The Rip Post                                                      The Rip Post Interview: Shin3






L to R: Audrey Nakasone, Joyce Layne, Elaine Fukumoto. A scientist, former high school teacher/counselor, and kindergarten teacher respectively, they work together to celebrate and perpetuate taiko drumming, kamishibai storytelling, minyo dance, and many joys of Japanese culture.
(photo courtesy of Shin3)

You think of taiko drumming, and you likely think of heavily striated males dressed in oversized hand towels, pounding 747-sized sounds out of broad drums. Or if you are more well-acquainted with taiko, you might think of any number of large groups where the majority of players happen to be female (a huge trend in taiko.) But you will not likely think of three effervescent middle-aged L.A. area women with professional backgrounds in education and science. But that is Shin3---a kind of (pardon the expression) one-man band in the taiko realm. Audrey Nakasone, Joyce Layne, and Elaine Fukumoto got together in 2004, mixing 40 years of taiko-playing (combined) with Japanese folk-dancing and storytelling experience, and became what in the rock 'n' roll world used to be called a power trio. Shin3---that's 'Shin Three' or 'Shin-to-the-third-power,' take your pick---performs at colleges, grade schools, libraries, you-name-it, perpetuating lyrical aspects of Japanese culture, and brightening spirits in the process. Shin3 members were interviewed by Rip Rense, and they collectively answered in "all for one, one for all3" spirit.


THE RIP POST: It is Shin to the third power, not “Shin Three,” right? Or is it either? And please explain the significance of the name, and how you came up with it.

SHIN3: Our name is “Shin to the power of three,” though most people refer to us as “Shin 3.” The superscript “3” throws them off!

We wanted a meaningful name, and, after extensive research, found the Japanese term “shin.” “Shin” has many meanings in Japanese, with different kanji (Chinese characters) representing the different meanings. We chose the three meanings which represented the ideals that we valued: (1) heart-mind, (2) truth and (3) trust. After being simply “Shin” for a short time, we realized the significance of “three” in all this. There were three of us in our ensemble; there were the three kanjj representing the three ideals we valued; and there was the geometric shape of the three-sided triangle--a shape which represented strength and balance--another
concept we valued.

It seemed to us that in our ensemble, what was important was that three people could work together--sharing our strengths--to create something that, working alone, we as separate individuals might never accomplish. So, to represent this concept, we added the superscript “3” and became “Shin to the power of three.”

RP: You are all professional people with occupations (what are they?). How did you come to be taiko players, and did any of you have any background in performing of any sort before?

SHIN3: Audrey Nakasone is a microbiologist. Elaine Fukumoto is a kindergarten teacher who has studied Japanese folk dance. Joyce Layne is a retired school district human resources administrator and former senior high school teacher and counselor.

We were all drawn to the sounds, rhythms and movements of taiko. Taiko was (still is) a challenge, both physically and mentally!

None of us had any extensive experience in performing, though Elaine did perform Japanese folk dance, and Joyce played in her school orchestra (a long time ago!).

L to R: Fukumoto, Layne, Nakasone.
"Three people could work together--sharing our strengths--to create something that, working alone, we as separate individuals might never accomplish."---Shin3.(photo courtesy of Shin3)

RP: How did the three of you decide to form a group? It’s quite unusual. Most people think of taiko
groups as fairly large, as opposed to a trio. But you do much more than taiko as Shin3, correct?

SHIN3: We knew each other, when we played with another taiko group. When we left that
other group, we knew that we wanted to continue playing taiko and it seemed natural to get together and form an ensemble. We knew that we shared common interests and goals. For example, we wanted to explore doing more than just taiko. We wanted to be performers, entertainers. This is why we do not use “taiko” in our name.

We liked the challenge of performing as a trio. We find that we are well-balanced; each of us brings a talent/skill to the group which fills the needs for what we do. Within our trio, there is no one leader; we are all equals.

RP:  I hate terms like “Mission Statement,” but...what do you three consider to be the mission of Shin3?

SHIN3: Our goal is to share with others some of the cultural traditions of Japan, using the
performance arts of taiko, storytelling, music and dance, in order to foster a greater understanding of and appreciation for the cultural diversity that makes our country unique. We hope that we, as third generation Japanese Americans, serve as models for other children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of immigrants. We hope that they will be motivated to learn about and appreciate their own cultural traditions, as well as the traditions of other groups, and that they will come to view diversity as a rich source of strength to be valued.

RP: Please give me a description of a typical Shin3 performance. Use any example from your career together. Or if you do radically different types of performances, please summarize them.

SHIN3: Our favorite performances are for school children (and their parents!). We typically
start with a taiko piece. We may talk about the history of taiko. Elaine will tell a “kamishibai” story. Audrey will perform shishimai--the traditional “lion” dance. We talk about the significance of the shishimai, and the craftsmen in Kyoto who made Audrey’s shishi. Joyce may tell a traditional Japanese folk tale. We like to get the audience involved by showing them how to do a traditonal “matsuri” dance, called Awa Odori. Everyone, young and old, gets up and dances the Awa Odori. We may then have a question and answer session.

RP: I know you sometimes perform at libraries with storyteller Katy Rydell, and that you help keep alive a particular visual style of Japanese storytelling. Can you explain and describe?

SHIN3: It was our great good fortune to have been able to perform with Katy, not just at
libraries, but in longer concert length performances. Our performances usually emphasize Japanese cultural traditions, and include “kamishibai.” Before television and movies, kamishibai men would ride on their bicycles from village to village telling stories using a sequence of pictures drawn on paper. The kamishibai man would use a wooden shadowbox, with an opening in the front through which he could show his pictures. As he told his story, he would pull out each illustration, revealing the next one underneath.

Tech savvy children of our time can still appreciate this simple form of storytelling using pictures!

RP: Do you write your own taiko pieces?

SHIN3: Yes. We were taught basic composition techniques by Ryan Baker. Ryan is a
unique musician: he has a degree in music composition and is also a taiko player and taiko maker. He has composed taiko pieces, so he understands both Western music and taiko.

RP: It seems that taiko as it exists in the U.S. is quite a bit different from Japan, and that
a lot more innovation is taking place since the relative explosion of taiko popularity here in the last 20 years or so. Innovation such as combining various types of music and instrumentation with taiko is not uncommon,. Fair statement? Do you consider some of the innovation as going too far?

SHIN3: The form of taiko that we play today, both here and in Japan, is itself the result of
innovation--the combining of a Western music perspective and the ancient instrument known in Japan as taiko. As we know, Grandmaster Daihachi Oguchi, a fan of jazz, had the idea of combining various kinds of taiko to be played together, in the way a Western drummer, with a Western drum kit, combines various sizes of drums to produce a range of different sounds. Additionally, Oguchi sensei infused a new sense of dynamic rhythms (perhaps also the result of his appreciation of jazz) into this new way of playing taiko, and this is what became so popular both here and in Japan. So, the “history” of taiko, specifically kumidaiko (two or more drummers playing more than one type of taiko) here in the U.S., extends back only to 1968. Other than Japanese matsuri or festival taiko drumming, kumidaiko is making its own traditions on the fly! It’s an evolving performing art, both here and in Japan.

The West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple's West L.A. Taiko, a performing group for all ages led by Shin3, performs at the 2008 Obon Festival at San Fernando Hongwanji Buddhist Temple.  (photo courtesy of W. L.A. Buddhist Temple.)

But perhaps it is true that here in the U.S., with music and musicians from other cultures so available and accessible, there has been more innovation along the lines of combining various types of music and instrumentation with taiko. This is fine! Like all experiments, some of the results simply don’t work. However, if taiko is to remain vital and exciting, innovation must be part of the art.

We think your concern is that, with innovation running rampant, taiko will lose its cultural identity. This is a concern that many within the taiko community here in the U.S. share. We believe that the cultural identity or integrity, if you will, of taiko, can be preserved only where it has always resided--within taiko players. You don’t have to be Japanese to play taiko. But--huge but!--you must know, understand and appreciate the cultural history and traditions of taiko and your role and responsibility as a taiko player, to maintain that tie with the tradition. We believe that if you embrace that responsibility, then you actually play taiko differently--in the spirit of taiko, rather than as someone just beating a drum. We try to make sure that our taiko students understand and appreciate this cultural tradition.

RP: Part of your work includes having started a new taiko group at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. How did that come about, and please describe the group. What ages, types, skill levels are involved, etc.

SHIN3: To clarify--we did not start a new taiko group at West LA. We were asked by the
minister at West LA Buddhist Temple, Rev. Fumiaki Usuki, to teach a taiko class at the temple.

When Rev. Usuki began his assignment at West LA Buddhist Temple, he wanted to start activities for temple members as a way of encouraging involvement and fellowship. One of his ideas was to start a taiko class. His goal was not to produce a performing group, but rather to give people the opportunity to experience taiko as a form of recreation. Since Rev. Usuki had been assigned at the Los Angeles Betsuin, where Shin3 is based and where we are all members, he knew that Audrey and Elaine had taught taiko. He asked if we would be interested in teaching the West LA class. Since we believe that one of our responsibilities as taiko players is to give back to the community by sharing what we have learned, and since we like teaching, we said yes.

We began with about 30 students, ages four to 84 and everything in between. The students were true beginners--no previous experience--and we had no taiko! Everyone in the class helped wrap packaging tape around donated tires, and this is how we began. Meanwhile, Rev. Usuki was determined to make taiko! He learned how to build taiko from Audrey’s friend, Chico Jimenez. In a matter of a few months, he and a few helpers built ten taiko--a real accomplishment in such a short period of time. He built an additional ten taiko in the next year. Rev. Usuki’s enthusiasm, energy, and unfailing support, as well as the support of the temple members, has been the reason for the progress and success of the taiko class.

West L.A. Taiko performing at the San Fernando Hongwanji
Buddhist Temple Obon Festival, 2008.
(photo courtesy of W. L.A. Buddhist Temple.)

RP: Some people reading this might assume it is unusual to find women taiko players, particularly oh, how shall I put this--who are past thirty. Yet this is far from the truth. The majority of taiko players in the U.S., I’ve heard, is female. Without using the awful word, “empowerment“ (please!), can you give some observations as to how and why this came to be?

SHIN3: Two of us are past fifty and one of us is--let’s see--beyond that! And yes--the last we heard, approximately 75% of taiko players in the U.S. are female. It would be interesting to see an age distribution.

Why so many “older” female players? Well, taiko in the U.S., as we mentioned previously, started relatively recently--in 1968. We know the first two taiko groups formed in Northern California were San Francisco Taiko Dojo and San Jose Taiko, and the first group formed in Southern California was Kinnara Taiko. There wasn’t a lot of awareness about taiko and fewer opportunities to learn to play taiko. Anyhow, when you’re in college or starting to work or just married and raising children--who has time to indulge in pounding a Japanese drum! Consequently, many of us of that generation came late to taiko.

Why more women than men? We don’t know! We think the men are missing out!

RP: Many people think that taiko is fairly easy. “You just hit the big drum.” Sure, it requires practice, proper technique, but there is a prevalent idea that it can’t be that difficult. Your comments?

SHIN3: In most cultures, the first instrument to evolve is usually a drum of some sort. Someone said that at its most basic, all you need is your hand and something to hit. So, we tell our class that, yes, it’s true that anyone can hit a drum. Anyone can hit a taiko. Furthermore, compared to other musical instruments, like the piano, for example, learning to play taiko is a whole lot quicker and easier! And this is good, because taiko can be accessible to people of all ages and can accommodate people at all levels of skill. Perhaps this is why taiko has become so popular among “just folks” and why community based taiko groups are by far the most popular way of playing of taiko, both here and in Japan. Professional groups and professional players are still few and far between.

Having said that, we believe that playing taiko well, that is, using proper technique, is extremely important. Since taiko is a strenuous physical activity, good technique can help alleviate injuries. Also, taiko is a musical discipline, and the challenge of mastering that discipline is good for the body, the mind and the spirit.

RP: How and why is the tradition of taiko important to you, and Japanese-Americans in general?

SHIN3: Taiko is important as one link among many that tie us to Japan. As grandchildren
of Japanese immigrants, we are not far removed, in time, from Japan, its history and its cultural traditions. Taiko is an activity that allows us to feel, in a small way, like participants in the long flow of Japanese culture and tradition. It’s a mostly beautiful and wonderfully artistic tradition, so who wouldn’t want to feel a part of that! We strongly believe that everyone should know about and value the traditions of their ancestral homeland(s). We also believe that fostering the continuation of that tradition is very important and we think of our performing and teaching as our contribution to that end.

RP: Please tell about any especially rewarding moments you’ve had as Shin3. Describe
in as much detail as possible.

SHIN3: Two moments stand out. The first was when we participated in the 2005 North
American Taiko Conference performance of “Korekara.” We had just formed our ensemble, when we got word that the Southern California taiko groups were being asked to participate in playing “Korekara,” a taiko piece composed for the event, at the opening of the Taiko Conference. No one knew who we were. However, during the practices and rehearsals, we felt that we were accepted by and became part of the taiko community. We were encouraged by the support we received. This acceptance and support was very important to us. When we performed on stage, as part of the taiko community, we were both happy and humbled to be a part that experience.. It was an event we will never forget!

Joyce Layne keeps time on the kane (top.) Elaine Fukumoto (left) and Audrey Nakasone (2nd from left) with young members of West L.A. Taiko, 2008.
(photos courtesy of W. L.A. Buddhist Temple.)

The second moment occurred the first time our class performed in public, at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple Obon. The class had been playing taiko for a mere eight months. They played the only two pieces they knew! It was wonderful to see their hard work pay off in front of their family and friends! After they finished, George Abe, who had just performed with Kinnara (they played just before the class performed--a tough act to follow!), said that he thought the class played with true taiko spirit. Wow! To us, this was the highest praise anyone could give the class. We will always remember George’s words!

RP: What future hopes and plans does Shin3 have?

SHIN3: We hope that we can continue to find ways to challenge the members of our class, so that they have fun and grow as taiko players. We hope that the bond which has formed among the class members and their bond with us will remain strong.

We plan to improve our own taiko compositions. We want to find creative ways to play taiko, and we certainly hope that we, like our class, will continue to improve our own skills.

We hope to travel to Japan, though the dollar to yen exchange rate is discouraging!

Shin3 Performs at University of California, Irvine Medical Center.
 L to R: Fukumoto, Layne, Nakasone.
(photo courtesy of Shin3)




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