Gendai ni Ikiru

The introduction of contemporary taiko performance to the United States in the late 1960s occurred during the development of “a nascent Asian American political consciousness and an emphasis on ethnic solidarity”(Yoon 2001, 422). Socially- and politically-conscious Asian-American youth and young adults were searching for a means to express a sense of ethnic identity that had been lost post-World War II, particularly amongst the Japanese-American community. Following the internment of over 100,000 people of Japanese descent on the Pacific coast, many second-generation Japanese-Americans had adopted a policy of assimilation, looking to not stand out. Their children, however, battled “what was viewed as the stiff assimilationist outlook of their parents’ generation and the prevalent stereotype of the ‘quiet Japanese’” (Fromartz and Greenfield 1998).

In early 1970s San Jose, a group of community activists that were working to develop services for issei– the first generation of Japanese immigrants to the United States – found themselves drawn to taiko performance “because it was strong, loud, Japanese, and required a group of players” (Hirabayashi and Hirabayashi 2005). In 1973, they founded San Jose Taiko as part of the Young Buddhist Association at the San Jose Buddhist Church (Otsuka 1997, 31). To the young activists, a taiko was the perfect instrument for their purposes; as San Jose Taiko founding members Roy and PJ Hirabayashi later stated, “a loud, in-your-face art form with Asian roots seemed the ideal contemporary cultural catalyst for community building” (Hirabayashi and Hirabayashi 2005). The idea of community building was particularly important given efforts at the time to revitalize San Jose’s Japantown, one of only three such neighborhoods remaining in the United States (the others being in San Francisco and Los Angeles). Through taiko performance, they believe they could “build a community of players to pay homage to the hard work and sacrifice of the Isseiand Nisei– first- and second-generation Japanese Americans – who faced racism and oppression in North America” (Hirabayashi and Hirabayashi 2005).1

Drawing upon their connection to the Buddhist church, San Jose Taiko began activities with the assistance of Kinnara Taiko members, who taught them not only a few basic pieces but also how to make drums. Tanaka Seiichi soon learned that a group was beginning activities in San Jose and invited the members to come study with him. Taking him up on his offer, beginning in 1974 several members of San Jose Taiko traveled to San Francisco every weekend to attend San Francisco Taiko Dōkōkai practices. During this time, they learned the basics of the Sukeroku and Osuwa Daiko styles of taiko performance as well as Tanaka’s own emerging style.

After one year, Tanaka encouraged the performers to strike out on their own. According to founding member PJ Hirabayashi, Tanaka encouraged the members to “go off, and create your music, concentrate on your group.”2 San Jose Taiko members decided early on to not play the pieces they were learning from Tanaka, but instead compose pieces that embraced their own musical influences. They drew from the music that they had grown up listening to: rock, jazz, funk, and Latin. In embracing a different set of musical influences than Tanaka, they began to develop the taiko style they learned in San Francisco “into a style that joins the traditional rhythms of Japanese drumming with other world rhythms, including African, Brazilian, Filipino, Latin, and jazz, bridging many styles, while still resonating with the Asian soul in America.”3 One work composed with this approach was “Gendai ni Ikiru,” which has remained a standard within the San Jose Taiko repertoire for forty years.

“Gendai ni Ikiru”

Composed in 1978 by San Jose Taiko member Gary Tsujimoto, “Gendai ni Ikiru” (meaning “Living in the Present,” often called simply “Gendai”) is a core example of the manner in which San Jose Taiko members attempted to create a sound that reflected their own musical experiences.4 Liner notes for the piece written for the 1993 San Jose Taiko CD Kodama?describe it as a composition that:

…blends a simple taiko beat with jazz rhythm patterns. Modern and traditional rhythms created in this piece grew out of the composer’s love for jazz music. (San Jose Taiko 1993)

Tsujimoto had no musical training, “other than 4 years of playing clarinet in Band from 4thto 8thgrade.”5 With “Gendai,” he just “wanted set rhythms to create a groove and wanted to solo.” As he communicated in a 2018 e-mail:

My goal in composing Gendai was to feature what I liked best about taiko at the time. The first thing I wanted was a groove… Then I required the solos to be contained in 8 count riffs within the chant of “sore” to keep the soloist in the same meter/groove… It was also inspired by jazz scat singing.

This combination of groove and solos took the shape of a series of rhythmic melodies in the first half, followed by a second half dominated by improvisations. It developed into a particular compositional scheme that was emerging in the United States in the 1970s:

  1. Melody (potentially with several sub-melodies and/or preceded by an introduction)
  2. Improvisation (potentially with connecting material between each soloist)
  3. Recapitulation of Melody

This framework is found not only “Gendai ni Ikiru,” but also Tanaka Seiichi’s “Sokobayashi.” It has much in common with the ternary form commonly used in American jazz and popular music, a theme-variation-theme organizational scheme also called ABA, song form, or head-solo-head (“head” being a jazz term for the theme or main melody) (Owens 2001).6 Tsujimoto notes that he “didn’t have a preconceived concept of creating an ABA like form in Gendai… But maybe listening to so much jazz led me to the ‘head solos head’ format.”7

Whether used intentionally or unintentionally by Tsujimoto, the ABA format has nevertheless come to be one of the primary compositional forms used by taiko groups in the United States that wish to highlight improvisation in their works – beyond “Sokobayashi” and “Gendai,” there are also works like “Matsuri,” Tanaka Seiichi’s arrangement of “Midare Uchi” that features a series of set rhythms taken from bon daikocombined with improvisations.8 In many cases, the recapitulation of the theme is much shorter than the opening statement, creating an unbalanced feel – this is the case in “Sokobayashi,” for example, where the recapitulation is much faster and shorter than the original statement of the theme, and this imbalance is also found in “Gendai.” The ternary form as used in contemporary taiko works in the United States often has an introduction, but the basic ternary form is at the core of the work.

“Gendai” begins with the repeated statement of a short two-bar core rhythm found in almost every section of the work. A combination of on- and off the beat notes, the syncopated notes in this rhythm are particularly emphasized in a fashion that gives it a feel that has much in common with not just swing band drumming but also some of the works of Oguchi Daihachi, who often drew from his jazz drumming experience.”9

The core rhythm in “Gendai ni Ikiru”

This rhythm is used as the basic framework for the A theme section of “Gendai,” which itself features an initial melody, a bridge, and a secondary melody (the figure below contains the first melody). As such, “Gendai ni Ikiru” could be described as having a compound ternary form, in which a section of the piece can be subdivided into several sub-sections.

The opening melody of “Gendai ni Ikiru”

This opening melody, as well as many other rhythmic phrases in “Gendai,” features rhythms shared among multiple players (seen in the second and third lines of the above transcription). This is another legacy of the kumidaiko compositional style developed by Oguchi Daihachi and brought to the United States by Tanaka Seiichi.

Also linking back to the lineage of kumidaikois the inclusion of choreographic movements during rests, such circular motions and points with the drumsticks. Tsujimoto discussed these movements in a 2018 communication:10

Taiko is visual. That’s what makes it different from other forms of drumming. So I let the rhythms create the choreography of the arm movements. Creating the rhythms was the first step using the basic hand/arm techniques that go with the rhythms like “doko don”, “don su don su don” etc., so that all the performers looked and moved alike.? Then once we had the basic rhythms and arm movements, I worked to make the movements more dramatic where they would accent the rhythms. I added extra movement during the rests and during the syncopation. The drummers swing their arms in arcs or circles to make it more visual, but the movements in Gendai are within the rhythms or transitions between rhythms. I didn’t like or want movement for movements sake.

A third element linking the works of Osuwa Daiko and “Gendai” – owing to their joint jazz inspiration – is a swing feel; that is, a triple-based rhythmic feel in which the first and third notes of a group of three per beat are used in the primary rhythmic foundation. Written music for works with a swing feel are typically written in a duple meter, with the performance note “Swing” at the beginning of the score. This tells performers that the music is to be performed with a triple-based rhythmic feel. This is used partially because rhythms in a swing feel rarely include notes on the second of the three parts of a triple pattern. With the emphasis on the first and third notes of the pattern, using eighth-notes with a “Swung” creates a cleaner score (free of triplet markings). At the same time, a swing feel is sometimes described by musicians as not being a true “triplet;” that is, it is not an exact subdivision of a note into three parts. As such, a triplet does not appropriately convey the rhythmic feel of the music. Of course, neither does a duple-feel, but standard convention for written jazz music and other styles that use a swing feel is to use the duple meter with a “Swing” performance note. A rhythm played in this style – that is, a variation of a triple-feel – is often described as being ‘swung.’

And yet, it is worth pointing out that Tsujimoto communicates that San Jose Taiko members did not learn any Osuwa Daiko works, or “Soko Bayashi,” when studying with Tanaka Seiichi. The commonalties discussed above are simply the result of having a common jazz lineage. Meanwhile, Tsujimoto’s use of ternary form helps to separate “Gendai” from its predecessors. Osuwa Daiko works rarely feature this ABA organizational scheme, instead having a simple binary form or a cyclical form in which the same group of rhythmic patterns is repeated many times. The jazz feel espoused as being a part of what separates San Jose Taiko’s music from its Japanese predecessors, then, is manifested in both compositional form and rhythmic content.

That being said, the basic instrumentation of “Gendai” does follow the Osuwa Daiko style brought to the United States by Tanaka Seiichi: nagadō-daikoplaying the main rhythmic melody and the shime-daikoproviding a rhythmic foundation (in the case of “Gendai,” a swung eighth-note ostinato). Furthermore, two atariganewith different pitches, placed on a table and played with drumsticksby one person, are used in much the same fashion as the tettō, playing the same ostinato as the shime-daikowhile switching between a high-pitched atariganeand a low-pitched one to provide sonic variety. Oguchi and Tanaka would initial use atettō, but Tsujimoto decided to integrate multiple atarigane(this would be later adopted by other groups).

There is one instrumentation choice with related compositional techniques, however, that not only connects “Gendai” to jazz music but demonstrates some of the changes that came with the spread of contemporary taiko performance to the United States. In addition to the drums andatarigane, the instrumentation also includes a gourd called a hyōtan(a Japanese gourd similar to a calabash), with beads either inside or strung around it in a manner similar to the West African shekere. Tsujimoto notes that he liked the shaked sound and wished to use it in “Gendai.” Later, San Jose Taiko started using an actual shekere, which is rounder in shape, because it had a louder sound. It’s unclear when this transition happened, however, as videos from the 1980s show San Jose Taiko members playing a true hyōtanduring “Gendai.”

San Jose Taiko - San Jose Obon お盆 2012

For the majority of “Gendai,” the hyōtan plays a rhythmic ostinato similar to the shime-daiko?and atarigane, but in transition sections – such as the bridge between the first and second rhythmic melodies in the A section of the work – the hyōtanchanges patterns and plays just on beats two and four.11

First bridge and second rhythmic melody of “Gendai ni Ikiru”

This is accompanied by a change in the rhythms played on the shime-daiko, with the player changing to hit the basic beat but using both hands on beat two and four to emphasize those beats, creating a feelakin to the hi-hat or snare drum of a jazz drum sethitting on beats two and four that is often called a “backbeat” by jazz and popular music drummers (Baur 2002).

Following the opening section A of “Gendai,” which features two different melodic themes, the B section begins, featuring a series of improvisations by each of the nagadō-daikoplayers. The so-called “Gendai rhythm” – seen above – is used to transition between each soloist, repeated several times in a build from soft to loud, beginning with only one player playing the rhythm with each other drummer entering in succession. After all players have improvised, the piece ends with a short restatement of the “Gendai rhythm” repeated four times, a modified return to the theme in the ABA ternary form. Much like “Sokobayashi,” the return to the theme is much shorter than the initial statement.

Liner notes for “Gendai ni Ikiru” claim that the work meshes “modern and traditional beats.” Tsujimoto elaborates upon this, stating that the “traditional” rhythm was the “basebeat shime-daiko rhythm.” It was taught to them “by Tanaka and it was used in taiko in Japan as a basebeat or ‘ji’.” He continues:12

Being Japanese-American, I felt that using that basebeat gave me a connection to Japan and I loved jamming to that swing rhythm. I composed Gendai because I liked and wanted the swing feel and added the syncopated rhythms to give it a modern feel. Hence, the title meaning “Living in the Present.” It has a second meaning of being in the moment as you play taiko, playing with “ki” and also having the spontaneity of jazz musicians.

Taiko & Jazz

The infusion of jazz elements into “Gendai ni Ikiru” continued a tradition that had begun with Oguchi Daihachi and Osuwa Daiko in the mid-1950s. When adapting kagura-daikointo the piece “Suwa Ikazuchi,” jazz drummer Oguchi utilized an orchestration method fashioned “when thinking completely about a band” (Oguchi 1995, 13). Larger drums – in this case, the nagadō-daiko– play a rhythmic melody while small drums – shime-daiko– provide a fundamental rhythm. This has become the standard orchestration technique for many taiko ensemble pieces, including “Gendai.”

The jazz-influence nature of “Gendai” is most apparent as the piece has been integrated into San Jose Taiko’s collaborations with San Jose-based jazz ensembles like the San Jose Chidori Band and the Wesley Jazz Ensemble. In 2017, San Jose Taiko and the Wesley Jazz Ensemble created a combination piece called “Swinging in the Present,” fusing “Gendai ni Ikiru” with Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing.”

The jazz-ification of taiko has continued as more artists with jazz experience have brought this experience into the taiko world. One of the first to do so was Russel Baba, a jazz saxophonist and flautist who joined the San Francisco Taiko Dōkōkai in 1972. When he and his wife Jeanne Mercer later moved to Mount Shasta, CA, and formed Shasta Taiko in 1985, they composed pieces with a distinct jazz flair. Indeed, many of the pieces composed by Baba might be better described as jazz works – complete with saxophone or flute – that use taiko as part of the rhythm section instead of a drum set.

Also performing with Baba and Mercer in the San Francisco Taiko Dōkōkai in the latter half of the 1970s was Kenny Endo, who had started as a jazz drummer in middle school and did not start playing taiko until his final year of college. While studying with Tanaka Seiichi, he was also working as a jazz drummer in San Francisco. In 1980, Endo moved to Tokyo in order to explore the Japanese-nature of taiko music. He noted that much of the music being advertised as “Asian-American music” was:13

“basically soul music, or funk, or jazz. It didn’t have an element of ‘Asian-ness’ to it, other than the fact that culturally the performers were Japanese-American, Chinese American, Filipino-American. I was always wondering, “Well, where is the Asian part of this Asian-American music?”

Once in Japan, however, he did not abandon his jazz roots. One of the first pieces he composed, Ancient Beginnings (composed in 1984 when he was a guest performer for the Kotosono Dance Ensemble’s tour of Egypt), is a duet for taiko set and wind instrument that is essentially an extended jam between the two instruments. When Endo played it for the first time in the United States during a 1986 tour, he performed it with Russel Baba.

This lineage has been continued into the next generation by groups like On Ensemble. Founded by Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer’s son Masato Baba along with Shoji Kameda, who had started playing with the Babas as a child in Mount Shasta, the group has since its founding in 2002 integrated a wide variety of musical influences in its performances. Many of the group members over the years have had a jazz background – this is perhaps most strong in the group’s current lineup. Beyond Baba and Kameda, the other two members of the group are currently Eien Hunter-Ishikawa and Abe Lagrimas, Jr., who both also works as jazz drummers and vibraphonists.

On Ensemble’s music often blurs the boundaries between contemporary taiko performance and jazz performance, which they describe as “infusing the powerful rhythms of taiko with a wide range of musical influences from jazz and rock to central Asian overtone singing.”14 They seek to expand the artistic range of the taiko as an instrument and take “these ancient instruments into new realms.”

With this exploration, they are continuing down the path started first by Oguchi Daichi in the 1950s, and later expanded by Gary Tsujimoto in the 1970s when he was influenced by jazz scat singing as he came up with some predetermined rhythms which he could use to create a groove upon which San Jose Taiko members could begin to improvise.

Works Cited

Baur, Steven. 2002. Backbeat. In The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed.. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.: Oxford University Press.

Fromartz, Samuel, and Lauren Greenfield. 1998. “Anything But Quiet.” Natural History, March, 44.

Hirabayashi, PJ, and Roy Hirabayashi. 2005. Thinking Taiko: A San Jose Taiko Perspective. New York: Asia Society.

Oguchi, Daihachi. 1995. “Oguchi Daihachi ni Kiku Wadaiko Ongaku no Reimeiki 小口大八に聞く 和太鼓音楽の黎明期.”? Taikorojiiたいころじい[Taikology]11:6-15.

Otsuka, Chie. 1997. “Learning Taiko in America.”Master’s Thesis, Master’s Program in Area Studies, University of Tsukuba.

Owens, Thomas. 2001. Forms. In The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed.. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.: Oxford University Press.

San Jose Taiko. 1993. Kodama: San Jose Taiko. CD Liner Notes.

Sutcliffe, W. Dean, and Michael Tilmouth. 2013. Ternary form. In Grove Music Online: Oxford University Press.

Yoon, Paul J. 2001. “‘She’s Really Become Japanese Now!’: Taiko Drumming and Asian American Identifications.”? American Music19 (4):417-438.

  1. Much has been written on the relationship between taiko performance, the Asian-American Movement, and Japanese-American/Asian-American identity. See, for example, Kimberly Powell, “Drumming against the Quiet: The Sounds of Asian American Identity in an Amorphous Landscape,” Qualitative Inquiry 14, no. 6 (2008); Yoshitaka Terada, “Shifting Identities of Taiko Music in America,” in Transcending Boundaries: Asian Musics in North America Yoshitaka Terada (Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 2001); Deborah Wong, “Noisy Intersection: Ethnicity, Authenticity and Ownership in Asian American Taiko,” in Diasporas and Interculturalism in Asian Performing Arts: Translating Traditions, ed. Um Hae-kyung (New York: Routledge, 2005); Paul J. Yoon, “‘She’s Really Become Japanese Now!’: Taiko Drumming and Asian American Identifications,” American Music 19, no. 4 (2001).[1.?Much has been written on the relationship between taiko performance, the Asian-American Movement, and Japanese-American/Asian-American identity. See, for example, Kimberly Powell, “Drumming against the Quiet: The Sounds of Asian American Identity in an Amorphous Landscape,” Qualitative Inquiry 14, no. 6 (2008); Yoshitaka Terada, “Shifting Identities of Taiko Music in America,” in Transcending Boundaries: Asian Musics in North America Yoshitaka Terada (Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 2001); Deborah Wong, “Noisy Intersection: Ethnicity, Authenticity and Ownership in Asian American Taiko,” in Diasporas and Interculturalism in Asian Performing Arts: Translating Traditions, ed. Um Hae-kyung (New York: Routledge, 2005); Paul J. Yoon, “‘She’s Really Become Japanese Now!’: Taiko Drumming and Asian American Identifications,” American Music 19, no. 4 (2001).
  2. As told during a discussion panel on February 2, 2013 at the 2013 East Coast Taiko Conference, held at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.
  3. (accessed October 30, 2012 – link no longer active)
  4. Like many pieces, “Gendai ni Ikiru” has evolved over time, and there are slight variations in performance. The description of the piece in this article is based on the performance for the San Jose Taiko 30th Anniversary Concert in 2003, released in 2007 as part of the DVD Celebrating 3 Decades. You can purchase this DVD from San Jose Taiko at
  5. Personal communication. June 29, 2018.
  6. See also W. Dean Sutcliffe and Michael Tilmouth, “Ternary Form,” in Grove Music Online (Oxford University Press, 2013). (Sutcliffe and Tilmouth 2013)
  7. ?Personal communication. June 29, 2018.
  8. After an opening statement of the bon daiko rhythms (often repeated several times) in “Matsuri,” an extended improvisational passage begins with many members of the ensemble given time to adlib, before the piece ends with a recapitulation of the opening theme.
  9. See below for an explanation of the term “swing” and the use of duple meter.
  10. Personal communication. June 29, 2018.
  11. About this transcription: double-stemmed notes in the shime-daiko part denote hits by both hands. The notes above and below the line in the atarigane part refer to two different atarigane, one higher-sounding and one lower-sounding.
  12. Personal communication. June 29, 2018.
  13. Personal interview, June 29, 2010
  14. (accessed August 26, 2018)
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