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SMU Taiko introduces traditional Japanese drumming and culture to St. Mary’s students.

Marcin Sawicki can still remember the first time heard taiko drumming. He was a graduate student at the University of Toronto, and he and a friend had bought nosebleed tickets in Massey Hall to see Kodo, a popular taiko drumming troupe from Japan.

“We were in the last row of the balcony,” he recalls with a laugh. “I can still feel my diaphragm vibrate because of the drumming. I was really impressed.”

Taiko is a traditional Japanese style of percussion that uses three different kinds of drums: a small high-pitched drum (shime), a long wine-barrel shaped drum (chu-daiko), and a large drum that can be as big as a car (o-daiko). The drumming is fast, powerful, and loud, and features synchronized movement plus additional instrumentation, traditional singing, and costume unique to each taiko group.

Soon after his first taste of taiko, Sawicki joined a taiko centre in Los Angeles, where he was working at the time. When his career as an astrophysicist took him to Victoria, B.C. he co-founded that city’s first taiko group.

By 2007, he was living in Halifax and working as a professor in the Department of Astronomy and Physics at Saint Mary’s University (SMU). “It was the 25th anniversary of Haikodate, the Japanese sister city of Halifax,” he recalls. “I was asked to do a taiko drumming performance as part of the anniversary celebrations at Multifest.”

With just six weeks to prepare for the 45-minute show, Sawicki teamed up with a Japanese post-doctorate student at Dalhousie University, Ryuichi Nakajima, who played Japanese flute, and two Japanese ESL students at SMU, Tomo Oizumi and Yuka Sugawara, who were singers.

The group SMU Taiko was born. “The four of us got together and jammed in a parking garage,” Sawicki says. “It was so much fun that we formed the group.” Their first performance was a success, with the group doing a mix of traditional songs and original compositions.

They continued performing until 2012 when the members moved on to different cities and jobs.

“The group was in suspended animation,” says Sawicki, who had moved to Japan that year for a sabbatical. While there, he reconnected with an old flame, Hideyo Kawashima, herself a taiko drummer.

Originally from Kyoto, Kawashima studied business in Australia and Canada and then returned to Japan and became a head teacher of a private ESL school. She then headed the ESL department at a business college near Tokyo, and ran the ESL programs at the college. She just received her permanent residency last summer and is seeking an for an ESL or international student-related position here in Halifax.

Kawashima specializes in miyake, which is the name of an island near Tokyo. Miyake is a drumming style that uses a taiko drum placed horizontally close to the ground that’s played by two people, with one person drumming on each side.

“It’s my favourite style to play,” Kawashima says. “It’s so simple. The music is very short and it’s easy to learn. But there’s a beauty in that simplicity. It’s very simple but when you try to master it, it’s actually very hard to get it right.”

In Japan, she’d studied the style with Haruyoshi Tsumura, one of Japan’s top taiko masters. “He happened to have a class near Tokyo where I was working,” she says. “I asked one of my classmates in Tsumura’s class how long she’d been playing miyake, and she replied, ‘Not long, only about 10 years [laughs].”

Since moving back to Canada together in 2014, Kawashima and Sawicki are now sharing their passion for taiko with a new generation of drummers.

They’ve resurrected the SMU Taiko group, but have given it a new focus, including an extracurricular class that teaches the drumming. In the 2016/17 year, a mix of Canadian and international students attended the class.

“It’s a student-centred group, focused on under-grad students,” says Sawicki. “Our mandate is SMU students from all backgrounds. We are getting more students to join us.”

First-year criminology student Kaitlin Tan took the class. Already a bass guitar player, Tan thought it would be fun to learn a new instrument. Raised in Singapore, she says the drumming reminds her of home. “During Chinese New Year, the dragon dance and lion dance use similar kinds of drums. It reminds me of that.”

In the class, she learned proper drumming technique and stance, and even how to make her own drum sticks. She also performed miyake with a classmate at SMU International Night. “It was our first time performing in front of a large audience, which included the president of the university, so we were very nervous. But it came out very well in the end.”

Tan loves how physical the drumming is. “It’s very taxing on the body but it’s very enjoyable, too,” she says. “We tease each other and say that by the end of the semester, we’ll have very good legs [laughs].”

She also loves the team aspect of it. “You don’t have to be Asian or even musically inclined,” she says. “It’s a common ground we can all share in. It also brings together people at different levels who come together in a unifying sound. You never feel like you’re dragging down the group.”

SMU Taiko aims to encourage interaction among international and Canadian students. “It’s all about the shared passion that they have that’s irrespective of their backgrounds,” says Sawicki, who came to Canada from Poland when he was 15.

“It’s so segregated at SMU,” he continues. “The new ESL Centre is in the corner of Campus across from a big parking lot, separate from the rest of the university. It’s important to have international students interact more with the regular student population.”

He’s hoping to the grow the class and the performing group in the coming academic year. Performances at the university’s upcoming Club Expo Day and its Japanesque festival (a celebration of all things Japanese) will help get the word out. He and Kawashima also plan to teach a taiko segment in Japanese culture classes at the university.

Support from Saint Mary’s is also helping. In 2015, funding from the vice-president Academic allowed the group to buy new drums. “The university sees itself as Canada’s international university and they see our group as a way for international students to mix and mingle and to learn about people from different countries and backgrounds.”

For Kawashima, it’s all about sharing the simple beauty of the taiko drumming style. “I like the appearance of it,” she says “It’s a very physical and a very beautiful motion. It’s really about the simplicity of the song.”

Janice Hudson

Janice Hudson is a writer/contributor for My Halifax Experience and My East Coast Experience