The multitude of sights and drumbeats during the 7th annual ShastaYama Festival will be created by many highly regarded west coast taiko performers on a stage set up for this one event the evening of July 30 at Shastice Park in Mount Shasta.

The multitude of sights and drumbeats during the 7th annual ShastaYama Festival will be created by many highly regarded west coast taiko performers on a stage set up for this one event the evening of July 30 at Shastice Park in Mount Shasta.

Michelle Fujii, a guest artist at every ShastaYama so far, returns this year with her group Portland Taiko, as both a performer and artistic director.

Michelle has deep ties with ShastaYama creators Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer and their son Masato Baba, who will also perform at ShastaYama 2011.

“My relationship with Russel and Jeanne is quite special,” Michelle said during a recent telephone interview. “I see ShastaYama as deeply connected to Russel and Jeanne and what they represent. They have been strong mentors to me in life. Their dedication to creating art and supporting artists is quite special.”

The setting for ShastaYama is also special to Michelle, who has been performing taiko and “taiko-infused dances” at venues around the country and beyond for many years.

“Being outside, it’s so family-oriented; with the stage facing the mountain, it’s a very spiritual vantage point,” she said of the Shastice Park setting.

The performances Portland Taiko is planning for ShastaYama derive, at least in part, from Michelle’s reflections on the history of the Mt. Shasta festival. That has led to a Portland Taiko lineup “that brings in a different perspective,” she said, including several movement pieces. Their full ensemble movement pieces will be “one of the highlights.”

Also on stage for ShastaYama will be guest artists Stanford Taiko, Kris Bergstrom, two Shasta Taiko groups and Lawson Inada, the state of Oregon’s fifth Poet Laureate.

Recent ShastaYamas have attracted audiences of more than 1,000 people. Tickets for the lawn-seating only event are available at Village Books and Soul Connections in Mount Shasta; the Yreka Chamber of Commerce; Bogbean Books & Music in Redding; online at www.shastayama.org or at the gate.

Jeanne Mercer, who started Shasta Taiko with Russel Baba in Mount Shasta some 25 years ago, said, “I believe that Portland Taiko’s performance at ShastaYama will be one to remember.”

Michelle, as Jeanne sees it, “is not only a virtuoso taiko artist but an exquisite dancer as well, and as artistic director, she incorporates both elements in her compositions – it is really stunning. One of the compositions that I am looking forward to features a violinist with the drummers playing on hand held drums in choreographed movements – it takes your breath away.”

“The relationship of movement in the taiko art form has always been prevalent...” Michelle said. “You have to get in a form of body structure to produce the sound we produce on drum... taiko as an instrument traditionally was an accompaniment to dance; that history is centuries old. My pieces are contemporary but represent a long lineage that is traditional.”

A fourth generation Japanese-American, Michelle said it was the physical aspects of taiko that attracted her when she was a high school student and was “looking for my own identity and trying to figure out what to do.”

“From my first hit to now I never left it...” she said. “I love the physicality; that’s one of the most empowering experiences. It really feeds your body and activates the entire soul.”

She said her explorations of the visual aspects of taiko are about “bringing the full potential of the performer or myself into the drum... putting your entire body into the drum.”

Michelle said she started taiko 18 years ago in San Jose Taiko and has performed in multiple taiko groups “on my life path.” She got to know Russel and Jeanne while performing with Masato Baba in the groups ON Ensemble and TaikoProject.

ShastaYama is the only place where Michelle and her husband, Toru Watanabe, also a Portland Taiko member, perform as a duo. She and Toru met while she was studying in northern Japan with that country’s foremost traditional folk dance troupe, Warabiza, after she received the prestigious Bunka-cho fellowship from the Japanese government in 2001. “We met there; life shifted again,” she said.

Toru is also familiar to ShastaYama audiences. He previously performed with a folk dance/theatrical troupe in Japan. “His dancing is very powerful and expressive,” said Jeanne. “Since joining Portland Taiko, he has developed into a dynamic taiko artist. What makes taiko so unique is that synthesis of drumming, choreography, music, and spirit that captures and inspires audiences.”