To the beat of her ancestor’s drums

Photo courtesy of Nicole Miyoshi

Grasping her drumsticks while poised over the chu-daiko, a classical Japanese drum, sophomore Nicole Miyoshi immerses herself in a taiko ensemble, carrying on a musical tradition over 1,400 years old. 

Although taiko is the exact Japanese translation of  “drum,” it has also come to refer to the art of Japanese drumming. Originally developed centuries ago for military use, taiko became widely used in religious ceremonies, folk music and the imperial court over time. 

Taiko performances as an ensemble, however, didn’t begin until 1951 when jazz drummer Daihachi Oguchi utilized different types of Japanese drums to start the first modern taiko group: Osuwa Daiko. Since then, thousands of similar ensembles have spread all across the globe. 

Miyoshi’s group, Zendeko, dates back to 1986 and is based out of Zenshuji Soto Mission (a Zen Soto Buddhist temple established in 1922) in the Little Tokyo neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles. Members are engaged in almost every cultural aspect, from playing in various Japanese festivals to carving out their own drumsticks. 

“All of the Taiko performers have to make their own sticks from scratch; it’s really fun because we just use saws and our own manpower,” Miyoshi said. “By making sticks it brings us performers closer to our instruments and our music.” 

Taiko drums range widely in size and pitch, from the big, low-pitched Odaiko to the small, high-pitched shime-daiko. Currently Miyoshi plays the chu-daiko, a medium-sized drum, almost two feet in diameter.

“Each drum has a different use, like the smaller drums–since they have a higher pitch–are used in the background for emphasis, and the larger drums are mainly for the centerpiece of it all,” Miyoshi says. 

The drummers are accompanied by a shinobue (a Japanese bamboo flute) and perform tightly choreographed movements. Taiko music is known for its dynamic, energetic rhythms often based on war songs or folk music. Although different taiko styles can be found all over Japan, Zendeko channels its musicality from the island of Hachijo in particular.

Miyoshi first gained interest in taiko after seeing older members of Zendeko perform their original pieces at various events, such as Lunar New Year, Hanamatsuri and Odon festivals. At age nine, she started learning how to play taiko instruments from an alumni seeking to revitalize the group after declining membership. 

Now with an ensemble of around 20 players, Zendeko practices for two to three hours a week and continues to perform at the same festivals around Little Tokyo. 

“The old group also used to perform for a lot of famous people before, so we’re trying to get back to that level,” Miyoshi said. In years past, the group performed for dignitaries such as President George Bush Sr., Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama, as well as celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Kanye West.

While she works to revive the legacy of Zendeko, participating in taiko also allows Miyoshi to embrace the Japanese side of her heritage.  

“I feel more included in the Japanese community because I’m not usually into it because I’m more into my Filipino side,” Miyoshi said. “I feel good when I play for my Japanese community and they actually like it because I’ve brought back something to them that they haven’t heard for a long time.” 

She currently hopes to continue performing in her taiko ensemble for as long as possible, carrying on the tradition and passing it on to future members as it was passed to her.