Minnesota’s Taiko Community Gives Back with the Issho Benefit Concert

Harisen performers in cosplay

Harisen Daiko performers at CONvergence 2017. Photo by Madeleine Vasaly

Fans of Harisen Daiko in the Twin Cities are familiar with the group’s combination of geekery and traditional Japanese drumming. Harisen performs frequently at local conventions such as CONvergence and MantiCon, in addition to many other performances, and their repertoire is a mix of traditional-sounding pieces interspersed with, for example, the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine theme or “The Dawn Will Come” from Dragon Age: Inquisition. On March 19, 2019, Harisen Daiko will be performing with four other local taiko groups in a concert to celebrate both the taiko community and the wider Twin Cities community.

All proceeds from Issho: A Minnesota Taiko Celebration will go to benefit the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and the Twin Cities Japanese American Citizens League Education Committee. In addition to Harisen Daiko, the groups performing include Kogen Taiko, originally based within the Twin Cities Buddhist Association, coming out of hiatus for this performance; Ensō Daiko, a professional group formed in 1997; Taikollaborative, a community group; and St. Olaf Taiko, a collegiate group started in 2004. Since so much of taiko is about collaboration and dialogue—with each other and with the community and the audience—the organizers decided to give back to the community formally. While each group will have its own time to shine, the five groups will be playing together in various combinations on a couple pieces, including an improvisatory piece featuring everyone.

Harisen Daiko performers outside

A more traditional Harisen Taiko performance. Photo courtesy of Harisen Daiko

Taiko is, at its heart, a drum ensemble. Performances are loud and energetic; they typically have a mix of pieces that are composed—as in, written down—and those that are improvisatory. Performers shout, gesture emphatically, trade drums, and twirl sticks in the air. As the Harisen Daiko website says, “Yes, that noise was us.” While the other local groups don’t necessarily have a nerd-related focus, geeks will appreciate the dedication, focus, and interest in niche topics required to excel in an area like this. Performers, even in the community ensembles, rehearse weekly or more often, and some of them have even taken up composing for their chosen ensembles.

Taiko (or daiko, depending on the word that precedes it) is a relatively recent art form. Although its roots—military and other kinds of ceremonial drumming—are thousands of years old in Japan, it only got its start after 1951, when Japanese jazz drummer Daihachi Oguchi founded an ensemble for the purpose of artistic performance. It soon was imported to the United States, with the first group organized in San Francisco in 1968 and the first student group at UCLA in 1990. Taiko came to Minnesota with Kogen Taiko in 1985 and formally to Minnesota colleges with the formation of St. Olaf’s group, although many local schools have hosted classes and performances of the other area groups.

While Issho itself, whose title means “together” in Japanese, has been spearheaded by Harisen Daiko, the idea of collaboration among the groups isn’t without precedent. During the 2017–2018 season, Ensō Daiko held a Taiko Tuesdays series of concerts. For the first one, held at the Ordway, the professional group invited members of Harisen and Taikollaborative to perform with them, and many of the other concerts included outside performers. Now, a year later, the local players have decided to bring five of the local groups together to celebrate the community of taiko and to support the Twin Cities community that has supported them for so long.

“Because of Harisen’s geeky nature, we’re susceptible to the power of team-ups, which may be why we got so excited about this idea,” says Vanessa Stephan, a member of Harisen Daiko and one of the organizers of the event. “At an individual level, there’s a lot of interaction between the groups. Some Harisen members learned taiko when they were students at St. Olaf. Many of us took, or continue to take, classes with Mu Daiko, now Ensō Daiko. Some people are members of more than one group. But as groups, we generally only cross paths at events like Como’s Obon Festival, or Normandale’s Japanese Garden Festival.” And now, fans will get to see five groups in one concert.

For those on the fence about going, watching a performance—and absorbing the energy, even through a video—is the best way to determine whether it’s something you’d enjoy. Try Harisen Daiko’s 2017 performance at CONvergence, above, or Taikollaborative at mile 9 of the Twin Cities Marathon. Or, if you prefer something a little more formal, here’s Ensō Daiko with guests from last October, or an older video of Kogen Taiko. For a longer performance, St. Olaf Taiko’s YouTube channel has entire live concerts.

Issho: A Minnesota Taiko Celebration will be held at 7:00 p.m. on March 19 at the Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul. Entrance is $15 for general admission or $10 for seniors and students. Tickets and more information are available here.

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