Denver Taiko is celebrating its fortieth anniversary with a pair of concerts at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Denver campus. The title of the concert is Okage sama de, which translates to “Because of you.” The nonprofit organization's membership is composed largely of Americans of Japanese descent who have learned to play and perform with the taiko, a large drum important to the cultural music of Japan.
The taiko's origins remain somewhat obscure, but its first documented use is generally traced back to the sixth century C.E. The drum has been used to communicate and used in social and religious rituals in both the Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Taiko performance came to America in the late 1960s, through Seiichi Tanaka, who founded the first taiko performance group, San Francisco Taiko Dojo. Tanaka brought a performance to Denver in the mid-1970s, and a group of admirers founded Denver Taiko in 1976, making it the fourth such troupe in North America.
The Mile High City has long had a significant Japanese American community, as evidenced in Sakura Square downtown. Visitors to the square will find a bust of former Colorado governor Ralph Carr, who famously called for racial tolerance and welcomed Japanese evacuated from the West Coast following Executive Order 9066 in 1942, the government order calling for placing Japanese Americans into internment camps like Amache near Granada, Colorado.
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Having established its own niche, Colorado's Japanese American community has celebrated the Cherry Blossom Festival in Sakura Square since the location's founding in 1973. It is only fitting that Denver Taiko would find a regular avenue for its performances at the nearby TriState Denver Buddhist Temple at 1947 Lawrence Street, as well as at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival itself. But Denver Taiko has reached beyond a specific cultural context, and according to Kia Silverman, one of the Denver Taiko performers, the group can also be seen at the annual Dragon Boat Festival at Sloan's Lake, the Boulder Asian Festival and Taste of Colorado.
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Taiko is impossible to ignore. It's no coincidence that the drums were used by warlords to communicate orders during Japan's Warring States Period of the sixteenth century. But Japanese Americans are far removed from that time in history and may not be the most visible ethnic group in American society. So the nature of taiko itself has had a visceral appeal to those who have taken it up in the modern era, along with the thunderous sounds and dedication and discipline demanded by the instrument. “The group now really loves the dynamics of taiko because it's so loud and so energetic that members are drawn to it.... It's a spectacular sight to see a lot of people playing drums in unison,” says Silverman. “It's not as elegant or as artsy as, say, ikebana, [which is] flower arranging, or [traditional Japanese] dance, so it also appeals to the younger generation, who really want to keep in touch with their Japanese ancestry but not do something that's sort of passive — as opposed to taiko, [which is] very powerful and out-there.”
For the shows this weekend, you can expect not just a robust and striking taiko performance, but also a display of the ways in which taiko remains relevant for a broad spectrum of age ranges. “We have eighteen people performing for our two concerts, which will be mostly drumming, but will also include some dancing and a little singing,” says Silverman. “We have two guest artists on Saturday: Taiko with Toni, who combine jazz and taiko, and Mudra Dance Studio, an Indian dance troupe. On Sunday, we will have Jr. Denver Taiko, a subsidiary of Denver Taiko comprised of kids ages eight to eighteen, and Break and Keys, a duo of trickers, a type of breakdancing.”
Denver Taiko 40th Anniversary Concert, Saturday October 8 at 7 p.m. and Sunday October 9 at 2 p.m., The Newman Center for the Performing Arts at University of Denver, 303-871-7720, all ages.