I was a shy kid who rarely raised my voice, even on the playground, yet as long as I remember I’ve been drawn to the drums. When I was eight or nine, and a recent transplant to northern California from the East Coast, my parents took me to see Stanford Taiko. I was transfixed by the entire thing — the deep pulse of the odaiko that I could feel in my chest, the crisp articulation of a dozen drummers playing in unison, the sudden swells in volume until everyone was playing full out. I also loved the energy of the players, who smiled and grimaced and sweated and yelled through it all. I had no idea what they were saying, but somehow it made sense anyway.
Since then, my love of drumming has taken me lots of places, from school concert band to jazz set lessons, from West African drumming classes to my college “found-object percussion group,” before bringing me back to taiko in 2011, when I picked up a flyer for an “intro to taiko” workshop by Mark H Rooney. Nine (!) years later, I’m a member of Miyako Taiko and the Mark H Taiko Connection.
In my ongoing efforts to become a better performer, kiai (the unintelligible yelling I remember from my first taiko show) has always been a big challenge for me. Kiai is used to convey emotion and communicate with fellow taiko players — to give energy to a tired soloist, for example — as well as the audience. A taiko song could be played perfectly, but if there is no kiai, it will probably sound like something is missing. But knowing all this hasn’t made it much easier for me to do it. I constantly have to remind myself “don’t forget to kiai,” which just goes to show how unnatural it is for me.
Fast-forward to early March 2020. I arrived at Miyako practice to find Mark Clorox-wiping bachi. Everyone was on edge. The coronavirus outbreak had just been declared a pandemic, and state and city leaders were starting to ban large gatherings of people. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last practice we’d be having for a while.
After talking through some recent news developments (including the cancellation of Sakura Taiko Fest, our flagship annual show, as well as the entire cherry blossom performance season), we set up the drums to run through a couple of songs. On that particular Thursday, after a stressful week, it felt great to hit the drum as hard as I could. I was surprised to hear myself yelling, too — and it felt different this time.
Instead of my brain telling my mouth what to yell like it normally does (“Try yelling this sound!”), I didn’t even have to think about the emotions I should be conveying. I just felt them, and then I heard them coming from my own lips — not actual words, more like primal sounds of all the emotions I had built up in recent weeks of seeing COVID-19 slowly take over and then upend our world. Frustration. Anger. Fear. Grief.
Expressing these all-consuming emotions was exhausting, but it also felt good. And as we moved on to a lighter song, and I looked around at so many people smiling for the first time of the evening, another feeling rose to the surface: immense gratitude for this group of people that I get to play with every week (in normal life, anyway).
More than 40 days into social distancing here in Washington, D.C., taiko practice is one of the things I have been missing the most. I can’t wait for that first post-pandemic practice, whenever that may be — something tells me we’ll need that kiai more than ever.
Photos copyright Thomas Huggins