Taiko Drumming in North America


A review of Drumming Asian America: Performing Race, Gender, and Sexuality in North American Taiko, by Angela Kristine Ahlgren.

Drumming Asian America: Performing Race, Gender, and Sexuality in North American Taiko is an astute exploration of the interrelated discursive practices informing the performance and historical narrative of North American taiko.  Particularly as taiko expands beyond Japanese- and Asian-American communities, studies such as Angela Ahlgren’s dissertation are important for their recognition and investigation of the ever-expanding groups interested in the art form.  This work combines a deeply ethnographic approach with feminist, queer, and performance studies to present the ways taiko performers are multiply figured (race, sex, history, gender) as well as the diverse spectatorial perspectives of audiences.  Whatever tension there is in Ahlgren identifying as a white, female, queer Asian Americanist (as opposed to “being” Asian American) is used productively to examine how taiko affirms, challenges, and expands the Asian American subject position.  Her writing investigates the processes that “constitute and contest the category of Asian American performance” (p. 49), while tracking the shifting legibility (or illegibility) of an Asian American identity. Ahlgren highlights the multiple modes of engagement with taiko (for participants and audiences) that reveal common desires and, at its best, community building.

The writing is organized into an introduction and three chapters.  In addition to summarizing her ideas, the introduction includes a critical review of North American taiko history.  Each subsequent chapter concerns a specific group and subject matter.  Chapter 1 focuses on San Jose Taiko and the negotiation of an “authentic” Asian American identity; Chapter 2 addresses Minneapolis-based Mu Daiko, multiculturalism, and feminism; and Chapter 3 covers the performance of gender and queer spectatorship in Jodaiko and the work of Tiffany Tamaribuchi.

From the start, Angela Ahlgren positions herself as a non-Asian American taiko performer writing from “an Asian Americanist perspective… a fellow-traveler, both figuratively placing myself as witness and ally to Asian American communities, and literally riding alongside my group members on our way to countless festivals, school cafeterias, and concert halls to teach our audiences about Asian American performance” (p. 6).  She employs her “otherness” not as a simplistic essentialist bid for authenticity (i.e., Asian Americans are “others,” and I am too), but rather as a self-conscious, productive tension reminding her of the always incomplete nature of identity and the manifold influences upon it.

As a quick introduction to the art form, taiko is both the Japanese word for “drum,” as well as the name of a genre of “ensemble” drumming, also known as kumi daiko or wadaiko.  What distinguishes kumi daiko from traditional Japanese taiko drumming is a focus on the taiko as the primary instrument, as opposed to a background time keeper.  Most taiko ensembles tend to combine drums of various sizes and configurations (e.g., chu (“medium”) daiko and odaiko (“large” or “great” drum), and okedo taiko (lashed head drums) with other Japanese percussion (e.g., atarigane  or hand-held brass gong), chappa (small brass cymbals), and fue (flute).  Though taiko drums have been in Japan for centuries, kumi daiko began in 1951 with Daihachi Oguchi (1924-2008) and garnered international attention in the 70s and 80s through groups such as Ondekoza and Kodo.  The first three American taiko ensembles were the San Francisco Taiko Dojo (1968), founded by Seiichi Tanaka (1943- ), Kinnara Taiko (1969) in Los Angeles, and the San Jose Taiko Group (1973).  North American taiko initially developed in Japanese American and Japanese Canadian communities particularly among the younger Sansei, or third generation, many of whom were searching for ways to connect with their Japanese ancestry.  It has since spread beyond Japanese- and Asian-American communities, with particularly strong growth on college campuses.

Alhgren’s introduction clearly locates North American taiko within Asian America, and it is the Asian American movement that offers a context for understanding American and Canadian taiko practices.  This is noteworthy because it invokes a particular narrative about taiko as both political and artistic.  It is a narrative that shifts focus away from figures such as Seiichi Tanaka (founder of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo – SFTD – and widely recognized as the grandfather of American taiko), even while recognizing their immense contribution.  With this in mind, Ahlgren analyzes the construction of the mythos surrounding Seiichi Tanaka and the SFTD, one that venerates him as the archetype of Japanese authenticity in American taiko.  She offers an equally critical eye to the origin stories of Kinnara Taiko.  In the end, however, her goal is not to contest the significance of these groups in North American taiko’s development.  Rather, she uses her analysis to shift attention away from these oft-told and adulatory narratives to taiko’s more political elements.

The introduction positions taiko as a “multivalent performance form embraced by Japanese American audiences as a Japanese art form, and at the same time was a site of innovation that broke pervasive stereotypes of Japanese people as quiet and weak” (pp. 23-4, emphasis in original).   This is a common account of taiko as “authentically” Japanese, political, powerful, and agentic.  Using this as a starting point, Ahlgren moves beyond an analysis that assumes a direct connection between representation and political power.  While recognizing taiko’s roots as an “Asian American performance,” Ahlgren intentionally disrupts the fixity of this definition by attempting to locate “specific moments when taiko performances tug at the edges of that category, shaping it, questioning it, expanding it, and in general exposing the instability of such identity markers” (p. 37).  Citing Judith Hamera, Ahlgren’s work encompasses an attention not only to race but also to its interconnectivity with the discourses of gender, sexuality, class, and culture in understanding taiko as Asian American performance.

Orientalist imagery plagues perhaps every North American taiko ensemble.  Promoters might advertise taiko concerts as the “sounds of the Far East” even if the performing group is from Portland or New York.  And yet, taiko does originate from Japan, and many American and Canadian taiko performers look to Japan as the fount of “authentic” taiko.  For San Jose Taiko, the tension between these poles leads to the creation of “their own authentic practice” (p. 70), and this is the subject of Chapter 1.  Ahlgren explores not the category of authenticity, but the process by which an authenticity is constructed between performers and audience members.  Pointing to Joni L. Jones’ work, Ahlgren notes that authenticity is “something one does rather than something one is” (p. 68), and it is in performance that one can embody and forge a “new authenticity” in conjunction with audience members’ reactions or participation.  For San Jose Taiko, this meant creating a uniquely Asian American taiko.  Their piece “Ei Ja Nai Ka?” (Isn’t it good?) combines dance and music in a re-visioning of early Japanese immigrants as part and parcel of the American experience and American agricultural and industrial labor.  The choreography stylistically resembles the physical labor of farmers and people working on the railroad, and this is explained to audiences.  Depending on the venue, San Jose Taiko performers will invite audience members to dance along, thereby working collaboratively to re-envision and embody an Asian American identity.  These practices, in addition to school outreach and talking to audiences after a show, are how “SJT navigates as an Asian American, Japanese American, and multi-ethnic performance ensemble in the U.S.” (p. 103).

In Chapter 2, though Ahlgren critiques the missteps and misunderstandings that can arise from well-intentioned multiculturalist programs, she still identifies the possibility for positive effects in these contexts.  A concern for members of Mu Daiko, similar to SJT above, is that of being placed in multicultural celebratory situations where they are read as the “exotic other,” available for the Orientalist gaze and denuded of a history of protest, violence, and exclusion.  However, in that same show might be a Korean adoptee (maybe the only Asian in her class) who is encouraged by seeing another Korean adoptee perform this powerful music.  So, while an Orientalist misreading may arise, “the performance spaces also encourage multiple gazes and improvisatory responses to a range of spectators. Outreach audiences are never homogenous, and performers’ affective responses serve as evidence that outreach performance both is and is more than multicultural exchange” (p. 124).  It is, of course, obvious that audiences are heterogeneous.  Nevertheless, Ahlgren’s insight provides an important balance to scholarship that focuses too heavily on a simplistic one- or two-way quarrel between Orientalist and “Other” (notably my own work, Paul Jong-Chul Yoon, “’She’s Really Become Japanese Now!’: Taiko Drumming and Asian American Identifications.” American Music 19, 2001, pp. 417-438).

Women have a significant presence in North American taiko, and the impact of this fact has been a focus of past taiko scholarship (e.g., Deborah Wong, Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music. New York and London: Routledge, 2004).  Part of Chapter 2 is also devoted to detailing the women of Mu Daiko who compose, perform, and teach taiko across racial boundaries.  These powerful performances complicate comfortable notions of femininity.  Rather than seeing a focus on women as an exclusionary move, Ahlgren explains how an all-female space within taiko can foster communitas.  This topic is more fully explored in Chapter 3, where Ahlgren considers the “homo-geneity” of the self-described queer Asian women members of the taiko group Jodaiko.  The ironic use of the term emphasizes their unity in sexual identity and plays on the stereotypes of Asian homogeneity.  Ahlgren states, “For Jodaiko — organized officially around gender, but unofficially around sexuality — ‘homo-geneity’ signals the political force of unity and strength, a type of ‘queer belonging,’ rather than the erasure of difference the term usually indicates” (p. 173).

The third and final chapter also locates “‘an erotics of taiko’ that subverts the Orientalist gaze, both through imagining alternative spectatorial positions and through analyzing a kinesthetic spectatorship that disrupts the one-way, objectifying gaze” (p. 182; and Deborah Wong, Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music. New York and London: Routledge, 2004, p. 219).  As in Chapter 2, Ahlgren disrupts the Orientalist gaze, putting in its place the possibility of a positive, collective response to queer performance.  Such an interpretation does not necessitate an “all-queer” audience.  Rather, employing Jill Dolan’s work in theater, Ahlgren argues that an audience that allows for the possibility of queer performance might “be pulled into comfortable, more intimate proximity to each other” (Jill Dolan, Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005, p. 31) through engagement with the body in performance.  Sonically, in the taiko context, it is the somatically enveloping sound that invites audience participation and desire.  Visually, it is the solo drummer, in this case Tiffany Tamaribuchi, whose “butchness” defies feminine stereotypes.  “Whether or not the audience members are queer, they move along with Tamaribuchi in this moment, move along with a woman whose body refuses normal femininity, in order to move along with each other in their seats” (p. 192).  Such an interpretation opens taiko to multiple explanatory possibilities beyond the Orientalist framework and into a space of myriad perspectives in community.

Using theories from theater, queer, feminist, and performance scholarship, Angela Ahlgren unveils new possibilities for politics, sexuality, and participation not only within taiko performance, but for the performative context generally.  Her work is important in as much as it opens taiko to the possibility of a utopic politics of inclusion and community rather than an oppositional one.  Certainly, this is a significant expansion of taiko scholarship.

Paul J. Yoon
Department of Music
University of Richmond


Participant observation
Interviews conducted by author
Hirasaki National Resource Center, Japanese American National Museum
Interviews (conducted by Sojin Kim) for Big Drum: Taiko in the United States

Dissertation Information

University of Texas, Austin.  2011.  220 pp.  Primary Advisors: Jill Dolan and Charlotte Canning.


Image: Photograph by Angela Ahlgren.

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