Triangle Taiko

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Voices of Asia and the Pacific, Part I by John W. Lambert

When it comes to programming rare and unusual orchestral music in Raleigh, NCSU's Randolph Foy is hard to beat. And for whole concerts of rare and unusual orchestral music, Foy's occasional festivals, which generally involve his two orchestras - the Raleigh Civic Symphony Orchestra and the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra - are definitely the places to be. Yes, one can hear new music from time to time elsewhere, but marketing considerations tend to limit the amount thereof in any given program. Foy programs music he loves, and he doesn't seem to give a hoot about the revenue side. But - wonder of wonders! - the people come! And so it was on the afternoon of April 18, in Stewart Theatre, when his large orchestra (68 or so players) undertook to present the first of two concerts being given this spring that celebrate "Voices of Asia and the Pacific," concerts that feature music by composers more often talked about than heard, in this neck of the woods. But before we got to works by Yuzo Toyama (b.1931), Lou Harrison (1917-2003), Tan Dunn (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame, b.1957), Bright Sheng (b.1955), and the Old Man of the first batch, Colin McPhee (1900-64), the large crowd was entertained by some hypnotic, minimalistic, traditional drumming, courtesy of six members - William Barry, Mari Bathrick, Roger Claise, Rocky Iwashima, Yoko Iwashima, and Hiroshi Kishimine - of Triangle Taiko, which managed to jolt the mostly Western audience out of its presumably mostly Western mindset and paved the way for some of the "strange" sounds that were to come. A bit of yelling, a bit of bell-ringing, and a whole lot of pounding on various drums produced some mighty noise that shook the hall and everyone in it as if a freight train had decided to take a little detour straight through the student center. It's a safe bet that some in attendance wondered what they'd gotten themselves into..., but as it happened, there were certain characteristics of the drum piece, listed in the program as "Yatai Bayashi," that would recur from time to time during the rest of the program, the components of which were thoroughly documented in Foy's informative notes. For example, the first work played by the orchestra, Toyama's Rhapsody, begins with wood blocks, wielded by the brass section. The piece, written in 1960 for use as an encore, seemed, at first hearing, a bit of a pastiche, and indeed it is based on a series of folksongs, variously presented. In places, it was as insistent as the drumming had been. (Performed on 4-18-2004)

Triangle Taiko was formed last year by Jason Sass, a Duke University law student who spent a year in a small Japanese fishing village, teaching English. He had seen and heard traditional drumming in old samurai movies, so he approached the local Taiko club there. Soon, he became part of the team.

"The most surprising thing was how difficult it was to play," Sass said. "You look at a drum and you think, it's a drum. How hard can it be? You hit it with a stick, right? But you really have to play with your whole body. It takes a lot of body control."

When he enrolled at Duke, he started looking for a Taiko ensemble. Lots of people were interested, but no one else knew how to play. "The next thing I knew, I was the coach," Sass said.

Now, there's a beginner's class and an advanced class, made up of people who share an interest in Japanese culture.

"Playing it feels ... it's hard to describe it," said Bill Barry of Wake Forest, a postal carrier. "There's something very elemental about it. Primal."

It's not just about rhythm. Students must learn choreography, too -- when to shift the weight from one leg to another, how to circle the bachi in the air with drama. Most important, they must learn to play as a group.

Now the advanced students show the beginners what their piece can look and sound like with a little more polish. For this, they put away the garbage cans and bring out a midsize drum that resembles a wine barrel.

Barry starts with the bass, his bachi bouncing lightly off the drum's face with a rich, hollow sound. When Lewis strikes the rhythm, the floor vibrates. Stomachs vibrate.

She hops away and others step in, shouting "Hoi-sa!" with conviction, their arms a blur.

Then the tempo slows. "Hoi-sa," the drummers whisper, all of them circling the drum now. Lewis taps on the rim. She taps again, more forcefully. Faster and louder the bachi fly, in perfect rhythm. Suddenly, the piece ends.

"Ha!" the drummers shout.

The beginners take a breath, then applaud. "Wow!" they exclaim, before kneeling on the floor and lowering their heads in a deep bow, signaling the end of class.