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Portland Taiko comes to Estacada

Two-week residency program culminates with a performance Friday night

With a show that is part history and part storytelling, Portland Taiko's performance at the Estacada Auditorium this Friday night is sure to shake every seat in the building.

'Taiko' is the Japanese word for drum, and is also the word used to describe the art form that will be on display. While difficult to describe, the performance promises to be an upbeat percussion-based experience headlined by a short performance from local Estacada elementary school students.

Portland Taiko came to Estacada thanks to an arts education grant facilitated by Estacada Together through the Regional Arts and Culture Council. The grant was for $6,000 and was accompanied by an additional $1,000 from the Estacada Community Foundation.

The combination of both funds not only brought the performance to town, but also included a two-week residency program with Estacada elementary schools.

'This is a big deal because it's a performance, the residency and some teacher development,' said Jane Reid from Estacada Together. 'One of the things we think is important is that all kids are exposed to various kinds of artistic expression because we like the concept of reaching all students.'

About Taiko

For thousands of years, Taiko has been used by the Japanese in religious ceremonies, festivals, theater, and even some more practical uses like scaring pests from the rice fields and enemies from battle.

In some communities, the village boundaries were even determined by how far away the large drum could be heard.

In any Taiko group, there are a wide variety of drums used, ranging in size, material and most importantly, sound.

The ensemble drumming that is performed by Portland Taiko was founded in Japan in the 1940s before coming to America in the 1970s. Once in America, it has been significantly influenced by genres like jazz, soul and blues, making it a truly unique sound.

While the musical portion is significant in the Portland Taiko performances, the Japanese history of America is also a huge part.

People from Japan began coming to the United States in the late 19th century, helping with large national projects such as the construction of railroads. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, however, everything changed.

That is when 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-American citizens were sent to relocation camps that were similar to prisons. Years later, the children of adults who were sent away began asking questions of the government, asking them to apologize and repay them for losses sustained in moving.

Taiko became part of this 'redress movement,' as Japanese-Americans became more and more interested in rediscovering their heritage. This search for cultural identity coincided with the arrival of Taiko in the United States, making it the perfect match.

As one of nearly 200 groups nationally, Portland Taiko was founded in 1994, traveling across the country twice a year on tour. When the group isn't touring, it travels to areas like Estacada for an intense, two-week residency program.


Estacada's program began Monday, April 2, with a series of assemblies for every school in the district. At each assembly, students were introduced to Taiko courtesy of a small version of the performance the entire community will see Friday.

While some students only got this brief exposure to Taiko, the district's fourth- and fifth-graders got to get a little more in depth. Throughout the two weeks, Portland Taiko met with each of the nine fourth/fifth grade classes three times.

The sessions began with some mental and physical warmups, followed by a chance to learn some necessary Japanese terms.

After they were all warmed-up, students learned the appropriate stance to take while playing the drum, which allows them to create a much larger sound than would be created with poor posture.

Next up for instruction was their 'Kiai,' which is the term for a loud shout used to gather energy. In call-and-response fashion, the instructor would shout out their kiai, as the students responded with their own.

Finally, the students were ready to bang on the drums.

As each student approached their own drums, they took part in a few different exercises, including a game of copycat. In the game, the instructor would play a series of rhythms, which the students would then attempt to play right back to them.

'It has been amazing,' fifth-grader Camryn Sjaastad said. 'It's a great experience to feel the vibrations and to know some more about the Japanese culture of Taiko.'

Sjaastad's classmate, fourth-grader Michael Schwimmer, agreed with her sentiments, but the residency took a much deeper meaning for him.

'My grandpa went to an internment camp,' he said. 'So he knows about Taiko, and I like doing it because I am Japanese.'

As the residency wraps up this week, around 20 student representatives will be selected from the participating classes to put together a 10-minute performance for Friday night.

On stage, they will be accompanied by a full band of eight to nine Taiko performers.

'We're going to give a landscape of our art form,' Art Director Michelle Fujii said. 'We represent diversity of the art form through lyricism and movement, while also giving some context and explaining what the students have been learning for the past two weeks.'