The Heartbeat of Taiko
Rhythmic drumbeats reverberate inside the walls of St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in LÄ«hu‘e on a late Friday afternoon. A small group of keiki and adults are learning the art of taiko drumming — an ancient Japanese tradition where large wooden drums are played for ceremonial and spiritual purposes. Their concentration is palpable, and so is the respect have for their sensei (teacher), Aki Conquest.
Originally from Osaka, Japan, Conquest is clearly held in high regard, as evidenced by the way her students bow to her and intently listen to what she has to say. That reverence is part of the many principles instilled within those who practice taiko drumming, especially among Conquestâ€™s dedicated pupils who are part of her performance group, Joyful Noise.
Cherish Yama-Gokan can attest to this, as her two daughters — Haley, 15, and Mandy, 8 — are Conquestâ€™s students and also members of Joyful Noise. She has nothing but admiration for Conquest, who has helped her keiki become invaluable members of society, while at the same time allowing them to connect to their Japanese heritage.
“Itâ€™s things that I couldnâ€™t give them, but Aki could,” says Yama-Gokan. “Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m so grateful.”
Being part of the group lets members learn not only how to play drums as a unified team with precision, but also about Japanese language, traditions and culture. Above all, however, they learn the fundamentals of spirituality.
“Itâ€™s not just pounding drums, itâ€™s a philosophy,” says Conquest.
Taiko drumming also keeps participants healthy and helps clear their minds. Because playing requires not only physical prowess — itâ€™s much more difficult than it looks — but the ability to stay completely present.
“Every beat we make has to be clear,” says Conquest.
Plus, it feels good.
“All your stress gets out,” she adds. “And your immune system is stronger and youâ€™re happier. You learn about joy.”
Conquest has been magnetically drawn to taiko drumming ever since she was 5.
“It really hit me like thunder,” she says, recalling her first experience watching taiko drumming as a child. “This is what I wanted to do.”
But much to her chagrin, females werenâ€™t allowed to play the drums at the time.
“So I kept my fire inside me,” says Conquest, who grew up in the countryside on her familyâ€™s rice farm.
That was until she became a teenager, at which point she joined her schoolâ€™s percussion team that led her to learn taiko drumming. She later went on to attend Osaka College of Music and also studied with masters like sensei Tanaka Hisashi.
Now she yearns to share that knowledge with others, which is the reason she decided to form Joyful Noise after moving to Kaua‘i in 2003. The group currently has about 40 members, a big jump from its initial quintet. Now the all-ages musical team is highly soughtafter to perform at various events around the island, like the annual Coconut Festival.
“Itâ€™s a dedication,” says Conquest, who adds that sheâ€™s thankful to St. Michaelâ€™s for gifting her with that initial opportunity and for continuing to support her mission.
Conquestâ€™s own devotion is evident in that she has spent so much of her time perfecting the craft that sheâ€™s now a trainee of the internationally known performing arts group, Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble. But even though she made O‘ahu her home about two years ago in order to fulfill her dreams of being a part of the world-renowned group, sheâ€™s still a regular fixture on Kaua‘i. She journeys back to the island regularly to instruct her students.
“This was the beginning of everything,” she says about Kaua‘i. “I have to connect with my students; I have to take care of them. This is my priority.”
She plans to continue imparting her expanding knowledge of taiko drumming to her students of Joyful Noise. She also facilitates ongoing classes for beginners led by her experienced students, making it easy for anyone at any age or ability to become a part of the group.
“Sheâ€™s so positive and sheâ€™s welcoming with everyone,” says Yama-Gokan. “Sheâ€™s just all heart.”
A heart that obviously wonâ€™t stop beating to the rhythm of taiko drumming any time soon.
“I love taiko, itâ€™s pure, unconditional love,” says Conquest.
To learn more about Joyful Noise, visit the groupâ€™s Facebook page at facebook.com/joyful.noise.750.