The Asian American theatre performance chosen for this essay is Akatombo, a rendering of Japanese Taiko developed by Naoko Amemiya of Portland. Akatombo is a piece of Taiko composition based on “a famous Japanese folk song and showcases tight Taiko choreography, Japanese flute and singing” (Akatombo). Taiko involves “repeatedly banging, slashing at and clacking an array of drums while pushing the body through sweeping, animated gestures. Drummers follow a predetermined beat, but the songs, mostly written by the group, allow for both physical and sonic improvisation” (Toto 4). Portland Taiko, which composed this piece, uses a few innovations that mark out the performance from traditional Taiko. One of the most notable of these differences is the presentation by female artists, where previously only male artists were allowed to perform. This innovation is not just unique to Portland Taiko but generally holds true with Asian American practice of the art. (Daily Herald 1). This essay will argue how this novel yet groundbreaking aspect of Asian American Taiko, namely the trend of women practitioners adapting and improvising the art form, produces a uniquely feminine expression.
Taiko is quite different in terms of its origin, purpose, and effect, compared to more popular musical forms such as rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, etc. But what Asian American groups such as Portland Taiko have done is to bridge the East-West culture gap by adapting the throbbing drumbeats to the tastes of American audiences. Yet, they have retained the spiritual and cultural essence of this ancient Japanese art form to the maximum possible (Um 114). In the Akatombo piece, we see how histrionic percussion is blended skillfully with forceful chants and fierce melodies. (Album Notes) The audience can feel the optimal combination of the spiritual and the melodic in the orchestration, not to forget the synchronized choreography on show. The elegant, methodic and drawn out visual movements of the two artists accentuate the feminine aspect of the performance.
As the official website of Portland Taiko proudly proclaims, artistic excellence and innovation are central to their vision of the art. Portland Taiko “inspires audiences, affirms Asian American pride, builds community and educates about our heritage and culture” (Akatombo). In the Akatombo performance video, the clip begins with a recitation of a Japanese folk hymn. Following this introduction, the focus shifts to the two female drummers, who together master five sizeable Taikos (Taiko in Japanese also literally translates to a “drum”). They begin a coordinated and synchronized display of visual and aural spectacle through slow rhythmic beats and deliberate drawn-out hand movements. The spacing of time is not constant as the beats approach and retract from the crescendo in two separate cycles.