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MUSIC & DANCE NEWS : 'Pure Asian Thunder' for Nisei Week

August 06, 1995|Chris Pasles | Chris Pasles is Times staff writer

There will be a new sound at the Nisei Week Festival in Little Tokyo this week when a 5-foot-wide, 6-foot-long taiko drum, the largest ever constructed from scratch in the United States, takes center stage at a concert Saturday at the Japan America Theatre.

Making the jumbo-sized traditional Japanese drum fulfills a dream that taiko drummer Etsuo Hongo has had for the past 10 years. "It's easy to make a lot of little drums," Hongo said. "But I never thought I could make that big of one."

But after four years of experimenting, he decided he was ready. "I started making little drums, 10 inches in diameter. I made maybe four pieces like that. Last year, I made some a little bit bigger--2 feet, 2 inches wide. Then I thought I could make one 5 feet wide. The drum can't be much bigger than that or the sound dissipates."

Hongo's first challenge was finding the right materials. In Japan, where giant taikos are common, a huge tree trunk is used to make the body, and whole cow hides are used to make the heads.

In the United States, Hongo had to improvise. For the body, he used 3/4-inch fiberglass cylinder manufactured in San Fernando. "It was cut from scrap to the length we wanted," Hongo said. "We think it weighs a total of 300 pounds."

Hongo had hoped to send away to Japan for the cowhides, but the cost was prohibitive. "One side alone would cost $10,000," he said, "and there would be a year and a half wait."

When he looked into getting American cowhides, he discovered that they are generally split before being sold. One member of his taiko group, however, had connections with a cow breeder in Utah and was able to get the right-size hides from there.

"It took a day to prepare them, to scrape away the insides and get the oil out," Hongo said.

The hides were soaked for several days, then stretched while they were wet around one-inch welded pipe circles. They were then hand-sown onto the pipe using special needles, "which look like railroad spikes," he said. "It took pure muscle power. When they dried, they became taut, very taut."

The heads were then lashed to the drum body with about 400 feet of rope.

Evans Webb, a retired scenic artist, decorated the drum. Webb got involved in the project only because his son is a taiko player. "I volunteered to help, expecting a short session," he said. "I've been working ever since!"

The decoration, which required about three weeks to complete, is traditional: a black-lacquered body with a gold design painted on it. "We took a Japanese design that could be loosely translated as 'the gathering' and we put that on two sides," Webb said. The "gathering" symbol represents bringing together two cultures, the American and the Japanese, he said.

Even getting the right glossy black for the body turned out to be a challenge. "It took seven or eight coats," Webb said, "and we still didn't get the right richness. It was certainly satisfying to my eye, but not to Etsuo's eye.

"In order to get the lacquerlike black that he wanted, it was necessary to do [a particular kind of] varnishing. Our environmental regulations [don't allow that], so we can't get such a color without resorting to trickery. So I got a varnish and fortified the varnish with a resin. . . . You could call it a labor of love.

"It's going to take a giant crane to move it around," Webb added, "but it will sound like pure Asian thunder."

For the Saturday concert, in addition to Hongo and his group, drummers from Japan and a percussionist from Okinawa will be playing the drum. "It's a chance for local people to hear the real thing," said Kyoko Hongo, Etsuo's wife and a former drummer herself.

Taiko players stand in front of their drums, which sit on stands, heads facing out. The drummers use dowel-shaped drum sticks, grasped in the middle. The bigger the drum, the bigger the sticks and the bigger the drummers' movements.

In Japan, Hongo said, "each city has its own style of making and playing the taiko. My style is, we fight with the taiko. It's almost a battle, a challenge with the taiko, like fighting with the drum. All of our energy is directed to the drum."

As for the cows, Hongo wanted to stress that they were not destroyed just to make the drum. "These cows would have been slaughtered anyway," he said. "Everybody eats the meat or drinks the milk. Most of the time, the skin gets thrown away. These cows are very lucky. Their skins went right here. They're not only steak--but music."*

* The Los Angeles Taiko Festival VI will take place Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St. Tickets: $18. (213) 680-3700.

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