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Meet Women Drummers Keeping the Japanese Art of Taiko Strong

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Throughout her career as a professional taiko player and instructor, Tiffany Tamaribuchi has always managed to elevate women in taiko. In the ’90s, she traveled the world touring with the first international taiko performance group from Japan, Ondekoza, honing her skills on the odaiko—the largest drum in an ensemble usually played by men. In 2002, she was the only woman out of 23 contestants in a national odaiko competition in Fukui, Japan—and she took home the trophy.

As a child, the Sacramento native was captivated by the Japanese folk music and the big drum that kept a steady beat as people danced at the Placer Buddhist Church during Obon, the Japanese festival honoring one’s ancestors. She clearly remembers being told she could not play the drum because of her gender, but she didn’t let that stop her.

“After decades of only men doing Obon dance drumming, I’m the first woman in Sacramento to be the Obon dance drummer,” Tamaribuchi says, recalling the many years she dedicated to observing, learning and patiently waiting to be given the honor. “The traditions are changing. Here I am.”

In 1988, Tamaribuchi established Jodaiko, the first all-women taiko ensemble which showcased the talent of the many female taiko players she had met through her classes and workshops. “It was basically to practice the power styles that we weren’t encouraged to necessarily perform,” Tamaribuchi says.

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A year later, she founded Sacramento Taiko Dan to keep the heartbeat of Japanese culture and community alive in her hometown. “ I realized that it was really accessible and really popular and people could find a sense of joy, accomplishment and empowerment through it,” Tamaribuchi says. “One of the best things about it is that it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re from…You can play taiko.”

Just off the I-80 in the industrial Arden Arcade area of Sacramento, sandwiched between a shipping container facility and some auto body shops, Sacramento Taiko Dan has occupied a nondescript warehouse space for nearly 20 years. On one end of the dojo, about 50 drums of various sizes sit at the ready for those interested in learning to play. This space is also currently home to the largest traditionally crafted odaiko in North America, on loan to Tamaribuchi from 413-year-old Japanese manufacturer Asano Taiko.

A woman dressed in traditional taiko player attire is about to hit a huge drum with a pair of wooden sticks.
Tiffany Tamaribuchi plays the largest traditionally crafted odaiko in North America. (Elie M. Khadra)

Tamaribuchi pays her respects to the 780-pound drum with a light bow before she begins to play, planting her feet firmly and drawing in a grounding breath. She hits her bachi, or drumsticks, powerfully against the hide of the drum, pausing with her arms in the air to leave space for reverberation before she strikes again—a mesmerizing duet of decisive movement and booming sound.

“It’s more feeling than thinking,” Tamaribuchi says. “I’m reaching for that state of no mind. In Buddhism, it’s called mushin, a state of empty-mindedness, so that I’m not just reacting to what’s happening, but I’m open and connected in a way.”

Today, Assistant Director Sascha Molina leads the educational component of Sacramento Taiko Dan, teaching four classes a week for students ages “five to 89,” Molina says. After coming across a YouTube video of Kodo, another professional taiko group from Japan, “I saw it and instantly was just drawn to it and thought, ‘Oh man, I want to do this,’” Molina says.

Training under Tamaribuchi since 2006, Molina enjoyed performing with the group her first couple of years, but says she had to “get over not being Japanese” when Tamaribuchi asked her if she wanted to teach.

“I was a little apprehensive, because I am African American and it’s a Japanese cultural art,” Molina says. “But as I started teaching, I realized that I really had a voice. Because I wasn’t a Japanese American teaching taiko, I could be a model—that you could learn an art of a culture that’s not yours and show it respect.”

Fellow player Nicole Stansbury was introduced to taiko during a special collaborative performance between dancers and taiko players in 2005 at ORTS Theatre for Dance in Tucson, Arizona. “I was a tap dancer all through elementary and high school—taiko mixed in my love of rhythm and dance.” In 2014, Stansbury began officially learning taiko from Tamaribuchi as her deshi, or apprentice, traveling to Sacramento from Tucson for lessons.

Three women taiko drummers raise their right hand holding a drumstick.
From left to right: Nicole Stansbury, Tiffany Tamaribuchi, and Sascha Molina play taiko drums at William Land Regional Park in Sacramento, CA. (Elie M. Khadra)

Now Stansbury is mastering Tamaribuchi’s other passion, ondeko, or “demon taiko.” It is a festival tradition that originated in Sado Island, Japan. Dancers wear oni, or demon, masks and visit homes and businesses to pull out all the bad energy, banish it through taiko beats and invite in good luck and prosperity.

“We really work to cultivate these relationships with Japanese artists and practice things like ondeko as true to the origins and traditions as we can get,” says Tamaribuchi, who, pre-pandemic, traveled to Sado Island every spring to participate in the Ondeko festival.

The lunging, crouching, jumping and drumming of this grounded dance form is done all while wearing a hand-carved mask with a 45-pound horsehair wig. “I was always told I danced too much like a boy, jumped too much, too hard-edged,” Stansbury says. “[With ondeko,] I can be the things I naturally am as a dancer.” Tamaribuchi, Molina and Stansbury are all members of the Kasuga Onigumi on Sado Island, which is one of the first ondeko groups to allow women to dance.

Two people on the left hold Japanese lanterns, while the woman on the right plays a taiko drum, with another woman in the center striking a pose while wearing a hand-carved mask.
From left to right: Ezrah Molina, Claire Yee, Nicole Stansbury, and Sascha Molina perform ondeko or “demon taiko” in front of one of the last remaining Japantown businesses in Sacramento, CA. (Elie M. Khadra)

Just before the pandemic, women in taiko celebrated an exciting milestone. In February 2020, Tamaribuchi and Jennifer Weir of TaikoArts MidWest organized a program called “HERBeat,” bringing women from North American and Japanese taiko groups together for the first time for a two-week cultural exchange culminating in an inspiring performance. A documentary profiling their efforts, Finding Her Beat, is currently in production.

“I feel so fortunate to be part of this legacy of awesome women taiko players that Tiffany has somehow corralled and brought together in order to make magic happen,” Molina says. “Taiko is my joy.”

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Watch the taiko players perform at William Land Park and in what remains of Sacramento’s Japantown.

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