Beacon Hill taiko player shares her beat crazy passion

A thundering boom jolts the audience and jump-starts their hearts. Large sticks strike wide drums sitting on wooden stands. Other drums join in - some big, some small and soon a song is created. To the untrained observer it looks like a group of people just banging on a set of oversized drums: sticks waving about like the players are fending off a hive of bees in full attack mode. But there is at once rhythm, sound, touch, and timing.

This is taiko, the ancient art of percussion music from Japan. Taiko combines different size drums from the hand-held uchiwa daiko to the odaiko, which can be more than 5 feet in diameter. Like any other percussion ensemble, accessory instruments such as shakers and flutes help create the desired sound imagery. Along with the drama of the drums, taiko also features the players moving through elegant and precise choreography. Each step helps tell the story of the entire piece.

Brought to North America approximately 35 years ago, taiko lives in the sounds and efforts of today's youth. On a Sunday afternoon, in a cold gym at Seattle Buddhist Church, a group of seven young men and women work together to make a cohesive song from the madness of many drums struck at once. They have until Thanksgiving weekend to create, choreograph, practice, and perform a piece of their own making.

The performance is the brainchild of Kelsey Furuta, life-long Beacon Hill resident, Franklin High School graduate and a senior at Seattle University. As part of her Liberal Studies senior project, Furuta has chosen to take two taiko groups of young players and teach them to create their own musical pieces to perform in front of a paying audience.

Kaze Daiko, the more experienced of the two groups, has played festivals, school assemblies and a variety of other gigs. Seattle Masturi Taiko, who practice at Seattle Buddhist Church in the South End, dedicated their playing for the Seattle Bon Odori Festival during Seafair, but the concert has created new expectations, where the groups will showcase their personal compositions for the first time.

Playing a song already composed by a famous taiko master is one task. Playing your own piece that you put your heart, soul and sweat into is a completely different drum to strike.

Furuta is a 12-year veteran of taiko and experienced in writing her own songs as well as collaborating with others. She began playing at the age of 10 when her sister joined the first youth taiko group in Seattle, Tsunami Taiko. Furuta immediately took to the power and precision of the drums, and her hard work earned her a hand-selected position in the traveling ensemble TAIKOPROJECT based out of Los Angeles.

The six-month tour left her both exhausted and exhilarated. She knew then that her future would always involve taiko and performing. Now, as her college days come to a close, Furuta has decided to pass along her knowledge and passion to other young taiko players in the hopes they, too, will continue the art form.

Furuta wants the performers to learn about taiko and the technical aspects of playing these drums. She also wants them to learn about how to write their own pieces as well as how to improve their stage presence.

Most importantly, Furuta wants the young players to learn more about themselves and what they can accomplish when someone believes in them, they believe in themselves and when they are pushed beyond their own expectations. Meeting these challenges, and the others they will encounter during their lives, promises to help the young players learn and grow as musicians, and individuals.

But the students are not the only ones learning in this process. Between coordinating the practice times of the two groups, composing and teaching her own piece for the concert and arranging all the particulars including location, insurance, flyers and tickets, it has also been a learning process for Furuta.

"I've been in several concerts before, but I've never been the one person in charge of everything. I'm making mistakes all over the place, but now I know what to do better next time," Furuta said. "While a part of me wishes I could share the stage with them, there's something really special about being dislocated from your own creations. I wish they could see what I see, how cool it looks when they stumble through their new material for the first time and it works. I can see the sense of accomplishment on their faces and it makes me feel so good."

For Furuta, this will be the culmination of four years of study and 12 years of taiko dedication. She plans to move on in taiko, hopefully becoming a professional someday. For now, her focus is working with the young players to show Seattle audiences that the future of Northwest taiko is as sound as drum.

The special taiko event entitled "Shinjiru - believe" will take place Nov. 26, 7p.m. at the Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway. Tickets are $5 and available from or by calling 325-6500.

Rick Maltby may be reached via

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