Taiko women come together in St. Paul to beat drums, make history

'HERbeat' at the Ordway brings together top female drummers from around the world

Two women play drums on the ground.
Naomi Guilbert, left, and Diana Wu play through a section during a rehearsal of "HERbeat: Taiko Women All-Stars" during a rehearsal inside of Taiko Arts Midwest in St. Paul on Feb. 16.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Eighteen of the top female taiko drummers from around the globe have come together in St. Paul to create, perform and share their love of the traditional Japanese drum. And to make history.

"This has been a dream of mine for a very long time," said Tiffany Tamaribuchi, artistic director of the Sacramento Taiko Dan, a drumming group.

For thousands of years, traditional Japanese drums were played by men — and only men. Now, female drummers from Japan, Canada and across the United States are gathering for an all-female taiko residency. It will culminate Saturday in a performance at the Ordway.

Over the years, Tamaribuchi has met and collaborated with many different female taiko drummers, but they didn't know each other.

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"A lot of them had never met before, had never had the opportunity to work before,” she said. “And it seemed like a terrible shame because they're all such amazing artists."

Tamaribuchi mentioned her dream of bringing them together to Jen Weir, artistic director of Taiko Arts Midwest in St. Paul. And then Weir mentioned it to folks at Ordway. Weir said they loved the idea.

A woman dances with colored fans.
Chieko Kojima dances along to taiko drumming during a rehearsal. Kojima began dancing after being told that she could not play taiko because of her gender, and later invented a new style of taiko made to accompany dance.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"And then so it went from a pipe dream to 'Oh, I think we might be doing this in a really short amount of time,'" Weir said.

Several grant proposals and visa applications later, the dream has become a reality. Taiko Arts Midwest's rehearsal space has been humming with energy as the performers prepare to run through their big opening number. Drums of all sizes fill the room. Some of the drums are as big as cars; it's an athletic practice, involving the whole body and enthusiastic yelling.

Over the past 20 to 30 years, women have made inroads in taiko. Weir says they outnumber men in North American ensembles.

"But what hasn't changed is sort of the larger structure of who,” she said. “Who is the voice of the art form? Who gets paid to tour? Who's featured and produced, and who's sponsored, and who sort of fills our narrative of the art? In these wonderful presentations about the history of our art form, both in Japan and North America, women are not mentioned or, if so, are mentioned as a footnote."

The stories of the women gathering in St. Paul do not fit inside a footnote.

Chieko Kojima wanted to play taiko back in the 1970s, but was told women weren't allowed to play, and that she should dance instead. So she danced — for 20 years. But still the drum called to her. That's when she created Hana Hachijo, a style of drumming that incorporates traditional dance. It’s a style designed specifically for women.

The majority of the women performing in St. Paul are of Asian descent, but not all are Japanese. Weir is a Korean adoptee, raised in Minot, N.D. She'd had no experience with Asian American culture until she moved to the Twin Cities, where she got her first taste of taiko. That was more than 20 years ago.

"I just utterly stumbled into it, fell in love with it, just wanted to do it because it was fun,” she recalled. “And then it ended up being a core part of my life's journey."

Tiffany Tamaribuchi says she can't express what it feels like finally to have all these amazing women in the same room, playing together. She said what Weir has accomplished is simply incredible:

"I hope this lays the groundwork for a lot of wonderful collaborations and beautiful things created for the world. "

"HERbeat: Taiko Women All-Stars" perform this Saturday at the Ordway in St. Paul.