And the Drum Beats On

You can hear them even before you cross the bridge. Heart-rattling, solid booms echo throughout Mesa Parking Structure and blast out into the surrounding community of Mesa Court and the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. But it’s not just noise––the closer you get, the more you can hear the steady  beat that the booms maintain and the rhythmic melody that shakes the concrete walls and floors of the structure itself. Every sound is deliberate, and it doesn’t take long to realize that what you’re hearing is music. From the fourth floor, Japanese drumming ensemble Jodaiko makes itself known.

Courtesy of Akari Sunaga

Courtesy of Akari Sunaga

Created back in the summer of 1992 under the name Tomo No Taiko––”Tomo No” drawn from the already-established Japanese and Japanese American culture club on campus, Tomo No Kai, or “Association of Friends” in Japanese, and “Taiko” drawing from the name given to the broad range of Japanese percussion instruments––UCI’s first taiko group began from the ground up. Practices were held in Torrance at the home of one of the group’s founders, student and trained taiko drummer Peggy Kamon, and with no money to purchase professional taiko equipment, members practiced their striking technique and stances on old car tires and discarded wooden tables.

Much has changed since 1992. Today Tomo No Taiko is called Jodaiko, a name adopted in remembrance of the spirit of the original founders. UCI just crowned Jodaiko Organization of the Month for the month of April. And, as the 27 current members unload equipment from the trunk of one of the director’s cars in preparation for practice, it’s clear they’ve upgraded from the household items of decades past. In total, Jodaiko owns six chudaiko (normal sized drums), four shime daiko (small drums), and one odaiko (large drum). Drums are named as such with respect to the drum size of the group. Some groups have drums as large as Jodaiko’s biggest one and may even call that their chudaiko.

There are also Japanese terms Jodaiko uses for the various parts of the drum. “I feel that by understanding and learning these terms you become more well-versed with not just the playing itself but the culture of taiko,” Bryan Le, fourth-year chemical engineering major and internal director, says. “For example, there is the ‘kan’ or the handles of the drum and the ‘meme’–pronounced me-me–which are the curled up edges of the drum head.”

Equipment set-up for practices can take as long as six minutes, but for the rest of Jodaiko’s twice-a-week, four-hour-long practices in the structure, members must constantly work on their individual techniques and perform select pieces for upcoming performances until they look and sound relatively perfect.

“The biggest challenges, like in most groups, is making everyone happy,” Le says of the grueling weekly practices. “Jodaiko operates on a schedule and is between a remedial group and a business. Sometimes members are unhappy with the internal affairs but as directors, it’s our job to keep the group moving forward to how we see fit.”

Courtesy of Akari Sunaga

Courtesy of Akari Sunaga

Jodaiko spends its practices cycling through nine different pieces currently in its repertoire of songs. While the directors give its members opportunities to create their own pieces––five to six minutes of artfully-choreographed striking, floorwork and arm movements––they’re also known to recycle their more classic songs for special events like sister organization Tomo No Kai’s Culture Night, which they’re preparing for now. Some of these older pieces, 10 of which have been around for more than 20 years, serve to remind Jodaiko members of their roots and rich history.

Though practices may be challenging, they also serve as a way for the members to bond as a family. Members chat while setting up equipment and do homework together during their downtime.

“I owe it to this group for always making me laugh and have fun while constantly striving to get better at taiko,” Akari Sunaga, third-year business administration and studio art double major, says. This is her third year in the program and she participates in almost every event Jodaiko has, whether it be performing for campus events like Autism Speaks or cultural events like the summer Obon festival in San Jose.

“The best part about performing in this group is being able to make the audience go “wow!” or have fun clapping to our beat, too.”

During a run-through of one of the songs, the performers, holding deep lunges behind their angled taiko drums, circle their drumsticks around their head twice before striking hard onto the canvas. The collective boom is what is heard throughout the empty parking structure. It’s music, but it’s also a choreographed dance. It’s a choreographed dance, but it’s also years of hard work, culture and struggle from a small team of Tomo No Kai cabinet members, who decades ago had no experience in drumming, but wanted to celebrate their Japanese culture nevertheless.