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Odaiko Sonora Brings Japanese Beats to Tucson

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Karen Falkenstrom and Rome Hamner were just getting started with Tucson taiko in 2001 when Stan Morgan, the founder of the group MoGan Daiko, had a heart attack and had to stop playing and teaching.  In order to keep playing in the Old Pueblo, Falkenstrom and Hamner founded Odaiko Sonora in 2002 as a taiko group, not just for Tucson but the Southwest in general.

Taiko is a style of Japanese ensemble drumming using various sizes of wooden drums.  Although the taiko drums themselves have been used in festivals and ceremonies in Japan for centuries, taiko as a performance art didn’t take off until the 1950s under Daihachi Oguchi.  It started spreading to the United States in the 1960s, and today Falkenstrom says there are around 300 active U.S. taiko groups, with more forming every day.

With various stances to learn, energy channeling philosophies to consider and bachi, taiko drumstick, moves that look more like sword techniques, taiko has elements of a martial art as well as a musical style.  Taiko is like a combination of percussion, dance, theater and a team sport, Falkenstrom said, and one way she heard taiko described by a former teacher is “the least martial of martial arts.”

Falkenstrom herself first encountered taiko in 1992 when, as a graduate student at the University of Arizona, she saw a performance by the famous taiko group Kodo at Centennial Hall.  Unfortunately, at that time the nearest taiko group was in Phoenix and she couldn’t commit to the drive.

After spending some time living abroad and getting her MFA, Falkenstrom met Hamner at the Food Conspiracy Co-Op in Tucson, and  Hamner off-handedly mentioned a taiko class she played with. Falkenstrom jumped at the chance to join MoGan Daiko.

After Morgan’s illness ended MoGan Daiko, the two wanted to continue playing together and in Tucson.  They began travelling to Phoenix to learn from Fushicho Daiko, another group, and after five weeks founded Odaiko Sonora, Falkenstrom said, “with two drums and two girls.”

“It’s unheard of that after having played only eight months you would start teaching…but we really didn’t have much of a choice,” Falkenstrom said.

In addition to teaching how to play taiko, Morgan was also one of the first taiko drum builders in the U.S., and taught Falkenstrom how to build the drums as well.  In Japan, Falkenstrom said, taiko drums are built out of entire tree trunks, which makes them both very expensive and hard to transport.  As a compromise, groups in the U.S. make their drums out of wine barrels. That sacrifices sound quality but greatly lowers the cost and time needed for drum building to about $400 and 40 hours per drum, according to Falkenstrom.

After a demonstration in Tucson by some senior members of Fushicho, Daiko brought in some students for Odaiko Sonora, Falkenstrom and Hamner began travelling around the country to other taiko groups to learn new songs or techniques and then “scurrying back” to Tucson to teach what they had learned.  Based on their experiences, Falkenstrom said they decided to model Odaiko Sonora after taiko groups in San Jose and Sacramento.

Although most groups go by some variation of “City Name Taiko”, Odaiko Sonora’s name is unusual because they wanted to be more of a regional group.  They also wanted a name that wasn’t all in Japanese, because like many taiko players in the U.S. Hamner and Falkenstrom aren’t Japanese.

Today, Odaiko Sonora is built around a core group called the performing ensemble, consisting of Falkenstrom, Hamner and Nicole Levesque.  They, along with three understudies, write original songs for Odaiko Sonora, work on stage skills, and perform between 50 and 60 gigs each year, according to Falkenstrom.

Although taiko “becomes a lifestyle” for the performing ensemble members, Falkenstrom said, Odaiko Sonora also has a community group for more recreational taiko players.  Odaiko Sonora also has introductory classes, team building classes and taiko fitness classes for those who are new to taiko.

Odaiko Sonora also works to integrate itself into the Tucson community.  The group is currently doing a series of school residencies around Arizona where they teach taiko classes and do performances with the kids.  Falkenstrom said that taiko is great for kids, and since a lot of the performance is hitting things with sticks and yelling, it’s “almost embarrassingly easy” to get kids interested in taiko.

Odaiko Sonora also participates around town in events like the All-Souls Procession and Tucson Meet Yourself, according to Falkenstrom, as well as working with the nonprofit group Many Mouths One Stomach.

“We’re about getting together and celebrating what it means to be human,” Falkenstrom said.

While processions are something the group still has to work on, she said, they are working with dance groups who use the same space Odaiko Sonora practices in, and later this month will host a teacher from Kodo Arts Sphere America, an outreach arm of the Kodo group.

Although there are a lot of public domain songs in taiko, it’s important to Odaiko Sonora that they learn the history behind the songs.  Falkenstrom said she also believes that the songs can’t just be learned from watching a video or listening to it.  She also added that, especially when Odaiko Sonora started, there was virtually nothing on the web about taiko.

“You really don’t know the song until you’ve studied it with a master,” Falkenstrom said.

Odaiko Sonora is also working to compose original material, which Falkenstrom said is where a taiko group really starts to come together and define its principles and style.

Although taiko is easy and fun to start with, Falkenstrom said, it takes until about the third year of practice to really get good.  Some players “hit a wall” around year three and quit, she said, although a trombone player once told her that taiko is one of the closest things in music to instant gratification.  Still, Falkenstrom said, even when taiko gets hard, it’s still “ridiculously fun.”

“I’ve hardly met anyone who didn’t think [taiko] was really cool,” Falkenstrom said.


To learn more about Odaiko Sonora, check out their website or YouTube channel.

Written by Matt Osteen You are reading Odaiko Sonora Brings Japanese Beats to Tucson articles

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