|Location||Chicago, Illinois,United States|
Tsukasa Taiko is one of the largest and most active professional performing arts organizations in the Chicago and area. Led by award-winning artists, they host a variety of educational programs and promote authentic Japanese artistry and cultural expression through their programming. As the sole Japanese-speaking taiko group in the Midwest, Tsukasa Taiko has been a pioneer in the arts space for their: community outreach, professional and program development, and collaborations with local and international professional artists. Since their rapid growth in the 2000s to late '10s, they have influenced the operational standards of community taiko groups nationwide.
Founded in 1996 by Hide Yoshihashi with the help of Wakayagi Shiyu, a founder of both the taiko group Waka Taiko and the dance school Wakayagi Ryu, Tsukasa Taiko consisted of small weekly classes held at the Wakayagi residence. Named from the Kanji|kanji taken from Shiyu’s family name, the group first started conducting community performances with students that were led by Yoshihashi. The success of these performances resulted in shows at events like the Bon Odori Festival at Mitsuwa Marketplace, which became Tsukasa Taiko’s first annual performance event.
Yoshihashi founded Tsukasa in an effort to create a more inclusive community taiko group separate from those associated specifically with the local Buddhist temples. This pursuit of independence led Tsukasa to become the first private taiko group not linked to other exclusive organizations. This new inclusiveness brought many students - including the group’s core members - to Tsukasa. And due to the separation from the temples, its founder, Yoshihashi became the first independent taiko drummer in the Chicagoland area as well. The legacy of Tsukasa’s success has been two-fold: not only have colleagues in the taiko space been inspired to form their own independent groups, many of which are active currently, but Tsukasa’s success also expanded its impact on arts and culture to a global level.
The impact of Tsukasa Taiko’s creation was that: it created the sole independent community based taiko group that would later become one of the first programs in Chicago to be managed by professional, working artists and be successfully integrated into the arts organization, Asian aRts Improv Midwest (AIRMW). Tsukasa has also inspired similar groups because members of its past and current leadership have shaped it so that it is uniquely authentic to Japanese forms of cultural expression and artistic performance in addition to its original purpose of being a community taiko group.
Group founder, Hide Yoshihashi was born in America, raised in Japan and moved to Chicago to study English in his formative years as a young adult. Yoshihashi, a bilingual Japanese-American, became acquainted with the Japanese community in Chicago shortly after and sought to create Tsukasa Taiko as an independent community taiko group that focused on preserving authentic Japanese artistry in an inclusive, community oriented space for people with general interest in taiko drumming. As the first person to establish a private taiko group outside of the Buddhist temples, Yoshihashi also took significant steps to make learning about the art form more accessible.
He held free taiko lessons at the Wakayagi house for the group’s community members and also made an effort to bring the 1st generation of Tsukasa Taiko’s performers, students aged 4 to 16, on stage to perform with him at the venues. His most notable appearances were at: HotHouse, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago Jazz Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, and the Asian American Jazz Festival. During this time, he became one of the first taiko players associated with professional music scenes, performing at popular events, venues and participating in many projects as a representative of Tsukasa Taiko.
Founder and director of AIRMW, Tatsu Aoki was enlisted to be the artistic director of Tsukasa Taiko guide the group to their new goal of expanding its work to include arts and culture. As an active artist, Aoki was chosen in part because of his heritage in classic Japanese arts. Being born into a traditional okiya household , performing in a theatrical crew, and playing shamisen and taiko since childhood gave him authentic cultural training. Aoki’s background and passion helped him nurture the group as it sought to maintain traditional traits of Japanese theatrical arts as well. His leadership and creative direction spurred the development of Tsukasa’s current unique and professional stage presence and design. He also helped Tsukasa gain formal affiliation with AIRMW and function as a part of the non-profit arts organization. As a result of his contributions, both the stature of Tsukasa as an organization and the reputations of him and other key contributors have grown as well.
Chicago-native Amy Homma, a second generation Japanese-American and one of the early members of Tsukasa, became head performer and instructor of the group upon Yoshihashi’s return to Japan in 2006. She also became the second full-time professional taiko player in Chicago after Aoki created a full-time position for her. Before Homma’s appointment, no full time performers existed in the traditional arts outside of martial arts, making this a milestone in Chicago’s Japanese American cultural scene. Not only did Homma’s appointment make her one of the first professionals in her field, but it also gave AIRMW the unique distinction of committing to making taiko players professional, salaried musical artists. As the only multicultural and bilingual representative of the community arts, she also became the first community-taiko leader to officially perform in Poland, Japan and to travel to San Francisco. Through her studies under Aoki, Homma cultivated her art career so that she could be an international artist prepared to perform locally, nationally and on prestigious global venues. After receiving much acclaim, she retired in 2012.
Before she led Tsukasa Taiko, Sugiyama was a member of the taiko group Ayutsubo Taiko in Shizuoka, Japan. She is the International Residency Performer and Instructor of Tsukasa Taiko, effectively making her the first taiko drummer to work in Chicago on a VISA. As a full-time guest instructor, she has made many contributions to Tsukasa specifically with a focus to bring in more youthful students to teach the group’s principles to future generations. She expanded children’s classes at both the main JASC dojo and Mitsuwa Marketplace. Now, due in large part to her advocacy for youth participation, Tsukasa has more than 60 members and almost 30 youth participants. She continues working with the group, teaching introductory level taiko to community members and assists the Gintenkai Performance Unit.
Kiyomi Negi, a second-generation Japanese American and Chicago-native, is one of two veteran artists selected to lead the performance group. Negi grew up in a bicultural and bilingual environment, having learned how to speak, write and read in both English and Japanese at an early age. In 2002, she began learning taiko under group founder Hide Yoshihashi and is one of the four remaining original members of Tsukasa Taiko. Her foundational years as a taiko player came from drumming at community programs while as a student. She made her “Taiko Legacy” concert debut in 2006 at the Chicago Cultural Center and began performing at historic venues in Chicago and the Bay Area such as the San Francisco Chinese Cultural Center, Japanese Peace Plaza and others.
Kiyomi has also performed as a member of Tatsu Aoki’s MIYUMI Project, with shows including: Yoko Ono’s SKYLANDING production, Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang’s annual Solstice concert series and at the Alphawood Gallery exhibition Then They Came for Me about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In her current role, Negi trains, emcees and performs for educational presentations and community shows while doing an average of 90 shows per year. Negi also directs select workshops and special training sessions for ensemble members and beginners with other instructors. She also works as a creative director and handles internal communications, public relations, social media, design, and project management for AIRMW. Lastly, she helps organize the annual Taiko Legacy concert series held at MCA, as a core production team member.
As the descendant of the Japanese Toyoakimoto performing arts family, that dates back to Japan’s Edo period, Kioto Aoki carries the direct lineage of traditional Japanese performing arts. As the lone professional taiko artist in Chicago, she utilizes various playing for instruments including the shamisen and 'tsuzumi. Now, Aoki has amassed a career with over 20 years of experience in playing both contemporary and traditional musical contexts since first performing on stage at age 7. She has also been officiated with the Toyoaki family name.
Currently, she works in both the creative and experimental communities in Chicago and San Francisco’s Bay Area, and does solo performances with Tsukasa Taiko. Aoki co-leads the Gintenkai Performance Unit of Tsukasa, in addition to heading the group’s professional assignments and leads advanced youth and adult performers from both Tsukasa Taiko and the San Francisco-based collaborative group GenRyu Arts. Aoki has also overseen projects including Yoko Ono’s SKYLANDING, Tatsu Aoki’s The MIYUMI Project, The Reduction Ensemble and the Taiko Legacy’s Reduction series at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. In recognition of both her professional accolades and her efforts to promote and preserve aspects of Japanese culture, she was selected as a multi-year Ethnic and Folk Arts Master Apprentice Program Awardee recipient from the Illinois Arts Council. In addition to her Tsukasa-related work, Aoki has also made significant contributions to both AIRMW and the visual arts scene in her career.
She works as the Curatorial Manager for the AIRMW Arts Initiative, programming visual art exhibitions and incubating Chicago-based Asian and Asian-American artists’ projects. As a photographer and filmmaker, she has her own visual arts practice that works with the analogue image and image-making process.
Gintenkai Performance Unit
Formed in 2006, Tsukasa Taiko’s Gintenkai Performance Unit is in charge of the group’s highly acclaimed shows that emphasize professionalism more than the community recitals or other programs that have adults and children with varying experience. Aoki instructs the unit which is comprised of long-time advanced community members and professional musicians - most of them are advanced youth or young adult players who have played in Gintenkai for over a decade.
The signature style developed by the Gintenkai Performance Unit is due to the group’s focus on playing 70s era compositions that Aoki grew up playing. All of their pieces are fined, complex arrangements with elements that embody an authentic Japanese aesthetic. As a result, their style often highlights orchestration and melody rather than rhythm, giving their performances a distinct trait and overall approach. For example, Tsukasa Taiko use shamisen and shinobue regularly - effectively reintroducing Tgeza music to contemporary taiko performances unlike other contemporary groups.
The role of the unit is to combat misinterpretation and misrepresentation of Japanese performance artistry in Western media, by developing, preserving and passing on traditional concepts of Japanese artistry for new audiences to enjoy and future generations of artists and musicians to study and understand. The unit adheres to the aesthetic roots of taiko music, that lie in theatrical concepts such as kabuki, Nichibu and the spacial concept of ma. It also emphasizes the importance of traditional choreography and how body movement is presented to audiences on stage. The movements in their routines come from classic Japanese dance and aim to reinforce the bond between theatre, music and dance. Much of the unit’s success with keeping traditional practices ongoing is due to the group’s Premier Performance Unit Leaders.
Tsukasa Taiko has introduced many classic forms of dress and requires multiple costumes and costume changes during their on-stage shows to emphasize the visual portion of their performances. In the era of its founder, Yoshihashi, the group introduced the kai no kochi musubi during their Chicago performances. Current shows have expanded on this approach by having several types of koikuchi (with and without harakake), and hachimaki worn in a single show. Gintenkai members are also required to wear traditional kimono and yukata.
In an effort to make their shows visually compelling and highlight the innovation and professionalism of their stage performances, Tsukasa has also worked with the Japanese classic dance school, Fujima Ryu of Chicago, to use the hikinuki technique during their performances - making them the only group to date that has implemented this technique.
Tsukasa is currently the only community taiko group in Chicago that offers both CD and vinyl releases. Its first CD, released in 2006, commemorates the history of Tsukasa’s past generations. Part of their programming also aims to advance community engagement and raise awareness about important topics in Japan or occurrences that have impacted mainland Japanese citizens such as the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami|2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster. The group has provided support for victims of the disaster by participating in public events to support recovery from the natural disaster. In 2015, they held a photo exhibition at the Richard J. Daley Center to chronicle the rebuilding process in Japan.
In addition to their community engagement efforts, members of Tsukasa Taiko's Gintenkai Performance Unit have also publicly performed at renowned venues such as The International House at University of Chicago, Logan Center for the Arts, Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Harris Theater, Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago Symphony Center, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and others. They have also frequently performed at annual events such as the Chicago’s Thanksgiving Day Parade since 2010, becoming the first community taiko group to perform at these types of venues.
Much of the acclaim that Tsukasa has gained is marked by both its engagement in the art world and support for community gathering. Through their work the group has created a place for people interested in the cultural lineage, authentic portrayal, and aesthetic of taiko drumming and Japanese artistry to gather.
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