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Ancient Art Takes a Modern Twist

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A Japanese art form takes center stage at the Museum of Contemporary Art this weekend. It's a type of drumming, called taiko that's taken a decidedly modern form. And it's helping create a sense of community and tradition for Japanese-Americans in the Chicago area.

ambi: sound of drumming

Four small boys stand in front of wooden drums that are nearly chest high. They raise their arms so far they almost lose their balance, then bring down their drum sticks like thunder. The boys are practicing for a holiday festival at the Japanese American Service Committee on Chicago's North Side.

At the end, one of the boys forgets to walk off stage. The founder of their group, HideYoshihashi, kneels in front of him.

YOSHIHASHI: (Laughs.) I'll help you, so you watch me. Everything cool?
KIDS: Yes.
YOSHIHASHI: Did you have fun?
KIDS: Yes.
YOSHIHASHI: (Laughs.) Awesome. OK, I think we're done for today.
KIDS: No.
YOSHIHASHI: What, no?
KIDS: I want to play more.

The group is called JASC Tsukasa Taiko. Yoshihashi started the group with only three members, when he was a teen. Today, there are 60 members of all ages. He's leaving the group behind, to return to Japan, and care for his sick father.

YOSHIHASHI: For me, it's more than an instrument. It give me opportunity of myself and very strong energy I can feel every time I see drum.

Taiko dates back hundreds of years in Japan. It was initially used in religious ceremonies and court music. Soldiers played the drum on battlefields to intimidate their enemies. But it wasn't until the 1950s that the modern form of ensemble drumming was born, and later spread across America.

AOKI: Taiko is a drum, but it really keeps us together. Ethnically keeps us tgether, and artistically keeps us together, and it's our cultural icon.

Tatsu Aoki is artistic director of Tsukasa Taiko.

AOKI: For Asians and Asian-Americans, especially males, we still are fighting with funny Chinaman jokes in this society. I f you are not cultured, it would be very difficult to accept that social structure of being minority. When you have a culture that you can lean on, you can be proud of yourself.

But Amy Homma, who leads the group, says the sense of Japanese-American identity is fading in the Midwest.

HOMMA: Around like my Japanese-American friends, it's like, they don't really know much of the Japanese cultural stuff, which they should. It's kind of a waste for them. They have this Japanese ethnicity, but they don't know much of the Japanese.

One of her students, Dante DiCastri, is fascinated by Japanese culture. He's Italian and Japanese. He's 5, and when he sees a three-stringed instrument known as a shamisen, he moves in for a closer look.

DANTE: Sometime when I grow up, I want to play that.
YAMADA: You do?
TATSU AOKI: You can start right now. I started when I was 4, playing taiko and shamisen. So you can start right now. (Laughter.)

His mother, Tomomi Yamada worries the day will come, when Dante doesn't think it's so cool.

YAMADA: It's easy to disappear, because America is melting pot, and I see a lot of second generation, third generation, all different people, but they're becoming American.

She wants her children to remember their heritage.

Passing on that legacy is the mission of Tsukasa Taiko. This happens at events like the Holiday Delight festival at the Japanese American Service Committee.

Aside from foods like sushi, and Japanese arts and crafts, there's taiko drumming.

While the advanced students waive their sticks in the air with fluid ease, sometimes even twirling around, the younger kids watch from the sidelines with wide eyes.

Like Kenji Mulhall.

MULHALL: I think it's a really loud instrument, and it can be really painful sometimes, but it can be really fun.
KALSNES: Painful how?
MULHALL: Because you have to play sometimes for oh, 6 minutes, so it gets tiring.

Not all of his friends understand his love for the instrument.

MULHALL: Some of them think it's kind of weird, but I don't care. I'm still going to do it. I really like it. It's going to take more than just saying I don't like it to make me stop.

SHERROD: It was like self therapy almost, because you get to take all your anger out on the drums, and like you can't get in trouble for it or anything.

Mia Sherrod and her sister, Ella, are drummers, too.

SHERROD: Some of my friends hang out on Saturdays and stuff, but I'd rather be here practicing, because you're not wasting time doing nothing. You're sort of getting structure and you'll grow from that structure.

Mia lists her priorities as school, taiko and volleyball. This is talk that would thrill her parents. Her mother, Tina Sherrod, is Japanesea-American, and her father Ezelle, is African-American.

EZELLE SHERROD: Coming from two cultures, it's very important that they understand it's not just one, but both. They will chose how they feel, or where they fit in, but it's our responsibility to make sure that they have that complete grounding.

That includes knowing their history. Tina Sherrod's parents were among the more than 100-thousand Japanese-Americans held in internment camps during World War II.

TINA SHERROD: I think that's probably why I don't speak Japanese. I think Mia and Ella, my daughters, are probably more Japanese than I am.
MIA SHERROD: I don't want to lose any of my heritage or my culture.
The African-American part of me, they came in ships, and that's important for me to know that's where I am now, because of that. And Japanese, my grandpa actually was in internment camps, and he tells me stories about how they had to stay there and how they had to be in horse stalls. I don't want to forget anything.

Not everyone embraces their culture right away. Or wants to learn an ancient art in an Internet age.

What helps, says Director Tatsu Aoki, is that group leaders Amy Homma, and Hide Yoshihashi serve as role models.

AOKI: Amy and Hide are both real cool individuals. So when you put them on the stage, it's really cool. There's nothing like live performance. It's something that you would never get from videogame or Internet. That sensation of the live performance, really sustains the kids' interest.

If they stick with it, the top kids can become part of the Tsukasa Taiko performing ensemble. Perhaps someday, like Yoshihashi and Homma, they'll collaborate on jazz projects. And play on taiko CDs themselves.

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