UMSL faculty member, students drum up excitement during Missouri Botanical Garden’s Japanese Festival
Natsuki Kobayashi will never forget her first experience of taiko as a child – partly because of the art form’s thunderous sound. But more than anything else it was the drummers’ faces that captured her attention.
“The people who were playing really, really smiled,” recalls Kobayashi, a University of Missouri–St. Louis computer science major who grew up in Nagano, Japan. “I was thinking, ‘How can they smile like that?’ Then when I started playing the drums, I was smiling like that, too.”
The sheer delight that she and other members of her current troupe take in sharing the centuries-old spectacle was particularly evident over Labor Day weekend. St. Louis Osuwa Taiko performed many times during the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Japanese Festival, one of the oldest and largest celebrations of its kind in the Midwest.
Drumming alongside Kobayashi Sept. 2 to 4 were two additional members of the UMSL family: Jack Glennon, an accounting student, and Hitomi Salini, who teaches an upper-level Japanese course for the Department of Language and Cultural Studies.
While Kobayashi has been involved in taiko since middle school, Salini and Glennon are relatively new participants in the art form.
“When I came to the U.S. from Tokyo about eight years ago, my life incredibly changed, and I had some problems adjusting to the environment,” Salini explains. “I happened to see some taiko performers – I don’t remember exactly where – and the performance gave me a lot of energy to live strongly in the States. So I decided to try a taiko class.”
She proved to be a quick study, passing the audition to join St. Louis Osuwa Taiko about six months later.
“I can help play the role in the taiko group of connecting the United States to Japan,” she adds.
It’s a big commitment, with the dedicated local ensemble gathering for intensive practice sessions three days a week throughout the year.
“When we’re not doing this [performing], we’re pretty much practicing,” Glennon says.
The weekend marked his 17th year attending the Japanese Festival, where even at a young age the taiko drummers made an impression on him.
About three years ago he decided he wanted to become part of the group. He remembers being nervous about making the cut, but his experience playing drums since fifth grade came in handy. And like Kobayashi, Glennon expresses an enthusiasm while playing that is difficult to miss.
“The best part is looking out and seeing the audience,” he says. “There’s just so much energy, and it kind of reflects back on the playing, and everyone screams louder.”
Characterized by complex choreography and communication between players as well as that infectious energy, St. Louis Osuwa Taiko performances also feature flutes and, beginning last year, an accompanying lion dance that is popular with audiences.
Salini enthusiastically took on the latter role during Saturday morning’s opening ceremony at the botanical garden as those in the crowd fed dollar bills into her costume jaws during the show. It’s an element the group added thanks to Salini’s connections in Japan, where she recently took a class on the lion dance.
“I think that taiko has a mysterious power,” she says of the art form as a whole. “It has a powerful and deep sound, which sometimes gives people peace and sometimes enthusiasm. It puts babies to sleep, but on the other hand it can raise the spirit. Whenever there was a war, fighting, taiko inspired the soldiers.
“But only a good taiko sound,” Salini adds with a laugh, emphasizing that quality is key.
When she, Kobayashi and Glennon aren’t busy drumming, they’re each eager members of the campus community at UMSL. Kobayashi is active with the Japan America Student Association, and Glennon notes that one of his favorite things about UMSL is its diversity of people.
“UMSL has the most international people out of any college that I’ve been to,” says Glennon, who transferred in after attending a couple others in the St. Louis region.
Salini hears that sentiment echoed often among her language students.
“When I ask the students in class about the advantages to studying at UMSL, they say diversity – so that they can learn about a variety of cultures,” she says.
That sort of learning was also the focus all weekend at the garden and will be again Sept. 8 to 10 in Springfield, Missouri, where the talents of St. Louis Osuwa Taiko will again be in the spotlight.
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