Dancing for Ancestors: Tucson’s Taiko Drummers Return to Traditional Roots

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Karen Falkenstrom loves to bang on a taiko drum. As the artistic director of the Japanese ensemble drumming group Odaiko Sonora, she gets to do it often, bringing the experience to youth and community as a form of celebration and spectacle.

Odaiko Sonora at Tucson Meet Yourself in 2012

Odaiko Sonora at Tucson Meet Yourself in 2012. Photo courtesy of Odaiko Sonora.


“We can have a huge impact on community… because we’re so loud,” she said with a laugh.

Indeed, the group has been invigorating Tucson Meet Yourself for the past 15 years, much to the delight of audiences. But this year, they’re bringing something else, too — “Hopefully, a few hundred people dancing together in public for their ancestors,” Falkenstrom said.

Falkenstrom is committed to returning to the art form’s roots: a tradition of ritual and community, which includes dance and theater in addition to rhythm making.

Just over a decade ago, Falkenstrom learned about obon, a custom in Japanese Buddhist festivals to honor one’s ancestors. Much like El Día de los Muertos in the Southwest and other parts of the Americas, during the observance of obon, families come together to visit and commune with departed loved ones. They also celebrate with a dance called bon-odori.

“The dance captured my imagination because the physicality of our practice comes out,” Falkenstrom said.

MOCA, 2013

Odaiko Sonora at Museum of Contemporary Art, 2013. Photo: Matt Whitney


Obon dances are also about celebrating unique communities, as each village has their own rhythm and their own dance, she said. “There are regional similarities, but each has its own interpretation,” she said.

The dances center on bringing people together. “The bon odori sometimes goes on all night long, and people dance and eat and drink sake,” Falkenstrom said.

Falkenstrom wanted to start an annual obon festival in Tucson, but felt there wasn’t a large enough Japanese population or Buddhist church to help sustain it. “Plus it’s really stinkin’ hot in July and August, when the festival usually happens.”

So she began plugging into Tucson’s existing festival to honor ancestors, the All Souls’ Procession. For several years, that meant, pulling and playing a taiko on a cart during the procession itself.

All Souls drum cart

Odaiko Sonora with All Souls drum cart. Photo courtesy of Odaiko Sonora.


But then Falkenstrom attended various North American obon festivals in California, where she witnessed many of the traditional bon-odori dances. Inspired, she selected a dance that was easy to learn and easy to teach others.

She adapted and added to the choreography in order to create a dance about Tucson. “It describes mountains and blazing sun and wind and rain and having to weed the yard after monsoon rains. It’s a whole dance based on life and landscape of Tucson,” she said.

When she saw a 1,500 people get up to dance an original bon-odori dance, song, and drum rhythm at the San Jose obon festival, Falkenstrom wanted to follow suit. She created a rhythm to support the dance and commissioned a Japanese Canadian artist to create a chant. In 2014, Odaiko Sonora performed it as part of the All Souls’ Procession and finale.

All Souls Finale 2014

All Souls Finale 2014. Photo: Paul Davis III.


Odaiko Sonora will share that obon ritual dance again at this year’s Tucson Meet Yourself. The group will first perform a regular, 45-minute set of both traditional and original rhythms. Then, with the help of the Southern Arizona Japanese Cultural Coalition, they will teach the dance to audiences.

Falkenstrom’s hope is to recreate the feeling of the obon festival, where people dance together to the same song for a long time.

“Doing group movement in sync is simple and powerful and a physical spiritual manifestation of community,” she said. “It harkens back to times people would move together through daily tasks,” Falkenstrom said. “Just by washing clothes or digging together they created unspoken bonds.”

Falkenstrom wants a few hundred people to do that at Tucson Meet Yourself. “I’d love to get enough people to shed their inhibitions to move together to spread community without words.”

And if dance and drums and ritual aren’t enough, Falkenstrom is also excited about Japanese food at this year’s Festival. Tomomi Katz will be making and selling takoyaki, a ball-shaped snack with diced octopus in a flour-based batter, fried in a special, vibrating pan.

Takoyaki are a Japanese festival favorite. “If you think of funnel cakes in America, takoyaki is like that in popularity. Deliciously crispy, too!”

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