The Big Drums

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Cultural tradition is experienced so powerfully and artistically through the Japanese ensemble drumming called Taiko. Since 2002, Odaiko Sonora has performed this master art and educated a growing community in the physical, mental and spiritual elements of Taiko, as well as in its cultural roots.

Japanese ensemble drumming -- Taiko
Courtesy Odaiko Sonora,

Founders Karen Falkenstrom and Rome Hamner recently discussed Odaiko Sonora and Taiko traditions, with BorderLore:

B: Odaiko Sonora reflects great community artistic engagement. Do you think it has formed its own folklife in our city?

My first teacher said, “if you don’t want to play for people, don’t play taiko.” Taiko is inherently for the community: it gathers us, lends us a communal heartbeat, it sets down the rhythm for processions and group dances. Odaiko Sonora has simply tried to follow that tradition.

Japan is a country of festivals — Sakura, Aki, Natsu, Tanabata, Obon… there are hundreds of matsuri (festivals) — and every festival includes Taiko. We’ve had to adapt some of the ideas, of course, because Tucson is not Japan, but for the most part, we see the greater part of our group mission is to bring Taiko out into the community so it can enrich people’s lives. The artistic accomplishment is almost secondary, but still important to our leaders. But the act of playing in Taiko means we play for our village.

B: Are there origins in Taiko folklore and rituals that involve water?

As with most cultures, Japan has many songs and stories that refer to rivers, waterfalls, rain and storms, and especially to the sea. The latter are often in the martial sense. As an island nation, Japan has always maintained a powerful navy. Two songs Odaiko Sonora plays are part of a suite called Suigun Daiko from Matsuyama. One is intended to send strength and courage to the fleet as it sails to war, and the other is a song celebrating the victory of their navy.

Another aspect we also associate with Japan, unfortunately, involves the tsunami. Buchiawase, a song Rome learned in a small town near Sendai, describes the various waves of the ocean, culminating in long crescendo which depicts the approach of a tidal wave.

Then there is my favorite: the Obon (ancestor festival) tradition of Toro Nagashi, in which paper lanterns are set afloat, signaling the ancestral spirits returning to the world of the dead.

Courtesy Odaiko Sonora, <a href=""><figcaption id=

B: How is drumming in general a part of our region’s culture? Would you look at Odaiko Sonora history and tell us how you have (or will) participate in drumming rituals that engage community?

We always tell our students that every culture has a drum; Taiko just happen to be drums from Japan. In our region, there’s Tohono O’odham or Yoeme traditions, and you also see Navajo, Hopi and Aztec traditions. Usually, there’s dancing associated with the drumming. It’s the same with Taiko; dancing usually accompanies drumming in social situations.

You’re more likely to encounter drumming by itself in religious ceremony. If many people are participating, there almost always will be dancing. In this sense, you can’t really separate ritual and plain old having fun.

Taiko is also considered a team sport. In Japan, Taiko groups are called “teams.” And then, as with many drumming and percussion traditions, such as capoeira, there are many martial aspects to the practice. The form is nearly indistinguishable from karate or tai chi or other Asian fighting forms, especially sword forms.

When we started the Taiko group, it was important (for us to support) the Japanese and Japanese-American communities with their cultural practices. There used to be a number of Asian New Year events that we appeared at. In the 1980s & 1990s, there were so few Asians of any kind in Tucson that many celebrations were “pan-Asian,” celebrating Japan, China, other east Asian cultures, as well as southeast Asian, and sometimes even middle-east Asian cultures. For example, we appeared at most Lunar New Year festivities, even though the Japanese actually celebrate New Year by the solar calendar, on Jan. 1.

Other Japanese events we try to support are Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day), the New Year’s Mochitsuki (rice pounding), both at Tucson’s gorgeous Yume Japanese Gardens on Alvernon. There’s also the PCC Japanese Speech contest, that we’ve played at since its first year (which also happens to be Odaiko Sonora’s first year) in 2002. Since our founding, we’ve also participated, in one way or another, at AZ Matsuri in Phoenix. But, for Tucson, Tucson Meet Yourself is probably the festival we feel is the broadest community service we can provide in this way.

The other community event/ritual we’ve grown very dedicated to, is the All Souls Procession. All Souls is where we plug in the Japanese tradition of obon. Obon is a festival for commemorating one’s ancestor, similar to Dia de los Muertos. (We also tell our students pretty much every culture also has an ancestor practice as well as a drum.) One of the central features of obon is the bon odori, the dancing. We created a dance and a drum rhythm specifically for Tucson, that we teach to anyone who wants to learn so they can join us in the Procession. It’s particularly apt because so many Japanese drumming and dance practices happen while parading. Our group is always just behind the Urn, and provides the drum beat for the front of the Procession. This year, in addition to creating the mini-obon in the Procession, we’ll be providing all the music for the finale. All I can say is “Hold onto your seats!” It’s going to be amazing.

Rome notes one summer community event:
Sierra Vista will be having Tanabata Matsuri on July 6. A few members of our group will be playing there in the afternoon. It’s a small event, hosted by the Sierra Vista Japanese culture club Sakura no Kai.

B: What do you want to say about your storybook, Asako, and its “folktale”?


Courtesy Odaiko Sonora
Courtesy Odaiko Sonora,

Asako grew out of school programs we’ve been doing since 2004. We published the book to celebrate our 10th year and to commemorate the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The book was written by the Odaiko Sonora founders, illustrated by Nadia Hagen, Artistic Director of Flam Chen, and printed by AZ Litho.

About the book’s folklore, Rome adds:
The Asako “folk tale” is an original story. I taught English in Japan in the late 1990s, in Kawasaki-machi (the small town near Sendai that Karen mentioned earlier). My best friend there was Asako Onuma, and I based the Asako character on her.


To learn more about the Japanese big drums and their traditions, to participate in Odaiko Sonora, to purchase the Asako storybook (soon to be published as e-book), to attend the Sierra Vista Tanabata Matsuri, or to be part of the bon odori in the All Souls Procession, visit the Odaiko Sonora website:

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