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Lura A. White Elementary students went on a special field trip to the Shirley Middle School to watch and participate in a performance of Odaiko New England, a Japanese drumming ensemble from Woburn. The group gave performances for both elementary and middle school students.

Odaiko Executive and Artistic Director Mark Hideyuki Rooney, Assistant Artistic Director Juni Kobayashi, and fellow performer Greg Richards, are practiced in the modern art of Taiko, a Japanese drumming style that uses martial arts-like movements and “Ki-ais,” or shouting, to encourage high energy. Their performances not only presented high-energy rhythms that literally moved the students, but also incorporated humor and dramatizations of Japanese folktales to teach them about Japanese traditions and history.

The performers started by introducing the students to the various ways that drums have been used in Japanese culture. They simultaneously narrated and drummed a story of Juni Kobayashi’s journey around old Japan, “a country made of islands, with crashing waves, seabirds, and the scent of the sea air.” Rooney spoke of a country with huge hills and mountains, between which there are vibrant green, flat fields where rice is grown. As Kobayashi wandered around the stage, Rooney wove a tale of her travels to the cold Northeast, the warmer southern region around Kyoto, and to Kitakyushu, “where it gets as hot as Florida sometimes.”

Kobayashi dramatized her travels across water and, finally, to the highest peak in Japan, Mt. Fuji. As she rested, she drank in the soothing sounds of insects and forest creatures, until, suddenly, she heard a sound she had never heard before — a loud drumming. She followed this mysterious sound until it got louder and louder, and she came to the center of the village where the drummer stood. The villagers there were so friendly that they welcomed her and gave her rice seedlings to plant — but she did not know what to do with them. She tried eating them and then throwing them up in the air; it took the rhythm of the drum to teach her how to plant the seedlings in rows. Once the seedlings were planted, the drumming helped the farmer pray for rain.

This entertaining dramatization taught the students that drums in Japan have been used to mark the boundaries of villages, to help with planting, and to facilitate the practice of religion.

Although the performers’ drumming and dramatic skills captivated the audience, the biggest hit of the 40-minute performance was the appearance of the Rain God — first- grade teacher Ken Dow — who was hidden behind a white mask and carrying a small water blaster with which he dampened students in the front two rows.

The Taiko drummers, or Uchite, performed other arrangements, taught the students how to Ki-ai in order to create energy, and introduced them to their instruments, which are struck with Banchi, or sticks made of deer antler.

Although Taiko is Japanese for “big drum,” it has come to mean any large or small drum used to make Taiko music. The performers introduced the students to three different types of drums. Odaiko is a large drum made of wood and covered with stretched, thick cowhide at both ends. Jozuke is a medium-sized drum that is shorter and covered with the thinner hide of a horse, giving it a higher pitch. The shime is a small high-pitched drum that is often used to provide a back beat in Taiko compositions. Shime have their drumheads pulled taut over a hoop by a lace of tension cords that can be tightened for a higher pitched sound.

Toward the end of the performance, several student volunteers were invited onstage to try a little drumming of their own. At the count of three in Japanese — ichi, ni, san — and a shout of “Tataki Mashoo,” or “Let’s beat the drum!” the young drummers beat out the rhythms demonstrated by their sensei, or teacher.

Through their captivating performance, Odaiko New England, brought to Shirley thanks to ShirleyArts! and the Shirley Parent-Teacher Association, demonstrated the power of Taiko in bringing people together and encouraging a greater appreciation of Asian American cultures. Although they used many drums, they offered one voice for cultural arts appreciation and the education of Shirley students.

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