Reno Taiko Drummers
Drummer Rieko Shimbo, leader of the Reno Taiko Drummers, is slight in build and sunshiny in demeanor. She exudes the kind of maternal warmth and patience you’d expect from an elementary school instructor, but she can beat a drum with a force that would deter any sane person from messing with her in a dark alley.
At a recent rehearsal at Mountain View Montessori School, where she teaches, her warm attitude and her powerful approach to her instruments are both infectious.
Sitting on the floor, using plastic-wrap-covered car tires as practice pads, an experienced drummer helps two newbies master a tricky beat. Across the spacious classroom, Shimbo beats out a terse few measures on a high-sounding drum called a kotaiko (Japanese for “small drum"). She shouts a brief direction; a teenager and a middle-aged Japanese-American woman join in, echoing Shimbo’s fast, repetitive lines. Authoritatively, she shouts one more syllable, and six drummers jump in, beating huge, barrel-shaped, wooden otaikos ("big drums"). They waste no time on subtle crescendos. From the first otaiko beat, the room is booming with a quick-paced, multi-timbre, get-up-and-shake-it thunder that charms the few onlookers at the side of the room out of their seats.
Shimbo played the traditional Japanese taikos for about 10 years in her native Japan before moving to the United States in the 1980s. She found that people here were easily fascinated by the drums’ sounds and enthusiastic about the sense of community inherent to a taiko troupe. She soon found there was a demand to learn taiko, so she formed the group nine years ago.
The motley assortment of drummers ranges in age from teens to gray-haireds. (In the group Tai Dai, elementary school-age children perform wearing tie-dyed T-shirts after the main act.) The group spans several demographics, most races and a range of skill levels, but members seem to have a lot in common, nonetheless. Congenial banter between sets is constant, and the more experienced players encourage the beginners. (One woman, explaining to a newcomer that much of the motion is in the wrist, advises, “It’s like you’re whipping a horse.") Two performers will often share a drum, and part of the group’s choreography involves drummers switching places onstage in mid-number, running from one drum to another.
The collaborative ethic extends outside the group as well.
“I play with African drummers, Native American drummers,” Shimbo says. “We all represent different cultures, then we all drum together.” She’s appeared onstage playing taikos with local acts, such as the West African drum troupe Java Djembe. Rather than coordinating a new format or striking a compromise between styles, “we all do our own thing, and it works together,” she says.
When everyone is playing, the drums carry not just a deep, layered beat, but also a swift, danceable melody, spiced liberally with clinks and dings from cymbals and a small metal percussion instrument that looks like the type of no-frills pot you might use to cook over a campfire. The collective sound is festive and harmonious.
“We use drums to put the community together, for everybody to connect together,” Shimbo explains. “That’s what makes the group fun—to work together and make a community together, kind of like a family.”