Mt. Shasta middle school students experience Taiko

Forest Hoff, Sisson 5th grade teacher
Fourth and fifth grade students at Sisson School in Mount Shasta watch, hear and feel a performance by Shasta Taiko on Sept. 21, 2018. Submitted by Forest Hoff

Silence. Tension building. The fourth and fifth grade students at Sisson were on the edge of their seats. They could see the drums and yukatas of Shasta Taiko group, but for many, the sounds to come were as mysterious as the inner workings of a cell phone. Then, boom! Boom! Boom! The group took off like a jumbo jet, smooth and powerful, throwing everyone back in their seats. Feet came off the bleachers.

“You can still feel it vibrate in your feet, even when you lift them up,” commented fifth grader Hank Johnson. “I felt excited and it got me into the mood to watch more. I felt the beat in my heart,” said Madison Castaneda.

Shasta Taiko has performed for Sisson in the past, but this time was different. The students in my fifth grade class had been studying the culture, language, and art of Japan since the first day of school in August. As our last day studying Japan, Sept. 21 was dedicated to celebrating Japanese culture.

Mayumi Hirai, who grew up in Japan, shared her fifth grade experience. Segal Shaw shared her skill in Japanese brush and ink work. Students learned about Peace Day celebrated on August 6, the same day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Students have been folding 1,000 paper cranes to remember those that died in the wake of the bombing. Friday, Sept. 21, was International Peace Day. While this day has no direct connection to Peace Day in Japan, both are observed to consider ideas of peace among nations.

Although Japan certainly has its share of modern pop music, through Shasta Taiko, Sisson students were able to learn more about what is traditional in Japan and experience something truly different.

“It was weird when we went in circles saying ‘drive the car,’” said Hank Johnson, referring to the Bon Odori dance that Shasta Taiko led during the event. During Bon Odori, people in Japan honor and appreciate the sacrifices of their ancestors by dancing in a circle around Taiko drummers. In addition to the traditional movements, Russel Baba, a driving force in the group, created “ShastaYama Odori.” To do this, he added movements to reflect modern life, including swiping, texting, selfie, and driving the car.

Often the history of a region is depicted in its dance moves. Perhaps 1,000 years from now, people will be miming these moves as they dance around Taiko drums in Mount Shasta.

Hearing something loud may not have been unique for many. Perhaps, though, the fact that the sounds came from a natural drum instead of a loudspeaker caught the students hearts. Fourth grader Hayden Allison recalled, “I loved it because it was really loud.” Fifth grader Leonardo Martinez said, “It’s really loud and you could hear it echoing.”

Spencer Adkisson, another fifth grade teacher, mentioned that the large wooden drums aren’t too loud to the ears, but shake every part of your body. A drummer himself, he was amazed at the quality of the group’s performance in the Sisson gymnasium.

A school gym is not a space that many musicians would call ideal, but for Shasta Taiko and our students, the walls didn’t matter. Said Baba, “Young people in middle and high school are usually reluctant to respond, waiting for cues from classmates.” When asked to come up to dance, nearly half of the students came down, learned the moves, and danced in front of their peers with exuberance.

“Middle school youth are tough audiences, and the wonderful response at Sisson confirmed our belief in the power and importance of Taiko, music, and the arts in all lives,” said Baba.

According to the group, exposure to the art of Taiko is among their main goals. “Taiko is a way to expose not only Japanese style drumming, but another culture and another way of doing, thinking, seeing, etc.” That goal takes sacrifice. Some members had to take off time from work to perform at Sisson.

Taiko hasn’t always been around in Mount Shasta. During and after World War II, foreign cultures – especially Japanese and German – were suppressed. Recalls Baba, “Consciously and unconsciously, we (our generation of Japanese Americans) distanced ourselves from our ancestral heritage and embraced our American culture. Many, including me, became silent, quiet, and had self esteem issues.”

In the early 1970s, Baba joined a Taiko dojo in San Francisco, finding a great relief from those feelings.

“Taiko provided the opportunity to develop an appreciation for our Japanese heritage through its music,” he said. “It also provided an excuse to be loud and expressive and for all people, liberation the arts provide.”

While at the dojo, Russel met Jeanne Mercer, with whom he still shares his passion for Taiko drumming. In 1983, Russel and Jeanne moved to Mount Shasta to raise their son closer to nature, and found Mark Miyoshi living here. Mark is a leading American Taiko drum maker, which helped the couple form a group with local talent.

Sisson, being a centerpiece of the community, has often had the good fortune of visits from talented guests. An entire Taiko ensemble was a very special treat, but should come as no surprise to those that know the group.

“Taiko also builds one’s physical body, a strong mind and spirit, creativity, and a positive growth experience, said Baba and Mercer. Madison Castaneda could see this clearly. “They are strong because they beat on the drums hundreds of times,” she said.

Just like any community or school, ours has its share of stress. Taiko can rattle one out of that stress and back to a purity of childhood.

“The dance reminded me of when I was five and driving through the Redwood Forest,” said Hank Johnson.

“I remembered wanting to be a drummer when I was little,” said Leonardo Martinez.

“The beat of the drums made me feel very relaxed because I wasn’t focused on anything but the beat,” said Madison Castaneda.

Shasta Taiko has dedicated itself to the community in ways other than performing at Sisson. On Saturday, Nov. 17, they will perform their student recital at the Mount Shasta City Park main building. Doors open at 6:15 p.m. and donations of $5 to $30 will all go to the Mount Shasta Recreation and Parks District.

Anyone interested in the youth and adult Taiko classes can reach out to the group through their website: