Kyo Daiko, Philadelphia’s only Japanese-style drumming crew, provides a heart-pounding experience.
“We want to be big,” he adds. “That’s what taiko is: big!”
Taiko drums have been traced back hundreds of years in Japan, used at festivals, during battles and as a way to communicate over vast distances. Traditionally, only one or two drums were used at a time. During the 1950s, Japanese jazz drummer Daihachi Oguchi experimented with taiko ensembles—numerous drums at once, played with precise, elaborate movements.
Taiko quickly became popular in Japan. It spread to America in the 1960s as Japanese-Americans began acknowledging a heritage many had shelved following World War II xenophobia, when more than 100,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans had been interned in War Relocation Camps.
“It was rooted in the civil rights movement,” Palmer says. “For people of Japanese ancestry, taiko was a way to reclaim their culture.”
There are now around 4,000 taiko groups in Japan, 150 in North America and dozens more around the world.
“Half of it is the choreography, the movement, and half of it is the actual drumming,” O’Neill says. “It’s a very physical performance. It’s very tiring.”
O’Neill was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and American serviceman father. She came to America when she was 5. She now manages the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, a nonprofit that offers grants to city arts programs.
“I’ve started working out because it’s hard to get through it if you don’t have the stamina,” she says.
After the two-hour practice session, the members are sweaty but smiling.
“If we’re doing it right,” Palmer says as he points to his torso, “when we finish, we should hurt like hell right here.”
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.