From ancient Japan to modern-day Moab, communities have been defined by their individual styles of taiko drumming.
Japanese villagers used to play the “fat drums” as they gathered people together for religious ceremonies, community events or emergencies, and over the years, many communities developed their own styles. Centuries later, the drummers of Moab Taiko Dan have helped set this unique community apart from other small towns in the West with their energetic public performances, which have been going strong for two decades now.
To celebrate their 20th anniversary, the nonprofit organization’s members will be holding a free concert at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 25. The concert will be held at Star Hall, which is located at 159 E. Center St.
The first half of the show will be dedicated to the group’s history, reuniting its active drummers with some of its original players, including founder Annette Kearl. Together, they will be performing traditional Japanese taiko songs they learned over the years, along with some of their own compositions, according to practice leader Michele Blackburn.
“We’re just going to demonstrate some evolution,” Blackburn said.
World-renowned taiko drummer Tiffany Tamaribuchi ― who also happens to be the group’s sensei, or teacher ― will follow; she will be accompanied by two players from her hometown of Sacramento, California.
“They’re going to play some numbers that we don’t even know how to play,” Blackburn said.
Tamaribuchi began to serve as the organization’s sensei after Kearl left Moab in the late 1990s, and in that time, everything from the group’s look to its membership and instruments has changed.
When they started out two decades ago, the founding drummers of Moab Taiko Dan (pronounced “don”) had to settle for old car tires strapped to chairs with duct tape and rope. Today, most of Moab Taiko Dan’s members build their own drums out of sanded-down wine barrels, cowhide and metal tacks, which symbolize various elements of the Earth.
“That taiko drum does actually represent the Earth, and a lot of the practice we’ve done is to honor the Earth,” Blackburn said.
Although drumming is integral to what they do, Blackburn noted that they’re not just “banging away on the drums.”
“There’s actually a lot of culture and tradition and honor and healing that are involved in (respecting) the art form,” Blackburn said.
“Ashura” ― one of the songs they’ll be performing on Saturday ― features two rows of drummers that battle against each other.
“It just depicts what happens when you get opposing sides,” veteran taiko drummer Margaret Hopkin said.
The song’s meaning is open to interpretation, but Hopkin suggested that it could refer to the battles that we wage inside ourselves.
“There are different ways to read the song,” she said.
Some drummers probably haven’t played “Ashura” in at least 15 years until this week. Likewise, past and present members haven’t had the chance to practice in the same room together for a long time, according to Hopkin.
“It’s going to be really intense, because we haven’t all been in one spot (recently),” she said.
But once they get together again, Hopkin expects that “Ashura” and other songs will come naturally to them.
“When you play those songs for so many years, the music just gets into your body,” she said.
Above all else, Hopkin wants the performers ― and audience members ― to have some fun.
They’re planning a theatrical-styled performance, which will feature a range of colorful and showy costumes that drummers have worn over the years, from locally-made garb to traditional Japanese “happi” coats.
The fact that such an active group can thrive here is a testament to Moab’s uniqueness, according to Hopkin and Blackburn.
“It’s unusual in that it’s rural and isolated, and it’s also unusual that it has stayed together this long,” Hopkin said.
Blackburn linked its success to the local spirit of volunteerism, as well as the strong community support it receives.
“There are a lot of organizations on the East Coast, and there are a lot of organizations on the West Coast. There are a few in Colorado now, but Moab is pretty unique,” she said. “It’s really one of those amazing things that Moab has.”
Over the years, the local organization has brought national and international taiko performers to Moab, and its drummers also perform at special events like the Moab Half Marathon. In addition, members teach classes through the BEACON After School Program; some of those students will be joining them on stage this Saturday night.
Tamaribuchi will also be hosting a workshop on Sunday, Oct. 26 at the old senior center, which is located at 450 E. 100 N. Costs are $40 per person, and space will be limited to 30 people.
“There’s no commitment to becoming a member,” Hopkin noted. “It’s just fun to experience.”
For more information about the workshop, or to learn more about the concert, call Hopkin at 435-260-0714. You can also visit Moab Taiko Dan’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MoabTaikoDan.
Moab drummers host free anniversary concert
What: Moab Taiko Dan 20th anniversary concert
When: Saturday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m.
Where: Star Hall, 159 E. Center St.
Cost: Free, but donations will be gratefully accepted