Story and Drum Photos by Anitra Budd
When TaikoArts Midwest applied to MRAC for an FY19 Capital grant, executive director Jennifer Weir had a very particular need in mind. She was on the hunt for a gekko drum, a large yet light instrument that would expand the Twin Cities–based drumming ensemble’s work into more spaces.
“It had been on my dream list ever since I first saw it,” she says. “I saw [taiko artist] Tiffany Tamaribuchi perform on one, and how it became kind of one of the signature drums in her ensemble. I thought it just made so much sense from a touring perspective.”
TaikoArts, which stages dynamic group drumming performances using traditional Japanese drums, had been hampered in their outreach efforts by the size of their largest instruments. “A lot of people, when they think about taiko, if they know about taiko at all, think of the big drum and that style of playing. But the larger drums, like the big ō-daikos, can get really huge. We have one that’s around forty inches in diameter, and it takes four people to carry—it barely fits through our studio door! It’s a wonderful piece, and a lot of taiko compositions use the booming bass of ō-daiko drums, but it’s very difficult to transport, which limits where you can use it.”
By comparison, a gekko or frame drum is a shallow drum whose width across the drumhead far exceeds its depth. So while the diameter of the new TaikoArts’ gekko is nearly three feet, its depth is less than an inch at its thickest point, making it significantly lighter and more manageable than an ō-daiko. “The skin of the gekko drum is just as big as the large drums, but it’s shaped like a giant ping-pong paddle,” Weir explains. “So you can get a huge reverberating sound without having to use a big heavy drum.”
The TaikoArts gekko was made in Ishikawa, Japan, by manufacturer Asano Taiko, which was founded in 1609. “It took months to arrive,” Weir recalls. The long trip from Japan to Minnesota also brought logistical challenges. “Rarely do I import things from another country where you have to have someone to arrive and sign for it, and you pay all these fees, and it goes through this complex customs process,” she says. But the hassle was well worth it: “It’s a wonderful showpiece,” says Weir. “It’s a unique instrument. It’s gorgeous. It has a large impact. It’s something to get excited about.”
Weir was the first to play the gekko, or rather, “I was the first person to make sounds on it,” she jokes. “It takes years to build up the skills to play it well, so I feel like we’re little kids who have a new toy but aren’t sure how to maximize its benefits yet.” The group is already hard at work learning about the drum’s intricacies, though, and plans to debut it in a late November performance at Minneapolis’ Southern Theater.
The drum isn’t just increasing TaikoArts’ reach—it’s also making noise in the larger taiko community. “After I posted online about it, another taiko group did a fundraiser to buy one of their own!” says Weir.
Along with the gekko, TaikoArts used grant funds to purchase several drum stands. “Our current stands are on casters, and we roll them everywhere,” says Weir. “They’ve been very trustworthy over the years, but they’re feeling the pain. We’ll be performing somewhere in the community and little parts fall off, and we put them in our pockets and keep going and hope it all holds together!”
While the stands might seem less exciting than a new drum, all the pieces play an important part in heightening the visual impact of TaikoArts’ performances. “It doesn’t sound very thrilling to say, ‘Hey everybody, we got new stands!’” Weir admits. “But they actually make quite a difference in the overall production values when you’re performing. For most arts organizations, the practice is to use have what you have and use it for everything. We’re trying to build out a set of drums and stands that are a little more pristine and are reserved solely for performance hall or theater-type concerts, where we can take good care of them and showcase them in the beautiful lighting.”
Weir credits MRAC with not only making the drum and stand purchases possible, but also with helping TaikoArts from its inception. “Theater Mu had a taiko program for nearly twenty years. Then, a few years ago, we decided to split off the taiko work and became two separate organizations: Theater Mu and TaikoArts Midwest. So we had quite a bit of experiential history running the taiko program but no financial history as a standalone organization. MRAC was one of the few places where we could apply for project grants and capital funding given our unique situation.”
Beyond financial help, MRAC also offered TaikoArts something perhaps even more valuable: the human touch. “Compared to many of the other grantmaking organizations I’ve applied to, the MRAC program officers are really accessible and willing to answer questions and offer guidance and help,” Weir says. “From the beginning, they rolled up their sleeves and assisted us in a way that other organizations either don’t have the interest or the bandwidth to do. So I definitely have many warm, happy feelings about MRAC.”
Group photo above depicts members of TaikoArts Midwest, from left to right, Junko Kumamoto, Arlene Teraoka, Susan Tanabe, Jennifer Weir, Josephine Smith-Weir, Anika Zilge, Chiaki O’Brien, Michiko Todokoro Buchanan, Jeff Ellsworth, Iris Shiraishi.
The MRAC Capital grant has an annual deadline each fall and is available to arts groups and arts organizations with at least two-years of programming history.