Drums Shake Hamden

Sam Gurwitt PhotoThe 300 people packed into Thornton Wilder Hall in Hamden were not quite enough to absorb the floor-rumbling vibrations of Taikoza’s drums on Saturday afternoon.

When the four-member group appeared at the edges of the stage snaking binzasaras —  long snakelike wooden rattles —  through the air, a child in the front row set the mood:

“Wooooooaaaaaaah! That’s awesome!”

Once the performers arrived at the drums preset on the stage, they set the binzasaras down and picked up thick wooden sticks. After the a shouted cue in Japanese, they began to pound a rhythm on the 150-pound drums that shook the room in which where every chair was taken and kids crowded the floor beneath the stage.

The show was February’s iteration of the “Saturday Series,” musical events that happen one Saturday each month between October and March. The Hamden Department of Arts and Culture collaborates with the Hamden Arts Commission to present them.

Taikoza is a New York-based group that performs Taiko drumming and other forms of traditional Japanese music. While Taiko has its roots in ancient Japan, it experienced a revival in the latter half of the 20th century, and is performed at festivals throughout Japan. Marco Lienhard, Taikoza’s leader, founded the group in the late 1990s after studying and performing in Japan for 18 years.

The group performed a set of five pieces, each from a different part of Japan.

Once they were done with the first two — Satsuki and Hachijo — Masayo Ishigure brought a long stringed instrument called a koto and set it at the front of the stage. Lienhard took out a shakuhachi, a long wooden flute. Though the room was already warm, said Lienhard, they would make it even warmer by welcoming spring with a song called sakura, which means cherry blossom.

Once the cascading notes of spring became silent and Masayo carried the koto back, the large Nagado Taiko (taiko means “drum”) rolled back to the front. Lienhard picked up a smaller flute than the shakuhachi, and the floor began to tremble with the deep beat of the drums.

Mac Evans, who was in a Taiko group at Bowdoin and then joined another in Boston before becoming a part of Taikoza, set down his sticks and picked up two small cymbals. He hopped off the stage into the audience where the kids were sitting.

First he offered one a cymbal-high-five. Then a higher high-five.

Then an even higher one.

Meanwhile, Lienhard had disappeared from the stage. Suddenly someone in a bright red shirt and a mask with bulging eyes poked around the corner of the curtain.

The masked character flitted about the stage getting in the way until his moment of glory when he snuck over to the drum on the right-hand side of the stage and began to play.

Then he ran into the audience and chose a few kids who came on stage to try their hands at the drums that stood about as tall as they did.

Once the piece ended and Lienhard appeared back on the stage, he and Evans brought two smaller drums, called shime taiko, to the front of the stage.

They moved between the smaller shime and the larger nagado, this time sitting in front of the drum and leaning back slightly, suspending a sit-up while pounding on the hide stretched across the large wooden barrel.

After the show, friends Jude and Gage (pictured below) performed their own renditions of the last act.

After about 20 seconds, Gage gave up: “My back is done.”

“I thought it was good,” Gage said of the performance. “There was a little comedy, I liked how they used the funniness and combined it with amazing drum acts.”

As the performers slid covers over the drums and carried them off the stage, some audience members stuck around to talk to Lienhard and Evans, who stood in front of the stage selling shirts and CDs.

Lienhard said that he went to Japan when he was 17. He decided to join a musical commune called Ondekoza, which was one of the major groups instrumental in the renaissance of Taiko. The training regimen in Ondekoza emphasized physical fitness. He and his fellow members would run for two or three hours every day, sometimes running marathons.

After 18 years in Japan, he decided to come to the U.S. He began to split his time between Japan, where he still performed and taught, and New York, where he created Taikoza.

The group has evolved over time and each performance features a different set of performers. Ishigure (who plays the koto) was the only other original member there on Saturday.

Another performer, Mutsumi Miyamoto (above), is a student of Lienhard’s. She lives in Princeton, N.J., and travels to New York every week for lessons. She had grown up seeing Taiko in Japan, but had never learned there. When she came to the US, she thought she could never learn it, until she saw an ad for lessons with Lienhard. She has been taking classes for three years now.

Once the audience had filed out, only the event’s organizers were left.

Arts Commission Chair Ruth Resnick Johnson (pictured above) said that not only does she hope to bring great artists to Hamden — she is also “hoping to create connections with local art groups in Hamden, and promote those groups and individual artists as well.”

She, arts director Julie Smith, and Smith’s assistant Alisha Martindale were quite pleased with the event.

“By god, we’ll be having them again,” said Smith.

Martindale (pictured) explained why she considered the event a success: “because of the quality of the show we’re putting on and the accessibility of the price.”

Tickets cost $3 ($2 for kids) for performances in the Saturday Series. The Department of Arts and Culture and the Arts Commission aim to make the arts as accessible as possible for Hamden residents.

As Smith, Johnson, and Martindale stood around the now-empty room, Sunday’s act was already checking the piano and testing the sound system. Raymond Suntino was set perform at 2 p.m. on Sunday for the Sunday Series, which is the more adult-oriented accompaniment to the Saturday Series.

While Suntino sings Italian-American love songs in honor of Valentine’s Day, Lienhard planned l be on an airplane somewhere over the Pacific on his way to Hawaii. “It’s a trek,” he said. “But it’s worthwhile in February.”

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posted by: Lorirobin on February 17, 2019  8:13pm

I love this drumming and sorry I missed it. Had it on a calendar for months and then forgot to go. Really glad that a big crowd turned out for the show.