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LA's Taiko Drumming Scene Is Loud And Proud -- And For Everyone

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Taiko Project drummers perform at the Ford Theatre in Hollywood. (Courtesy Gennia Cui for Ford Theatres)

It starts with a loud, guttural scream,a sort of call by a leader to the rest of the drummers. The others respond and the drumming gradually builds, gathering sonic energy, untilan aural explosionenvelops everything.

This is Taiko, a Japanese tradition that goes back more than 500 years. But in the last six decades or so, it's been brought to the main stage by way of Los Angeles and a universal immigrant story.

Halle Fukawa started playing at age seven. She's now fifteen and said she just can't stop.

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"It's just something that's so powerful, and I think a lot of the times, especially in [a] society that women aren't really encouraged as much to be powerful...Taiko, hitting the drums, showing energy, showing emotion, it's something that is so addictive."

Fukawa is part of a youth group, Kitsune Taiko, who along with Bombu Taiko and Taiko Projectare rehearsing in the basement of the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo. It's a group of more than 40 drummers, ages 10 to mid-50s, rehearsing the opening piece of the show they'll be performing this Saturday at the Ford Theatre in Hollywood.

Taiko drumming is dynamic, visceral, physical and, of course, loud. At one recent rehearsal, women make up the majority of the performers - about two-thirds. Women's participation in Taiko goes back 50 years, when it began taking root in L.A.

Bryan Yamami, executive director of Taiko Project said the original Taiko drums came to the city as part of the Buddhist tradition - but it wasn't practiced much. A temple had one Taiko drum to be used once a year during the Obon festival.

"They would play it at this festival to remember one's ancestors and to dance in this idea of joy," Yamami explained. "But back in the late '60s, early '70s, some members of the Senshin Buddhist Temple, they pulled out this drum, they just kind of looked at each other and said 'hey, we should play this more than once a year.' They just started banging on it and a few hours later, they're sweaty, their hands were bleeding, and they said, 'let's do this more often.'"

Johnny Mori, one of the founding members of the Kinnara Taiko group, explained how Taiko planted roots in L.A.'s Japanese-American community.

"Because of our parents sacrifice, during the war and after the war," he said, "we were given the opportunity that allowed us to create our own culture ...and to understand and study Japanese culture, but it also gave us a situation so that we could develop our own Japanese-American culture or American culture."

Taiko Project drummers perform at the Ford Theatre in Hollywood. (Courtesy Gennia Cui for Ford Theatres)

During the groups' rehearsal at the Little Tokyo temple, Lisa Shimamoto takes the lead, with an opening call to more than 40 Taiko drummers. Shimamoto, 57, lives in Monterey Park and started drumming in 2002.

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"My nieces were playing Taiko in Monterey Park so I was taking them to their events," she said. Almost every weekend I have to take them to practice or I had to drive then to a gig, I'd bring them home and they'd say, 'oh auntie, you should try it one day,' so that's what I did."

Anyone can play Taiko -- age or background doesn't matter.

"I'm not Japanese myself," said drummer Jen Baik, who's Korean-American and has been with Taiko Project since 2004. "I found Taiko through my love of music [and] I've really come to love the traditions and the culture behind it and how it's changing in the U.S. as well."

Masato Baba, the artistic director of Taiko Project, said he's wants to continue teaching the style the same way he learned it from his parents.

"I definitely think that preserving the culture and the music of Taiko is important, and so, as much as I can, I try to teach that way to our students, and hold on to those traditions as much as possible," he said. "For here in Los Angeles, it seems to me it's a little bit more wide open right now. There's no certain restrictions, there's no one person here saying you need to do this way or that way."

Taiko Project drummers rehearse for an upcoming performance. (Courtesy Kim Nakashima)

Fifteen-year-old Halle Fukawa, of the youth group Kitsune Taiko, said there's something special about the community she's been a part of for seven years.

"The thing that sets us apart from everybody else is our synergy and how well we work together, and how much energy is on that stage," Fukawa said. "I really hope that people coming to watch for the first time will walk away and just say like, 'Wow, that was amazing, I felt like I was up there with them.'"

The seed that was planted fifty years ago, by both Kinnara Taiko in Southern California and Taiko Dojo in the Bay area, has spread across North America. Today, there are more than two hundred Taiko groups in the U.S. and Canada.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it on KPCC's Take Two.