When she was a small girl in Toronto, Kayo Homma-Komori remembers attending Wasabi Taiko rehearsals with her parents. While the thunder of the huge drums couldn’t help but leave an impression on her, her favourite sound was the mournful call of the large conch shell that was played to signal the beginning of some pieces.
Now 16 years old, she is making thunder of her own as a member of Chibi Taiko, Canada’s first children’s taiko group. Chibi is celebrating its 10th Anniversary this year with a concert at the Capilano College Performing Arts Theatre on Saturday, October 18 at 7:30pm.
In 1993, Shinobu Homma and Lucy Komori had just arrived back in Vancouver after a seven-year, job related exile in Toronto where Kayo was born. Both of them had played key roles in the development of Vancouver’s Katari Taiko, Canada’s first taiko group, and had taken their skills with them to Toronto, where they formed Wasabi Taiko with several other ex-patriot Vancouverites members including Lucy’s sister Leslie.
Back in Vancouver, Shinobu made the decision not to rejoin any of the local groups, but to form a children’s group instead. Part of his impetus was to provide an opportunity for Kayo to take up taiko in the company of other children. He chose the name Chibi, or child, and recruited five other children between the ages of six and ten. Two retired Katari Taiko members, Naomi Shikaze and Joyce Chong signed on to help out and the group was off and running.
From the beginning, parental involvement has been critical in terms of the operation of the group. One of the first orders of business was building a set of drums, which Shinobu and the parents did over the next few years. The other was to develop a stable core of players, which happened gradually as less committed players left and new ones joined over time.
Karen Riley, whose sons Brandon and Jordy joined the group following an introductory workshop eight years ago, sees the current incarnation of Chibi Taiko as a tight-knit group. “The kids have all grown up together, almost like an extended family, and therefore there is a strong sense of responsibility amongst the members and parents. Besides the camaraderie in belonging to a group, playing with Chibi Taiko has been a great asset in the personal development of my kids. More than anything, it has helped them build confidence, appreciate their heritage, and understand the importance of commitment. I am grateful for the dedication and patience that the Chibi instructors bring to teaching our kids. They are outstanding role models.”
For her part, instructor Naomi Shikaze sees Chibi playing an important role in the ongoing development of Canadian Nikkei culture, one of the reasons she continues to volunteer her time to the group. “I see Chibi fitting into the taiko culture just as the name implies. They represent the youth of the taiko community and in a way I think they exemplify much of Katari Taiko’s original philosophy. They have a connection to the Asian Canadian community and see taiko as an expression of their personal and collective identity.”
It has not all been easy, though. Shinobu points out that teaching children is more difficult than teaching adults. “When adults take up taiko,” he explains, “they have mentally bought into the idea or concept of ‘taikoing’—they are prepared to learn the whole taiko thing. Kids don’t see that when they see taiko. That’s the first hurdle to jump over.” He was, he says, ready to give up after the second year. Fortunately, he stuck with it, and his persistence paid off eventually. “It took Chibi five years. But when I saw them working as a group for the first time, I felt so good.” He is also quick to point out that, although it may be harder to motivate children, that they learn three times as efficiently as adults, and retain the knowledge/memory three times better.
Over the years, various players and instructors have come and gone, but a strong nucleus has developed and the past few years have seen the group take a big step forward in terms of skill and maturity. As the senior member of the group, Kayo has seen the payoffs that result from perseverance. Like all of the other players, she has to juggle the demands of school and other extra-curricular activities, making a commitment to attending practice regularly and making herself available for performances.
Chibi Taiko’s future looks bright. The members have begun writing their own material to augment their repertoire, and are displaying a new level of maturity and independence.
A recent promotion for BC’s Olympic bid raised the profile of the group and they are in high demand for various events throughout the Lower Mainland. This past summer the group performed at the North American Taiko Conference in Sacramento, California. It was, Shinobu thinks, a turning point for the group. “They played so well, and with confidence. I could not believe it. Normally I don’t weigh performances that important but that was an exception.”
As someone who believes that taiko is more than just another performing art, Shinobu makes sure that they keep their connection to the broader taiko community alive, performing most years at the Powell Street Festival and other community events like the recent Nikkei Week celebration at Nikkei Place in Burnaby. He also encourages them to look at the community as something they belong to.
One Chibi member, Caitlin Ohama-Darcus has begun writing and illustrating a regular children’s page for The Bulletin, a reflection of her strong ties to the community, and her desire to make Nikkei culture more accessible to other children like herself.
As in any children’s group, there is the conundrum of what to do once the children aren’t children anymore. In the past few years, a number of the Chibi members have graduated, both from high school and from the group itself. Faced with a declining core group, this past spring, a new group of members were absorbed into the group, some of them children of former taiko players.
For his part, Shinobu has a vision for the group. “I’d like to see Chibi become a bigger organization, perhaps adding a separate, highly committed, older group. We also want to take a trip to Hawaii and Japan for an exchange and establish a strong friendship with our counterparts. If we can secure a permanent facility I would like to establish a program to invite guests and groups, and also run a summer and winter school.”
For now, though, the group is rehearsing hard for their upcoming concert, their first self-presented recital. A recent fire at their rehearsal space in Burnaby has forced the group to temporarily relocate to Steveston, where the Buddhist Temple has generously loaned them the use if their large hall. It will be the first performance for the new members.
The Bulletin, October 2004