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Japanese taiko drumming provides cultural connection for San Jose percussion troupe

San Jose Taiko helping reclaim heritage through ancient Japanese art form
San Jose Taiko helping reclaim heritage through ancient Japanese art form 03:26

An ancient Japanese art form that connects people to their heritage with each pounding beat, taiko drumming was recently on full display at the 46th annual Nikkei Matsuri Festival in San Jose's Japantown

When Franco Imperial hits the taiko drum, it creates a certain sensation.

"I feel like there's a relationship happening in terms of connecting with the instrument. And that translates into what the audience hears and feels," Imperial explained.

And whether it's a single drum in the studio or a group of them being played in the street, creating something people can hear and feel is what San Jose Taiko has been doing for more than a half century.

'We all have a heartbeat, and I think that pulse is what we tap into when we're doing any kind of drumming," Imperial said.

He joined the group 26 years ago and is the group's longtime artistic director.

"When I'm drumming, I feel pure joy. Bliss," Imperial added.

Those are some of the feelings the founders of San Jose Taiko tapped into in 1973, when a new Japanese-American cultural pride emerged decades after World War II and the hardship of internment.

"That generation really struggled and fought to reclaim that identity with pride and with honor," said San Jose Taiko Executive Director Wisa Uemura.

Uemura began playing taiko as a Stanford student in 1993.

"Taiko, for our group of founding members, really was a way for them to say, 'This is a Japanese art form and it's not a quiet passive art form that so many people associate with the Japanese culture.' It is something very loud, very powerful, very much in your face, claiming their voice, claiming their heritage," Uemura said. "And that really spoke to those individuals and continues to this day."

Although permanently a part of San Jose's Japantown, the group has evolved into one of the premier arts organizations in the city, attracting students and players from all backgrounds.

"It's kata, technique, attitude and key.  If you can embrace those four principles, it doesn't matter the color of you skin, gender or anything about you, you can be a part of this group," Imperial said.

The drumbeat goes on for San Jose Taiko, keeping culture and tradition alive while reaching out to new artists and new audiences every day.

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