Kyo Daiko, Philadelphia’s only Japanese-style drumming crew, provides a heart-pounding experience.
After the lunges and other stretching, June Washikita O’Neill mans the odaiko, the large drum that is the heart of the ensemble.
With the 3-foot wide drum at her eye level, she gingerly taps a beat that slowly evolves into a thunderous, hair-raising rumble. Her arms rapidly pound the taut cow skin, with the bachi—thick, wooden drumsticks—becoming a blur. The two performers on the smaller, high-pitched shime drums begin thumping, and the rumble reaches a feverish pace.
Between beats, O’Neill and the dozen other members of Kyo Daiko, Philadelphia’s only Japanese-style drumming crew, start shouting, “Eeeeeeii Ya Sa!”
They repeat the rhythmic, nonsensical phrase over and over again as the resonant roar fills the room and the energy builds. Then the remainder of the troupe joyously prance on to the stage, waving their bachi in the air, continuing to scream, “Eeeeeeii Ya Sa!”
After a dramatic pause, they each man a drum and the tribal-sounding beats erupt into an explosion of sound, matched by uniform choreographed movements, creating an avalanche of sight and sound.
“It’s so much fun,” shime drummer Audrey Tuckerman says after performing the song. “Taiko is so awesome.”
The Kyo Daiko performers are a collection of people from various backgrounds, races and ages who share a love of the taiko experience.
“Kyo means cooperation in Japanese,” explains Matt Palmer, 29, a founding member of the troupe. “Daiko means drum. So we are a community of drummers.”
The group formed five years ago when O’Neill, then the executive director of the Japanese House and Garden in Fairmount Park, and Palmer, the House’s site manager, grew frustrated by having to locate taiko troupes from elsewhere to perform at festivals and events at the Japanese House.
The students at Benjamin Franklin High School wanted to do a talent or fashion show, but the principal, Christopher Johnson, challenged the students to combine everything into a spring play. The result? A chance for students to empower themselves.