Karen Falkenstrom on building taiko drums, creating community, and passing on tradition.
Interview by Eryka Dellenbach
Karen Falkenstrom (she/they) is a taiko drum maker and performer from Tucson, Arizona. Co-founder of Odaiko Sonora, Tucson’s Japanese drumming ensemble, Karen has been building Japanese drums for over 20 years and is recognized as one of North America’s top builders of wine barrel taiko. Awarded a 2021 Master-Apprentice Award from the Southwest Folklife Alliance, Karen is working with Natalie Wilson, a member of Odaiko Sonora, toward the goal of growing a North American taiko-building community to sustain the art form.
What is taiko?
I consider it a musical and martial art team sport using drums and voice and dance. It’s a traditional instrument that’s been used for thousands of years – for communication, moving troops, and village communication. It’s been used in rituals, Shinto and Buddhist religious practices, festivals, theater and court music. It’s had all those uses in Japanese culture. And then in the 50s it became a performing art through the work of Daichachi Oguchi, who brought jazz influences to the practice.
Can you talk about your path to taiko?
I first encountered Taiko in 1992 when I saw KODO play at Centennial Hall at the University of Arizona. I was so moved by that performance I started looking for a taiko group somewhere nearby so I could study it. There wasn’t anybody in Tucson at the time doing Taiko. There was a group in Phoenix. I remember seeing them at the Southwest Arts Conference when I was doing arts administration. Back then I was mostly involved in poetry and I was getting my MFA in creative writing. I wasn’t willing to drive up to Phoenix every week to study taiko, which, in retrospect, I wish I had been, because that would have given me another 10 years of playing. But then again, it might not have come out to where it is now because of what I was forced to do ten years later.
I found a guy to teach me, Mr. Stanley Morgan. I met him in 2000 when I got back from Korea, where I had been doing a fellowship. He was an older gent who didn’t so much study taiko but made drums. He was one of the first Caucasian guys to found a taiko group, and he innovated some methods for building North American Taiko. He was actually a kendo master, and he’d started teaching himself some taiko because they use a taiko at the beginning of the kendo matches. Three of us would go to his little apartment – he knew a handful of songs – and he would teach them to us. He had really strong opinions about what was the “taiko way.” If I called one of the instruments a drum he’d say, “It’s not a drum, it’s taiko.” I was like, “Wait, but taiko just means big drum in Japanese, right? Why can’t I just call it a drum?” But he was adamant that we not do that. He was really orthodox about the Japanese-ness of it.
Right after I joined the group, one of the principal players left, so I ended up getting thrown into performing really fast, which is kind of typical of taiko. If you’re in a village taiko group, you may have been doing this your whole life every year, studying a little bit of taiko. Then, when the big festival comes, everyone will come out a month before and practice. There’s not really any formal training, you just copy everybody. And then after the festival, you’d put the drums away and probably not play again for a year. I had to study really hard to learn nine songs for my first performance. But I think sometimes when we do something that’s really hard and challenging, that’s when we really get hooked, because we put so much of ourselves into it.
Sometime later that fall in 2001, I had the opportunity to study with Tiffany Tamaribuchi for a weekend intensive in Moab. My teacher in Tucson was 75 or 76, and his health was failing, and I was eager to get more training. Tiffany had just come back from Japan, and had won the world odaiko contest that Asano sponsored. Asano is sort of the Stradivarius of taiko drums—they’ve been building drums for 400 years. It was remarkable because she was the first woman and the first non-Japanese national to win the odaiko contest. Tiffany has been my teacher since then. She’s a remarkable player and person and the leader of Sacramento’s Taiko Dan. She studied with Tanaka-Sensei, the godfather of taiko in North America—he brought it here in 1968. So I went to that workshop with Tiffany and I learned so much about what taiko could be.
Tiffany had a way of breaking things down that made them make sense and made me feel like I could advance more quickly. Even though Mr. Morgan would say “grab the earth,” Tiffany is the one who really showed me how to do that. If you root your energy below your own body and pull it up from the earth through your body and out your hand, it makes every gesture more powerful. The trick is getting the body in line to maximize that flowing of energy. Taiko is so physical that when you don’t do it for a while you can really tell that you haven’t been hitting something with a stick and making a loud noise. It’s not just physical. It’s also mental and emotional, that release and discipline.
You’re one of the founders of Odaiko Sonora, Tucson’s taiko ensemble. Can you talk about the formation of that group?
Right after I began studying with Tiffany, Mr. Morgan had a heart attack and a stroke and crashed his car all in the same moment. So he was in rehab for a couple of years, not really able to play. At the time, Rome Hamner and I were the people who were playing with Mr. Morgan. We had to make a decision because we were both totally hooked and wanted to keep playing. We talked to him, and we decided we would start our own group, Odaiko Sonora.
In order to have a group, we needed to have instruments, and the only way you can afford [drums] is to build them. Because an Asano, or any Japanese drum that you tried to buy back then, would have to be shipped over from Japan and would have cost $3,000 to $3,500 with shipping. And if you need 16 drums, right there, you can’t found a taiko group. You could build a drum out of a wine barrel back then for like $350 and maybe forty hours of your time and some power tools. It’s gotten more expensive, because barrels and skins have gone up. We went up to Phoenix for five weeks and learned how to build drums from Tony Trapasso, who had learned from Mr. Morgan. Tony was able to teach us to build the drums, following Mr. Morgan’s methods and with some of his own innovations, and that’s how we started Odaiko Sonora: two girls, two drums. Later on that summer, we asked Esther Vandecar who was the sensei of the Phoenix group, Fushicho Daiko Dojo, to come down and do a workshop. We advertised it, and about sixteen people signed up. She taught us a few songs. Those sixteen people were the original members of Odaiko Sonora. So we were just kind of winging it!
And now, 21 years later, you’ve performed for big events, small events and everything in between?
Everything from memorials to huge festivals, full length concerts, you name it. Taiko has a really broad appeal. We were just asked to do a memorial for a woman’s mom who was Japanese, and that can be very meditative. But some people really want us to do a rockin’ song for the memorial because they want to celebrate life. Our group, we tend to play short, half hour to 45 minute sets at events and fundraisers. We play a couple of big festivals like Arizona Matsuri up in Phoenix and Tucson Meet Yourself. We do school programs.
The first gig I saw of Mr. Morgan’s was a private party at a really expensive house up in the foothills, with all this artwork. We’re like, “You need to take the artwork off the walls.” The vibrations are intense. It was a two-story space, and when something fell off the wall, it came down and took out a vase and something else. We were just like, “We told you … .”
What makes a taiko drum unique?
There are different kinds of taiko drums. There’s the ones that are carved out of a solid piece of wood; there’s the ones in which someone makes staves and carves away at them, and there’s a wine barrel taiko, which is very limited in terms of its shape. We always look for the burgundy barrels because they’re shorter and they have a bigger bow, and that helps us achieve something closer to the Japanese proportions. Some Japanese people will say that the taiko we build here in North America out of the wine barrels are not taiko.
You need a particular kind of skin and thickness. The instrument is designed to be super loud, but not to have much resonance, meaning the decay is quick. So you hit it and it doesn’t linger. It’s very different from a bass or a kettle drum where you hit it and there’s that long sustain. It’s true as far as I can tell that when you hit a taiko drum, the sound bends upwards rather than down.
How do you build a taiko drum?
To prepare the Japanese drums, you would actually fell a tree. Then you would cut a section, shape it and hollow it, and inside they would hand-carve a pattern to make the drum sound suitable for different uses. The Japanese drums are just so beautiful. For one thing, when you think about making a drum out of a live piece of wood that hasn’t been [treated], there are these little cells in wood. The cells stay intact while you’re carving away, and what is left is what I call un-tortured wood. But when you’re looking at a wine barrel, you’re looking at tortured wood. In order to bend oak staves, you have to repeatedly steam and fire them, and those cells are changed. Nothing sounds like a Japanese drum. They might be shaped like a traditional drum with a long body, but inside the cavity is actually spherical. That sound and acoustic space can’t be achieved with a wine barrel.
I love going to get barrels because my car always smells like wine—it pervades all the upholstery and everything. When I get these barrels, the first thing I do is number the staves, knock the rings off, and then I take it apart. In order to try to achieve the Japanese proportions, these days I use a drill press to take out more material towards the center and leave more material towards the ends of the staves. I used to use a router, which was a bit frightening. Then I sand off anything that looks like it’s going to blister; sometimes the wood blisters, so you have to get rid of those pieces because they can fall off. Then I biscuit join the staves together into the barrel shape again. In order to maintain the shape of the barrel as a circle, we put in what we call an “insert,” a reinforcing ring. That’s the basic construction of the barrel.
I take so much time doing my heads because I’m listening all the time. It’s a living hide; it’s not a dead thing. They stretch and have a life in them. I’m tapping. I jump on it. I crank slowly, I’ll undo a part and I’ll change a little tiny thing here and there. I will take a day and a half to head a drum, just keeping it wet. And I let it relax. I don’t believe I’d get the same stretch if I just cranked it really tight.
In your experience, has there been a focused preservation of taiko’s history and lineage as the practice continues to be passed down?
It varies from group to group. I learned we need to know the history of every song that came to us: how it came to us, where it came from, and acknowledge the teachers on an ongoing basis. In fact, some players like Tiffany who studied with Tanaka-Sensei, will still try and send money back to him each year, to support him. In traditional Japanese structure for taiko, you wouldn’t have class units, membership dues, that sort of thing. It’s unspoken, and you just learn to do the right thing, because the culture is so high context, but nobody bills anybody. There’s not even any copywriting, because it’s just an issue of honor. If you’re going to play somebody else’s song, the best thing is to learn it directly from them. And you always credit them. If you’re going to depart from it in any way, you ask permission. If you’re going to teach it to somebody else, you ask permission. These are the old ways. And that’s all shifting as taiko spreads. In our group though, we emphasize learning the history of the art form, the different instrument names and what they’re used for, and where the songs came from. Whenever we can, we bring the composers to teach us, and we ask permission to perform and/or teach the songs.
How do you connect with the cultural lineage of taiko?
We’ve written some original songs, which I feel a taiko group should do after a particular amount of time. I wrote one called Aki no Ondo. “Aki” is fall, “Ondo” is kind of a rhythm for a dance. So it’s like the dance of fall – it’s about harvesting. I wrote it specifically for the community group to play, so it wasn’t so hard that only the top level players could play it; it was for everyone. I feel very much that taiko is an egalitarian pursuit. Everybody who wants to do it should be able to fit in somewhere on the team and feel like they are being challenged and contributing at whatever level they’re ready for. For me, taiko is not an elite musical pursuit. It’s about a community.
I referenced a lot of things in that song from Michelle Fuji, taiko artist and Co-director of Unit Souzou, who taught me. She focuses a lot on traditional Japanese folk dance in taiko. Taiko is really not just the drums: it’s dance, and it’s the team. The energy and voice are also really important. In Aki no Ondo, there’s a Korean folk song in the middle, which my mother taught me. And then there’s a nod to what I call the scariest Christmas carol ever, Carol of the Bells.
Whenever you ever create anything, you’re pulling something from your own life to insert into it. My mom is Korean. She was raised in Korea during the Japanese occupation. So I had a little bit of a struggle for a while because when I would say “sensei” (a Japanese word for teacher), my mom would actually have this visceral response; she told me it made her shiver. During the Japanese occupation, Koreans were not treated well. They were forced to speak Japanese and they were denied access to some of their own cultural practices, as is usual with occupying forces. It turns out, my mom is actually really culturally Japanese in many ways, because of those formative years during the Japanese occupation: she speaks Japanese as well as she speaks Korean. But because my mom had that response to taiko, I was like, Why don’t I want to do Korean dance and Korean drumming? I’m one of those people who thinks you should look to your own culture and find what’s in your background and do that thing. But I was drawn to Japanese drumming in a way I wasn’t drawn to Korean drumming. That was a bit of a conflict for me because I felt it was maybe, I don’t know, slightly unethical. But I’ve come to peace because I found out so much more. Including that piece about being raised by a woman who grew up in the Japanese occupation, I am drawn to Japanese culture as much as Korean culture.
Can you tell us about your experience working with your apprentice?
I’ve had a lot of people ask me to teach them to build the drums, and I’ve tried to do drum building workshops in the past. Out of maybe forty people who I’ve worked with building drums, there have only been a few that seem to have the right temperament or skill level, who I’m not afraid of handing power tools to and who have a kind of initiative where they can follow directions, but also think their way through processes. And one of them is Natalie Wilson. When I started working with her, she was just going to stain one drum because she wanted to try it, and she ended up staining several of our drums. She created a lazy susan thing at home, and she plastic-sheeted off part of her house, so she’d have a dust-free environment. And then she figured out how to apply the stains and the varnish in this way that far exceeded the way I did it. I just thought, Wow, that’s exactly what I want. An apprentice is not just someone who’s going to do it the way I do it, but see where my weak places are—because varnishing is not my strong suit, heading is my strong suit. I saw that she was going to be able to make our drums better, because her varnishing would be so much better. So I want to pass on all of this knowledge, but I also want people to improve on it, if possible. Make it smarter, make it sound better, make it more beautiful. So that’s why she’s the person I wanted to work with.
Eryka Dellenbach (b. Chicago) is an experimental filmmaker, dancer and multidisciplinary performance artist and advocate based in Tucson, Arizona. They approach film as a devotional practice and use body-based performance and collaboration as a method of research, connection and mutual evolution. Learn more at erykadellenbach.com