Arts & Culture

Gendo Taiko merges tradition, modern music, martial arts

Japanese percussion group performed Friday, Saturday at RISD Auditorium

Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 16, 2019

University and RISD student percussion group integrates traditional Japanese drumming with modern jazz music and martial arts. The performance attracted nearly a thousand people and received positive reviews.

The synchronization and power of many drums vibrated through the Rhode Island School of Design’s auditorium on Friday and Saturday night as the twenty-some-odd percussionists moved and rotated in complex patterns at their spring concert “Gravity.”

Gendo Taiko, a Brown and RISD student group that practices and performs “traditional Japanese drumming with elements of martial arts and modern jazz,” entertained almost a thousand guests at their two-hour performances. According to the ensemble’s Director Diana Lin RISD ’19, the title “Gravity” seeks to convey the sense “that we are not trying to force the bachi (drumsticks) down, we are just following the dropping of the bachi.” A short performance between sets using a diabolo, a cousin of the yo-yo, accentuated the theme for the audience.

Founded in 2004 by Brown alums Joshua Goldner ’05 and Raiki Machida ’07, Gendo Taiko continues a legacy of Japanese Taiko drumming that began in the 6th century by incorporating a more contemporary ensemble structure, which is a mid-20th century innovation. According to the organization’s website, “Gendo, loosely translating to ‘path of free imagination’ represents the journeys taken by members in years past, and the experiences of creative inspiration we hope to pass down.”

Gendo Taiko runs workshops for students throughout the fall semester. “I didn’t even know what Taiko was at first. I just got a handout for workshops at WaterFire and heard the sound of the drums,” Lin said. She added that when “I saw them play for the first time, … it was the coolest thing ever, even though it was one of the easier songs.”

Many audience members had similar reactions after attending the performances. “The show was incredible,” said William Zhou ’20. “I really enjoyed the combination of both the musical talent … and the athleticism and performance element that was intertwined with it.”

Ben Myers ’21 had seen the show last year and was there again Friday supporting a friend who was performing. The show had “a way of evolving and moving. … Every song and every drum pattern was something new, and they changed it up in a way that was completely unexpected. … It’s really just breathtaking.”

The group’s musical and performative abilities come from diligent and rigorous practice. According to Lin, the group prepared for 10 weeks, practicing between three to eight times per week.

“If you’re in 4 or 5 songs, you might be practicing 20 hours a week,” wrote Gendo Taiko’s Publicity Officer Alex Alverson ’20 in an email to The Herald. “Our rehearsals are always focused on not only honing technique and synchronizing our movements, but also on developing the song structure and writing solos together,” Alverson wrote. The group rehearsed for six hours each day for the week preceding the show.

Even with their intense preparation, challenges arose before and even during the shows themselves. Thursday “was our dress rehearsal, and I was still kind of worried because some of our songs were being put together for the first time,” said Lin.

Alverson added that to perform a cohesive piece, “I always keep my ears open and expend 90% of my energy listening to the other members. Listening and communicating non-verbally is one of the most important aspects of our show.”

The ensemble’s degree of preparation impressed audience member Emma Dennis-Knieriem ’21. “I didn’t know what to expect going in,” said Dennis-Knieriem. “I’m a classically trained musician, and after many years of training, my rhythm will never be that good. … They’re so incredibly in sync.

“I hope the audience had fun!” Alverson wrote.  He added that he hoped the audiences appreciated the “different aspects of Japanese festival culture. … I also hope that, on a deeper level, people will be encouraged to think about the myriad forms of art and music in the world and take a more active role in supporting the arts and music in our education systems.”

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