“We belong here, we deserve this.” It might sound like a redundant statement, but there are many reasons why the subjects of Dawn Mikkelson & Keri Pickett’s mostly observational documentary Finding Her Beat might have come to doubt their right to practice their art if not that simply to be who they are. As the opening text relates, taiko drumming has long been a male preserve and even if women were not expressly forbidden from playing conventional notions of femininity often forbad them.
That’s in part the reason that Jennifer Weir, director of TaikoArts Midwest, embarked on the HERbeat project aiming to bring together female taiko players from the US, Japan, and around the world for a collaborative performance in Minneapolis. As Jennifer reveals, she is a Korean-American adoptee and had no particular reason to embrace taiko but like many of the other women who come to participate in the event, she has found a new home and community as a taiko drummer. The same is true for her wife, Megan, who once lived with a taiko drumming group in Japan before returning to the US and starting a family.
Conversely, Chieko Kojima who is a founding member of the prominent taiko group Kodo on Sado Island explains that taiko gained a resurgence in the post-war era as young Japanese people looked for a way to rediscover traditional Japanese culture as a rejection of growing American cultural influence. Chieko herself had wanted to drum, but women were not really welcome to do so and so she became a dancer. Kaoly Asano’s practice at Gocoo is conversely rooted in post-war avant-garde performance art and incorporates other elements of traditional Shinto dance along with more modern influences such as trance and tecnho music.
In a sense, their involvement with taiko is also a means of recovering a traditional culture that has often been mediated through a fiercely patriarchal society. Though there is no direct prohibition on women playing the taiko drums as there might be for entering a sumo ring, it has often been associated with masculinity as a celebration of physical strength and endurance. Socially enforced notions of gender therefore made it difficult for women to participate lest they be thought unfeminine and therefore unmarriageable particularly in ages in which marriage was the only secure path to a comfortable life for a woman.
Many of the taiko players also mention that they have felt displaced within their societies, sometimes because those societies too did not accept their gender presentation or sexuality. They have all, however, found a source of solidarity as members of a taiko drumming group which is after all about togetherness and harmony. “In a way, taiko gave me a family” echoes Koaly Asano, “by meeting you, Tiffany, I finally felt I was not alone.” she affirms while talking to US-based taiko master Tiffany Tamaribuchi. For Asano, taiko is also a force that connect us with a place and the rhythms of the Earth. “What’s important is your sound, to transform your life into sounds” she adds as a kind of manifesto for her taiko.
In a way it’s this sound translation that allows the women to come together, overcoming language barriers to find a common voice. Nevertheless, they are faced with a series of additional challenges including the looming coronavirus pandemic with the concert scheduled for February 2020. The show turns out to be the second to last staged in its venue for the almost two years of pandemic-related restrictions, while many of the drummers have already had future gigs cancelled in their home countries. All of which lends the concert an additional an additional weight and poignancy as the drummers prepare to claim a space only to have it taken away yet again. Nevertheless, the project does allow them to rediscover an international sense of solidarity along with individual pride in the practice of their art. Fittingly enough, the concert ends with a routine titled “Eijanaika?” which is both a reference to a carnivalesque protest movement during the Meiji Restoration, and a phrase which might be translated as “so what, what’s wrong with that?” neatly echoing the celebratory sense of defiance at the heart of HERbeat.
Finding Her Beat screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.