Taiko drumming incorporates Japanese flavor into downtown arts and culture scene

Members of the Fushicho Daiko dojo on Grand Avenue practice the ancient Japanese art of Taiko drumming. (Alexandra Scoville/DD)
Audio story by Jayson Chesler

Ro Pugh was at the Arizona Matsuri festival three years ago when she first heard deep, reverberating beats of Taiko drumming, an ancient Japanese art form.

“You could literally feel it through the concrete,” she said while taking a break in between the stretches and warm-ups that started the evening’s Taiko lesson at the Fushicho Daiko dojo. The drum studio opened in downtown Phoenix near Grand Avenue and Taylor Street in January.

Back in her memory, Pugh was completely absorbed by the sound.

“I just sat there for five hours and got dehydrated and didn’t eat anything. I just fell in love with the sound,” Pugh said.

Five minutes later, she had joined the rest of the approximately dozen members in the dojo. They were each paired with a large, round drum that came up their knees, as well as a pair of bachi, which are thicker and shorter versions of typical drumsticks.

A mirror covering one wall reflected the tightly packed room, filled by the drummers arranged in a circle, preparing to play by the stacks of drums against the opposite wall. Some were no larger than a bowling ball, while others easily measured six feet tall.

Each member would take their turn leading a warm-up song, carrying the beat alone for a few seconds before the others joined in. Those opening notes were soon layered over many times, adding to the noise level and the complexity of the beat.

Eileen Morgan, the dojo’s director, began the first song.

She struck a dynamic pose, cried out a monosyllabic Japanese word, and struck her drum. The beats from her instrument alone were already creating the concrete-penetrating experience Pugh described.

However, when the entire room joined, it became truly thunderous.

It wasn’t just noise though. There was careful coordination involved. If one person was off or one beat was missed, the entire sound would have been ruined.

The form was strong and exact. That dynamic pose was held throughout each of the two-minute warm-up songs. In a longer and more complex piece performed later in the practice, two young drummers danced and leaped while playing.

There were also ceremonial flourishes—most memorably with the final strikes of the drums, where the players would end holding their bachi straight in the air, which felt as though it was vibrating after the deafening performance.

Each song ended with a low bow from the leader.

The little dojo’s music fits right into this quirky, cultured part of Phoenix and Eileen Morgan feels their booming presence already being accepted.

“My husband just told me that a couple of the neighbors came out of their building last night or the night before when they heard us playing, and they just got a big smile on their faces because they’re really excited to hear this happening,” she said.

Formerly located in the residential home of the previous director and founder of the Taiko troupe, Esther Vandecar, Morgan knew the group was definitely in need of the move.

“We spent our time trying not to annoy the neighbors,” she said.

Morgan first learned about Taiko when Vandecar approached her in 1992. Morgan was a music teacher at the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf and Vandecar wanted to establish a Taiko program for the school’s students.

Once the program concluded after a year and a half, Morgan sought out one of Vandecar’s student groups and joined.

Now, Morgan’s the director of a group of 34, ranging from children to adults. She has performed at 19 Arizona Matsuri festivals, an annual event celebrating Japanese culture through food, performances, and more in downtown Phoenix. The troupe is currently preparing for the upcoming festival on February 23-24 at the Heritage & Science Park.

Morgan sees many benefits to her passion.

Taiko is an ancient Japanese art form used in religious, entertainment and military contexts across centuries. The practice of ensemble Taiko, practiced at Fushicho Daiko, is a more recent form.

“Here in the United States, it brings teamwork and collaboration,” Morgan said. “It takes a lot more commitment and willingness to work as team to get everyone playing together and moving together.”

It’s the physical aspect of Taiko that often surprises observers. They watch a performance and see the dynamic stances and dancing incorporated into the drumming. The extensive movement and training is one of the greatest challenges for players.

“I’ve been doing 100 crunches a day to do a song in another group,” Ro Pugh said.

Another member, Jake Dennison, 25, lived in Japan for four months when he was 22.

“When I came home, I fell into a rut since I didn’t really have anything to do,” he said. He found and joined the group in October 2011.

Morgan’s daughter, Anna Morgan, a biochemistry freshman at Arizona State University, is also a member. She said that she enjoys the diversity Taiko brings.

Tim Sprague, the Grand Avenue Merchant Association president, said he had good expectations for Fushicho Daiko.

“They’re adding another group of people to come down to Grand and take a look at it,” he said. “I think they’re setting a nice precedent to music-related activity on Grand.”

Fushicho Daiko joins other Grand Avenue music businesses, Trunk Space and the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery.

Morgan looks forward to being a member of the Grand Avenue community and a part of the larger development happening in the area. She has become a member of GAMA, which works to promote Grand Avenue businesses and to preserve the street’s character and history.

“Everyone’s working together to bring a little more awareness to the area,” she said.

The Phoenix Taiko Drummers hold lessons on Saturday, for children at 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and for adult beginners at 1-3 p.m.

Contact the reporter at alexandra.scoville@asu.edu

Correction: Feb. 20, 2013

This article previously ran with Tim Sprauge’s name misspelled. It has been corrected to reflect the proper spelling.