Drums boomed from every corner of the West Oakland studio. At the front, a small drum called a shime tapped out a rhythm, setting the beat for the six other drums in the set. At the back, a large drum called an odaiko was suspended in midair by a wooden stand, two drummers pounding furiously on either side, framed by a black backdrop and some velvet curtains.
With a red floral carpet underfoot, six women and one man pounded out a happy rhythm with relatively serious faces.
“Smile!” Susan Horn, director of the group, called out to her players.
Her players obliged, with embarrassed grins.
Taiko, by its nature, is a loud activity. Players are encouraged to use their entire bodies to produce a clean, crisp and reverberating sound. Even the process of learning songs is auditory—kuchi shoga, or the phonetic, repeat-after-me method used to teach taiko, is the only way music is taught. Nothing is written down, only spoken. Big hits on the drum are called dons and small hits are called tsukus.
Ironically, it is this auditory aspect of taiko that gets the group, Emeryville Taiko, in trouble.
For the last three years, the Japanese drumming group has moved from place to place, searching for a permanent home that is both large enough to store their many drums and remote enough to avoid noise complaints from neighbors. Emeryville Taiko holds classes on weeknights and Saturday mornings, so disgruntled neighbors from nearby apartment buildings would sometimes report that early morning drumming bothered them.
The group has practiced in churches and high school gymnasiums, and now plays at Soundwave Studios in West Oakland. This, too, is a temporary location—the room they use at Soundwave is slated to become a nightclub.
Every time they move locations, they lose members. Emeryville Taiko currently hovers at 30 members, a number on the lower end of their membership spectrum, Horn said. The group teaches all ages.
“People organize their lives so that they can take classes, so when there’s a change, they have to rearrange their schedules,” she said. “It’s the instability—not knowing from month to month where you’re going to be, and the stress and the worry of how you’re going to get a roof over your head to keep this going.”