gwalla (gwalla) wrote,

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I don't want to work, I just want to bang on me drum all day

I'd been wanting to see a live taiko performance for a long time, so when I found that the S.F. Taiko Dojo was selling tickets to the U.S.-Japan Taiko Festival I snapped up a few when I went to the Cherry Blossom Festival last weekend. So this Saturday I took my folks to it, and had a blast

Taiko, if you're not aware, is a Japanese form of ensemble drumming. It also includes some elements of dance, with stylized swings of the drumsticks, and players sometimes moving from drum to drum. It had actually become neglected in its country of origin (it was traditionally an art of the lower classes, and therefore never gained the esteem and preservational interest given to, say, the koto), until grandmaster Seiichi Yahata moved to San Francisco and founded the S.F. Taiko Dojo, basically rescuing the art form from destruction. The S.F. Taiko Dojo's touring and advocacy rekindled interest in taiko in Japan, and since then many groups have been formed, including some who tour worldwide such as Kodo and Soh Daiko. It uses a wide array of drums and percussion instruments, including a pipe-like cylindrical bell, a marimba-like instrument, frame drums, and small tom-tom-like drums, but is most closely associated with very large drums: an ensemble will typically have several kettledrum-sized drums, and a very large two-headed drum that frequently takes center stage and can be played by two people at once. A taiko group going full-tilt can make one hell of a noise.

First up was Akita Tensho Taiko, an all-female(!) taiko group from Akita Prefecture. They were quite good. Then the S.F. Taiko Dojo did a very high-energy set of three pieces, including a new composition by grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka, and a Japanese-style lion dance by a lion dance master (who was a riot to watch). I was a little disappointed that they didn't do their big number, Tsunami. After an intermission, they had a performance by asian new age superstar Kitaro on bamboo flute backed by synthsizer. The flute playing was good but over-amplified, and overdrive did not improve the tone. The synth was better when it sounded like an asian string instrument rather than generic synth washes. Part of that set included additional backing by Yahata on a frame drum and the lion dancer on Buddhist bells, and a butoh dancer. That part, frankly, nearly put me to sleep. The dancer had a neat costume and makeup, at least. After that, the Taiko Dojo returned for a final piece, which was Tsunami. I should have realized that they weren't done since the big drum was on the side of the stage but had not yet been used. They dedicated the performance to the victims and survivors of recent natural disasters, including of course the hurricanes in the gulf states, the south asian tsunami, and earthquakes in the middle east. It absolutely brought down the house. Even Kitaro got a guest solo on the big drum—while his movements were clearly not as graceful as the regular drummers, his sense of rhythm was surprisingly good, and he really pounded that thing. I didn't know he had it in him. Afterwards, the performers were given plaques commemorating the event (although the Akita group did not come out for theirs for some reason). While leaving the theater, my dad commented that Tsunami made him want to "tear something down or build something up". It made me want to go to a taiko group and take classes, because it looks like a blast.

I thought that the performance was going to end at 10, but fortunately the Cherry Blossom Festival schedule was wrong about it and it ended earlier, which gave us time to get some dinner (theater popcorn doesn't cut it). We went to a Juban, a Japanese BBQ (actually pretty indistinguishable from Korean BBQ) place on the ground floor of the Kinokuniya building. The food was excellent, capping off a great night of entertainment.

Sunday morning I got up early (well, early for a Sunday), still unsure whether I wanted to go to the final day of the Cherry Blossom Festival or to the first ever Language Creation Conference at Cal. I planned to go to the conference, stay for maybe the first talk, then take BART to SF and see the parade, and finally BART back and catch the last bit of the conference. However: I'd stupidly left my camera on and drained the batteries, and no place carrying that kind of battery was open that early; it was rather dreary out, which made the parade seem a lot less appealing; that plan would have involved spending a lot of time I could have been at either event riding around on or waiting for public transit, which seemed like a waste; I'd probably miss the kendo performance anyway; and frankly the first couple of talks were so interesting that I didn't want to leave. So I wrote off the Cherry Blossom Festival parade and just spent the whole day at the conlang con. I don't regret it, either (there's always next year for the festival—but I do really want to see it sometime).

The real highlights of the conference were Sally Caves (creator of Teonaht, and also Star Trek character Reginald Barclay) talking about conlanging and the Internet, Ithkuil creator John Quijada (who looks like he could be The Rock's older, less-athletic brother) talking about cognitive linguistics and how ideas from it can be applied to conlanging, David "too many conlangs to name" Peterson's introduction to word-and-paradigm morphology (which more or less abandons the entire concept of morphemes in favor of relations between words), and lojbanist John E. Clifford's introduction to the concept of semantic primes. Clifford's talk was quite a bit more interesting than I expected, since I don't normally mess with philosophical languages, but he made a good case for its applicability to all conlangs, especially with regards to teaching them. Matt Pearson's talk on cases and argument structure—actually more on using cases for things other than just labelling the participants in an event, through split ergativity and such—was also interesting but I was running out of gas by that point. All of the talks were good, really. The only problem was that Jeff Burke, who was scheduled to give a talk on diachronic linguistics and conlanging (which sounded interesting) never showed and was unreachable on his cel phone.

Quijada's and Peterson's talks were particularly interesting, because the things they were talking about were totally new to me, and were about things going on "under the hood" of language, which among other things make sense of seeming irregularities or at least make them easier to deal with. For example, Quijada talked about how English uses the preposition "out" for both "the fire went out" and "the sun came out", even though they have opposite results (after the one, you cannot see the fire, but after the other, you can see the sun), and why. And while I'm still rather attached to morphemes (and have been known to invoke the dreaded "null morpheme" on occasion), I can see how word-and-paradigm can in some cases make things easier to explain. I'll have to play around with it a bit. It helps that both of them are very engaging public speakers.
Tags: conlangs, diary, nihon

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