Play On My Heartstrings

Catherine Kuo

Writer’s Comment: When Ken told us to write our first UWP 101 paper about a place or event on campus, I decided to write about the performances of Bakuhatsu Taiko Dan, the Japanese drumming group at UC Davis. During my freshman year, I had been so absolutely excited about playing taiko for Bakuhatsu. By my junior year, however, I felt like I was past the fiery, passionate stage of the relationship and had to see if my love could last once the novelty wore off. I wrote this piece to remind myself why I play taiko in the first place and also to give the reader an in-depth view of the emotional and physical aspects of a taiko performance from a performer’s perspective. For this piece, I combined several past performances into one so that the reader may receive a more well-rounded and cohesive narrative in accordance with the essence of taiko.

Instructor’s Comment: Catherine wrote this essay for my UWP 101 Advanced Composition course in winter 2011. In this piece, she offers readers a vivid and enthralling glimpse into the electrifying world of Taiko drumming. But she goes beyond that. Through her essay, Catherine takes her readers out of the auditorium seats and places us backstage before the performance then into the lives of the musicians themselves. As we read, we’re invited to experience the moments leading up to, during, and after the performance; and throughout the essay we become connected to these very real people who share with their audience a truly magical experience. Catherine’s writing style is light and honest, and this piece really demonstrates how a simple slice of life can touch readers in many ways.
—Ken Andersen, University Writing Program

It’s dark. Laughter and deafening whispers seep through the velvet barrier and reach our eager ears. How many people are out there? Deeper shadows in the darkness dart about, but we remain still, crouched down behind the silent, solemn heralds associated with battles fought long ago and the smell of incense wafting through ancient temples. Some of the veterans are playfully poking each other with their drumsticks, but the greenhorns can practically be heard thinking about what we are to become in the next few minutes. A wave. A great ocean wave crashing down upon the unknowing inhabitants of the theater, we will earn their attention and their respect. We will set the bar for all those who come after us tonight. We, Bakuhatsu Taiko Dan, have acknowledged this, and I am not worried.

This is one of our bigger events. Among the many performances peppering the quarter, we are usually allotted about seven to ten minutes to perform, a time span that only allows maybe one or two songs. Today we get twenty minutes, which means we will have plenty of time to play all of our signature pieces. 

Before we had taken our places behind the large, wooden, cowhide contraptions we call taiko drums, we had been backstage preparing ourselves physically and mentally. We are sharing a room under the stage with several other groups that will be performing tonight, and the atmosphere could hardly be called meditative. The air is musty, like that of unfurnished basements. Dancers are flitting about in costume before the mirrors, bells jingling on their skirts and their sweaty feet detaching themselves from the cool tile floor with a sticky, peeling sound. 

Jaime, one of our veteran members, pulls out a large stack of happi coats, vest-like garments made of light cloth and similar in design to karate uniforms, but without belts. Unlike the dull white of karate uniforms, however, our happi coats are adorned with intricate designs of red, white and black. Pink and white cherry blossoms fall delicately into a river of crimson and ebony along the side of one; threads of scarlet weave through the snow-white background of another. Along with these, we put on our red and black hachimaki, thin headbands made of pieces of cloth twisted together.

“Make sure it’s placed higher on the back of your head than on the front,” I advise Katherine, one of our new members. “If it’s higher in the front, it means you’re an idiot.”

“Oh! Really? Why?” she asks, surprised and looking slightly alarmed as she hastily tries to adjust it without pulling any hairs out of place. I shrug.
“Who knows? It’s just a rule,” I say, smiling. She laughs and I grip her arm encouragingly before I go off to rummage through my bag for my bachi, heavy wooden drumsticks designed specifically for taiko drums.
This is the first performance for some of our new members: Natsumi, Kristine and Katherine. Along with the other seven novices, they have been practicing since late October and not only will they be performing the songs we’ve recently taught them, they will also have the opportunity to perform solos of their own composing. Jamie, our president, is still worried about the new members’ timing, but she doesn’t show it. The most important thing, as we have told them, is to be confident.

“Remember,” she says, forcing the tension out of her voice, “if you make a mistake, it’s okay. If you drop your bachi, just keep going if it’s too far away for you to reach. There was a guy last year at the Intercollegiate Taiko Conference who dropped one of his bachi right before his solo and he just did the whole thing with one bachi. It was awesome; everyone loved him ‘cause he just kept right on going.”

The new members laugh. They are nervous, but clearly excited as they bounce up and down on the balls of their feet, gripping their bachi, bachi stained with blood from blisters popped and fingers smashed during practice. 

Ours is the first performance of the night, and the coordinators of the event are counting down the time until we ascend the stairs to the stage. Our drums are waiting up there for us, already in position: one in the back, two in front of that one, and three at the very front of the stage. The great Bermuda Triangle from which we will execute our first wave of attack. 

“Time to go! Go, go! Hurry! You’re late!” snaps an event manager, bursting into the room with a disheveled, frantic appearance. Slightly baffled because we had been told five minutes ago that it would be another half hour until show time, we hustle out into the hall and up the stairs. Eddy, another returning member, and I exchange looks as the same event manager spoons us from behind in an effort to make us go faster.

And suddenly, we are on the stage. A deep blue curtain hangs before us like a castle wall, holding us back. The abrupt drop in volume is deafening, as if someone had put a blanket over the raucous commotion coming from downstairs. Without a word, everyone takes their places. 

As we crouch there in the darkness, the MC cracks a few of his choicest bad jokes before recovering enough to introduce us. Of course, he pronounces our name wrong. “Back-oo-hat-soo Taco Dan,” he says, infusing his American “A’s” into the Japanese syllables with zeal. “Bakuhatsu” means explosion; “taiko,” the name of our drums; “dan,” the Japanese word for “group.” We are a volcano of sound, encompassing all those in the vicinity of our drums with our music. According to the MC, however, we are the Explosion of Tacos Group. 

I absentmindedly wonder if the new members are as bothered by this error as I was when I first started. Before I can get any more lost in my train of thought, the curtain rises and I am momentarily blinded by the harsh spotlights looking down on us. There is a heavy silence between us and the audience. It lasts for only a few seconds, but it seems to go on forever as we consider each other. Sitting behind the curtain on the darkened stage, I had felt nothing except maybe a desire to get this over with so I could go home and make myself some dinner. But now, there’s a fire. I can barely see the faces of anyone in the crowd, but I can feel them watching, waiting. In that moment, I love every single one of them. I want to please them; I want to show them that they matter; I want to share my unconditional love for taiko; I want to take them by the hand and dance to the beat of the drums just for the hell of it. The fact that there is a stage between us does not matter. 

I can feel the same feeling crackling through the others around me, building and growing until it explodes out of the single person on the very back drum. A loud cry bursts from her lips as she strikes the drum slowly and deliberately, each hit shaking the very walls of the theater. Several stray whoops from the crowd accompany her quick decrescendo before two more of us jump up with equal battle cries. The three in the front do the same, perfectly together, and we beat out a steady, dull roar until,


There is no backbeat to which we can keep time in this song. All we have to rely upon for tempo, dynamics and choreography is each other. My heart is beating fast, but I’m not worried. Kristine falls slightly off tempo during her solo, but Eddy brings her back on beat with a few loud taps on the side of his drum, the audience oblivious to the corrections being made within the song. We are all looking straight-on at the audience, willing them to feel the force of our drums. They cheer as we wordlessly call out to them, a primal conversation being held between two groups of people who have nothing and everything to do with each other.

The next few pieces bring energetic playfulness, light-hearted elegance and intense pride bordering on cockiness. The audience feels them all as they laugh, sway in their seats and applaud. We end with a bow, flushed and smiling. There were a lot of mistakes and a couple of bachi had broken, but hearing the crowd’s praise and seeing the looks on their faces as we pulled them into our world made tonight more of a success than a technically perfect performance in front of a stoic audience would ever have been.

The curtains close and we hurriedly roll our drums offstage to make way for the dancers who are performing next. Each of the bedazzled figures passing by pats us on the sweaty shoulder with a “good job” as we return their compliments with words of encouragement. Once the drums are stowed securely in the members’ cars outside, we stroll leisurely back down to the waiting room to retrieve our personal effects. Jackson, our most experienced player, jokes about his bachi breaking during the performance and Melanie laughs beside him, patting him on the back sympathetically. Some things in taiko are just uncontrollable. 

No one talks about the mistakes they made. We silently acknowledge that each of us knows exactly where we erred and that we have learned from it. No one moans over what they did wrong, no one asks for justification and no one apologizes profusely. Though this was their first performance, the new members seem to understand this unspoken rule and say nothing. Kristine looks a bit solemn, but Lester quickly brings a smile to her face by teasing her about her short stature. Jaime and I quickly gang up on him, and whatever uncertainties were boiling inside are lost in the ensuing beat-down of a boy who is more than twice our size.

The audience is still inside, watching the rest of the show. We, on the other hand, are donning our jackets as we step out into the cool night air, saying words of parting and driving away, the echoes of our laughter still ringing in the air in front of the theater. Like the end of a short but passionate love affair, the parting is bittersweet. Even though we won’t be there for the final curtain call, we know that they will remember us. And we will remember them, too.