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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Circular: Taiko Drumming in a Rural Ohio School

Students drumming
Jaylen Baker

A grant from the Ohio Arts Council brought WYSO's Susan Byrnes to this small school, set among the cornfields, to create art with students. It turns out that thirteen years ago, a musician came here to teach students kids about Taiko. After all that time, the drumming program is still going strong, thanks to the dedication of the music teacher, Audrey Hathaway. One of the students is also a Taiko drummer, so Susan asked her to tell the story.

My name is Lilly Severance, and I am a junior at Mississinawa Valley High School. I am involved in several things here at Mississinawa. Although, I would have to say that Taiko is the most unique.

Taiko is a form of Japanese drumming that is very expressive. It only uses a few different sounds but it creates a variety of music.

We are given very large sticks and we call them our “bachi.” We can choose between an okedo, a nagada, or shime drum to drum on with our bachi. When we hit a drum head, we call it a “don,” and when we hit a drum rim it’s referred to as a “ka.”

This year, our teacher Mrs. Hathaway worked with some students in my Taiko group to create an original drum composition that they’ll perform for the holidays. It’s called “Circular,” and it refers to the enso, or circle symbol in Zen Buddhism and Japanese calligraphy.

“We start with a theme," says Mrs. Hathaway, Mississinawa Valley's music teacher. "If we don’t have a theme, then it doesn’t go that well because we don’t know what we’re working toward, and most Taiko pieces will have a nature theme, or things like that, so that’s generally what we start with. And then the 'Ji' which is that da dat da dat da dat, that’s the underlying rhythm, and then they create rhythms to go with it.' So right now that’s kind of what we’re working on."

One of the composers who read the statement wrote about the meaning of the song.

“My name is Judah Ben Winchester. Circle, enso, the culmination of everything true in the universe. The symbol of strength and enlightenment, a perfect meditative inner peace. It symbolizes the void of nothingness and the beauty of the universe. And such is life, the void of nothingness, the beauty of life, and at the end, perfect harmony. Like everything, it comes full circle. Enso.”

To bring this story full circle, Mrs. Hathaway and I talked to Eric Paton, the musician who first brought Taiko to our school.

I asked him, "What are two things you remember about your time at Mississinawa?"

"Let’s see, I remember that we made drums, and it’s rare that we make drums at a residency, Eric Paton replied. "Back then I was very excited that the young students were going to have a whole other level of buy-in to learning the drums because they helped make the drums. This was 2008 when we had the Ohio Arts Council residency and during that residency we went over after pizza and did a performance at the Greenville Nursing Home, and the students played, and I thought that intergenerational connection and the sharing of the culture was wonderful."

To someone from the outside, Taiko is just people drumming. To Taiko drummers, it means something much more. Taiko is a large part of our circle. Every Taiko player started with “don” and “ka.” We all watched famous Taiko players and wanted to be just like them. We all had the stage fright of performing for the first time, and we all messed up a rhythm or two. We were all proud of learning difficult rhythms, and we all made lasting memories with in Taiko. Taiko performers have created a circle of their own. While Taiko may play different roles in each of our lives, we all share the same love for the art. I think that is something to be celebrated.

This is Lilly Severance for WYSO.

Lilly Severance had help from Culture Couch producer Susan Byrnes. You can catch the Taiko students performing “Circular” at Winterfest at King’s Island in Cincinnati on December 4th and at Mississinawa Valley School on December 13.

Support for Culture Couch comes from WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community.

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Susan works as visual artist, arts writer, teaching artist, and audio producer. She lives in Cincinnati now but loves, misses, and often visits the Miami Valley. You can find her visual and audio works on her website www.susanbstudio.com.