota). Traveling to Tokyo and Yokohama for the summers of 2010 and 2011 for additional language study, I also received some instruction from Kiyonari Tosha at the Nihon Taiko Dojo, Mizuho Zako at Oedo Sukeroku Taiko, and Kaoly Asano at Tawoo Taiko Dojo, the school of professional group GOCOO. The latter summer also led to an opportunity to apprentice in Odawara under Eitetsu Hayashi – regarded as one of the foremost pioneers in both group-centric and solo contemporary taiko performance.
At the time of this writing, I have concluded a two-year apprenticeship (2012-2013) as an uchideshi (inner disciple) of Eitetsu-san (or as we call him, ‘Shisho’), where I toured and performed as a member of his professional ensemble, Fu-Un No Kai. I also took some shinobue lessons in Edo Bayashi from Master Suzuki Kyoksuke and also continued some Nihon Buyo lessons under my teacher Isaburoh Hanayagi. Having returned to UCLA to finish the latter half of my MFA degree (June 2015, fingers crossed), I’m currently working on-campus in various choreographic projects involving taiko, and am happy to be back in the taiko community. I still join in on Prota practice, teach workshops as well, and am looking forward to joining up with Eitetsu-Shisho and Fu-Un no Kai during their October 2014 tour in the United States.
Some of the things I might write about in future articles include experiences of performing, cultural (mis)understanding, studying taiko in Japan, issues surrounding the body and identity, as well as issues surrounding forms and arts involving taiko or its representation. I always welcome comments, questions and feedback, and ideally this should work as an outlet to engage in constructive dialogue with readers. Thank you!