Heartbeat of the Urn: an interview with Odaiko Sonora

Odaiko Sonora at the self-produced 2007 Southern AZ Taiko Showcase. Photo courtesy of Karen Falkenstrom.





Odaiko Sonora, Tucson’s own taiko drum troupe, has been an integral part of the All Souls Procession since the inception of the Urn in 2005. That year, they performed the score for the grand finale ceremony, and in years to follow they accompanied the Urn in the Procession, providing the communal heartbeat. In 2010 they returned to the finale stage in a collaboration with Ensphere on a taiko/prog-rock fusion for that year’s Urn-burning ceremony. And now in our Silver Anniversary year, they will once again take the stage as our grand finale musicians, accompanied by many other guest taiko artists from far and wide.

Recently we spoke with Odaiko Sonora founding members Rome Hamner and Karen Falkenstrom about their vision for the Silver Anniversary finale, their history with the Procession, the Japanese ancestor festival of Obon, the importance of time and place in ritual expression, and much more.


Jhon: First, tell us what taiko is.

Rome: Taiko is a quote-unquote Japanese style of drumming. I say quote-unquote because, taiko is traditionally Japanese – the instruments are Japanese, and drums were used in Japan for many thousands of years for ceremonial purposes, for festival purposes, in court music. So taiko is Japanese, but modern taiko, this vision that people have of lots of drummers drumming at the same time in this really powerful way, and this interesting polyrhythmic music with lots of flashy choreography, it’s a totally modern invention.

It was created by a Japanese man named Daihachi Oguchi, who was a jazz drummer. He was actually a prisoner of war in the Korean War, and so the story goes when he got out and came back to Japan, he was rooting around one day in the family soybean warehouse and he found an old taiko score written down. And he went down to the village taiko and he played it. And he thought, “well that’s really boring,” because it was one of those more traditional taiko pieces, and they tend to be much simpler rhythmically; they really are about accompanying dancers for festivals or for ritual purposes.

And so he jazzed it up. He took that basic taiko piece and he made sort of a drum kit with many different Japanese drums, created these interesting jazzy polyrhythms and solo breaks in this taiko song. And then his big innovation: he broke the kit apart, and got a bunch of different people together, so that somebody was on one rhythm line, somebody else was on some other rhythm line, and so on.

So the parts became much simpler, and that allowed room for focusing on power and choreography and all those kinds of things. And it allowed for kind of inexperienced musicians to come in and work together to recreate this fairly advanced piece of music. So he got this group together, Osuwa Daiko, the very first modern taiko group, and their first performance was in 1953. So taiko in its modern form is only about 60 years old at this point. Although the drums are traditionally Japanese, taiko in its modern form is very much a Japanese hybrid with jazz. It’s less traditionally Japanese than people think.

Jhon: And how did Odaiko Sonora get its start?

Karen: Odaiko Sonora was founded in May of 2002 by Rome and myself. We had both been studying with a man named Stanley Morgan. Rome met him in 2000, and was learning taiko with him. I met Rome and started playing, but about seven or eight months later, Mr. Morgan got very sick and had to stop playing. Rome and I founded Odaiko Sonora so we could keep playing taiko. We’d each only been playing between six months and a year and a half, which is kind of unheard of in the taiko world, to start a group with so little experience, but that’s what we had to do. There wasn’t any other taiko in Tucson.

Rome: We had the hubris to think we could do it, that we were the right people to do it.

Jhon: Well, you did it!

Karen: The first few years we really focused on building drums, recruiting players and finding repertoire.

Rome: And we were really helped out a lot by Fushicho Daiko up in Phoenix.

One of their members taught us how to build drums. Their sensei Esther Vandecar came down and led the first workshop we had as Odaiko Sonora, and the students who signed up for Esther’s workshop became our first students in Odaiko Sonora. So the Phoenix group was really helpful to us in getting started down here.

Karen: In a way, the (All Souls Procession) finale as we’ve conceived it this year is a testament to the group’s growth. In order to learn and to recruit students, we had to bring teachers here. So, you’ll see among the players we’ve invited, members of groups who were  crucial to our founding.

The Drum Cart just behind the Urn in Procession, 2009. Photo courtesy of Karen Falkenstrom.

Jhon: What is the story of how Odaiko Sonora got involved with the All Souls Procession?

Rome: I did the math, this is our ninth year as part of the Procession.

Karen: The first year, which was 2005, Nadia (Hagen, artistic director for the finale ceremony –jhon) asked us to play the finale. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, because the last time I’d seen the All Souls Procession was in the early 90’s, when it was only, like, 50 people. When we got there, down at the Franklin Docks, there were thousands of people. It had become a really different animal.

We played one song… for a very long time! It was great though, because it was a song you’re supposed to play until you drop, so we pretty much did that. But I remember the moment when the aerial rig came over the backdrop, and the dancers were hanging off it, spinning, and I thought “this is really mind-blowing.” That’s when I decided I wanted to be part of the Procession in the future, and that we should bring our drums. So, we started Process-ing the next year, in 2006. It became more and more important for me to be involved and to deepen Odaiko Sonora’s connection to it, to process, to bring the heartbeat for the Urn, and to work towards creating the feeling of a Japanese festival tradition, specifically Obon, in the All Souls Procession.

I had learned about Obon, the Japanese ancestor festival, around that time, and I felt the connection, and began consciously to shape our part in the Procession after Obon, including writing the song and creating the dance.

Rome: And for me, my timeline in all this was different. I felt this was all a really cool artistic thing, and a very valid, interesting place for the group to go, to connect with the Procession. But I didn’t have any kind of internal pull myself towards the Procession from a taiko perspective. I mean of course the Procession is important, and as people in my life have passed away, right there that plugs you in to the Procession. It becomes personally meaningful to you; you are mourning Val, who just died of brain cancer. So those things really make the motivation internal.

But from a taiko perspective, my motivation didn’t become internal until 2010, the year I flew on the crane. Ensphere were the guest artists, and it was actually the last year they had the aerialists hanging from the crane. It was terrifying, I have a fear of heights, I had to train to do that. But it was also a deeply transformational thing: when you come up against something you are so scared of, and you go through that experience and live through it, it changes you as a person but it also changes your connection with the event that gave you that opportunity to face and change that thing within yourself.

Jhon: Maybe we could talk a little bit more about Obon, what that is, and what common ground it may share with the All Souls Procession.

Rome: So Obon is a three-day Japanese festival that usually happens in July or August, in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, when they commemorate the spirits of their ancestors. The story behind the festival is that during this time, this three day window, the ancestor’s spirits actually come home to visit their family. And so people from all over Japan, in the same way that we here in the States might go home for the holidays, they go home for Obon. And they see their old friends that they grew up with, and all their extended family. You go and clean the relative’s graves, and you make your offerings of rice and fruit, and it’s just a time to reconnect with the ancestors.

Karen: One of the reasons I connected strongly with Obon is I’m half-Korean, and Koreans have a celebration that’s very similar –it’s like Dia de los Muertos, really– where the families gather back in their traditional home, they visit the graves and clean them, eat together and light fires to invite the ancestors to come and commune with them.

Jhon: What’s it called again?

Karen: Chuseok, in Korea. And it usually happens around the Harvest Moon, so in the early Fall. But Obon happens in the late summer. It’s traditionally a Buddhist festival, but everybody goes now.

Jhon: Is it very popular in Japan?

Karen: Yes, it’s wildly popular, both here and in Japan. Here, kids go “Obon-hopping” all season long, from one festival to another each weekend, and they hang out with the other Japanese American kids. In Japan, I think it’s more single village-centered. But here in the States you have people living in cities and they might be from, like, forty different villages. And yet they all go to the same Obon. So the ones in the States have a different feel than in Japan. But still, the practices are basically the same: they light fires to guide the ancestors in, there’s food, and there’s the dance.

The dance, or bon odor, comes from a Buddhist story of a monk who realizes his mother has been trapped in the realm of the Hungry Ghosts. This is a place of great torment, so not a fun place to be. So he asks Buddha what to do, and Buddha tells him he needs to do a bunch of prayers, and fast, and meditate and such….

Rome: In the one I read he had to go on a scavenger hunt, for like 40 pieces of the finest fruit, and 30 barrels of sake….

Karen: Which is why I love Asian stories, because there are really different versions, and that’s just fine. In the one I know, he had to do prayers and chants for a certain amount of time, and then he danced for joy when his mother was freed. He danced with her spirit, and other people joined in. So the bon-odori, which simply means the Obon dance, comes from that legend. Sometimes they’ll dance all night long, depending on where the festival is.

Jhon: How would you describe the spirit or the tone of Obon or Chuseok? Are they similar to something like Dia de los Muertos, which has more of a celebratory aspect to it and takes a very different perspective on dealing with death than we may have here in the States, where it must be dour or grim or solemn, and you shouldn’t laugh and so on.

Karen: Well, the bon-odori is a joyful thing. People laugh and drink sake and party down. The Toro Nagashi (a rite of floating paper lanterns down a river to send the spirits back to their proper realm at the close of Obon ~jhon) is a little more solemn. People are still celebrating though, celebrating the joys in their lives and having shared time with their loved ones.

I don’t know about the Koreans, I’m not even sure I’d call Chuseok a festival; it’s more like a practice, I didn’t see any festival goings on when I was there. It was mainly a family thing.

Odaiko Sonora co-founder Karen Falkenstrom constructing drums for the group. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Dreier.

Jhon: It’s more of a ritual custom.

Karen: A ritual custom, yeah, sort of a home-thing. But the Japanese have festivals and the dance part is very, very celebratory.

Jhon: And so some of this tradition that we’ve been talking about, you’ve incorporated over time into what you’ve done as a group in Procession: dance, and the workshops you hold where people are invited in to join you in that, you’re doing the lanterns this year, and the chant. Tell us something about that.

Karen: When we started doing the Procession in 2006, back when we actually got on the Urn cart with the drum, I wanted it to look like a Japanese festival. There’s lots of festivals where they process through the city, chanting and dancing. It could be a spring festival or a fall festival or the cherry blossom festival, Sakura Matsuri. I didn’t know much about Obon at the time, but I started learning more soon after that first All Souls Procession, and I became fascinated with it. I realized we had a perfect opportunity to recreate Obon in Tucson. I’d been discouraged before because it’s way too hot here during Obon season, which is summer, and we don’t have a Japanese Buddhist church. We really didn’t know enough about Obon to try to create one ourselves.

But the All Souls Procession was the perfect place to plug into with the idea. After bringing the drum, we added a dance we learned at the Sacramento Obon… we did somebody else’s dance. I think it was Fukushima Ondo. Then I went to the San Jose Obon, which is huge, and I saw them doing Ei Ja Nai Ka, which one of the founders and leaders of San Jose Taiko had created years ago for their taiko group. At their Obon, they have like 1700 people dancing. It kind of looks like a track meet because there’s four lanes of dancers, all going around this immense oval in the streets. It’s massive. And everybody knows Ei Ja Nai Ka, which has become San Jose’s Obon dance.

So, I thought, “Well we need to have a dance. Tucson needs its own dance. It’s good we’re doing a dance, but we shouldn’t be doing someone else’s dance.” Because in Japan, each city has its own dance. And it’s about what they do in their village or city, what it’s like to live in that particular place. I thought, “What is Tucson like?” I just started looking at Tucson anew: there’s the surrounding mountains, there’s blazing sun, there’s winds, and massive rains and then weeds grow… somehow I had to get the hula hoe in because I’m intrigued with it. I grew up in Virginia and we didn’t have hula hoes. But in general the dance – the look, the gestures, the movements – are drawn from traditional Japanese folk dance. I just interpreted them differently in some cases, like the hula hoeing; in other places, that might be digging.

So, I put this dance together, and then had to teach it to people. That’s when Odaiko Sonora’s first workshops began, in 2010, and I wanted there to be people doing the dance in the Procession behind the drum cart. This year there’s also the chant, which will alternate with the dance along the Procession route.

Each year we’re deepening our relationship with the Procession by creating pieces specifically for it. The Toro Nagashi, the lantern ritual, is another addition; we’re calling it “desert-style” because there’s obviously not going to be a river or ocean to float the lanterns on. Instead of water, we’re going to give them to people to carry in the Procession. So, the people will be the river. They’ll carry the lanterns to the finale stage, and we’ll bundle the lantern papers and place them into the Urn.

All Souls Procession chant workshop, taught by Aki Takahashi, 9/14. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Dreier.

Jhon: Can you talk a little bit more about the chant, and the participatory element of it?

Rome: Sure. You know, the finale’s gotten so big, and there are so many people there. And last year we wound up with a spot right up near the front, but the year before that, just the way things worked out, we wound up way in the back. We felt really disconnected from what was going on.

So the original thought was, let’s have a chant. And let’s have like a hundred people, so let’s have a few choruses. Let’s have a chorus in the front, chorus on the side, chorus on the side, a chorus in back, doing the chant. So that even people who are really far removed from the stage can still understand that this is going on, and maybe people will even join. Because this chant will be really easy, and they’ll be invited to join in.

So that was the original idea with this chant, that everybody who’s at the Procession does it: that there are resources available for everyone to have learned it, or to just make it simple enough to just pick up in the moment. And then people can really connect. So even if they are standing really far away, there’s this really compelling chorus of voices doing this chant. And so they feel more pulled in, and they realize there is this place for them to plug in. It’s a community participation ritual, not a spectacle for them to just watch.

But it really evolved from there. Karen met a woman named Aki Takahashi who’s a taiko artist, shamisen player and vocalist in Toronto. And we decided to commission Aki to write the chant. It’s a little more complex than what we’d originally conceived of. But I think the product is going to be much more rewarding: we don’t just have a chant, we have this compelling piece of choral music, that still is simple enough for people to hear and plug into on the night of.

Karen: The words are simple, “ya… to… se”, just syllables really. They’ll be projected onto screens while the last section of the finale is happening, so people can read them and join in

For me, the idea of some kind of way to involve people not near the finale stage came two years, or maybe it was three years ago, when we arrived at the Mercado, the new finale site. The whole thing had begun to feel more like a spectator event than a participatory one. That year Processing with the drum and dancers was what connected me to the event. The finale stage was so far away, and people were buying hot dogs and playing with their own glowy toys… they weren’t really paying attention.

So in my mind the question was, “How do we get people to connect with the Urn burning again?” How do we get them to stop eating their hot dogs and spinning their glowy stuff and to look and watch and connect? Because that’s the point of it all, right? How do we have everyone there become performers themselves, full partners in this ritual? I thought, maybe some drummers walking towards the stage in the last few minutes, maybe some handheld percussion…. And then I met Aki and heard her voice. It was clear: a chant. You use the original instrument, the voice. Nobody needs to carry anything, you’ve got it right with you.

I think people will do it. Aki came and did a workshop in September to teach the chant and some vocal technique, and there were about 50 people there. Everyone walked away completely in love with the chant, it’s a really beautiful thing. And it’s powerful, just people’s voices together. There’s a resource online where people can go and learn it, with mp3s and video. And though anyone can do it, Aki’s voice is phenomenal. She sings a Japanese style of folk music called minyo, which is like blues. If you think of Muddy Waters and those folks, that’s what this vocal technique is like, and that’s the spirit of these traditional chants. The song comes out of the work people do, and the feelings and the trials and joys. They often don’t have actual words, it’s more like sounds. If you listen to old prison songs it’s the same. The sounds people make when they’re working, the sounds the body makes automatically when lifting or reveling or grieving, when it’s feeling a strong feeling or exerting itself. So it’s very, very primal. 

We do chants all the time, at football games and so on… like “go go get ’em!” People love it, I know it feels good. But it doesn’t have to be just football games where we all get together and have our voices join.

Jhon: Wildlife biologists, or whoever it is that’s making these observations, speculate that the wolf or coyote pack howl is meant to synch the group energy for some task at hand, so they’re all falling in line together through this voiced expression.

Karen: Amen. That’s totally cool.

Jhon: That’s great, something to help ground it all again. The use of the voice, I hadn’t thought of that at all. Back to basics! It’s not like a gimmick, or another spectacle….

Karen: It’s kind of an anti-spectacle. For legacy Procession-people, I think there’s a feeling – because the Procession has caught on and is finally being noticed and is enjoying a level of success it never has before – I think some people feel there’s a danger it could begin to start feeling empty. And it’s true that could happen, the more people who come that don’t really understand what the Procession is. They might just not know better – I mean, I didn’t know any better the first year – they maybe haven’t had a chance to deepen their relationship with the ritual… the percentage of those people is growing. And the danger is that it’ll become too glitzy and too plastic, or they’ll always expect a big show at the end….“Bring on the fire!” I heard some people yelling that once, as if the point was to entertain them.

odaiko jim vigileos
The Drum Cart and attendants in the 2010 All Souls Procession. Photo courtesy of Jim Vigileos.

Rome: There is this danger that the people who get the deeper meaning and are sort of like the guardians of that deeper meaning that protect the spirit of the Procession could also be the people who, because it feels empty to them, are the very ones who leave. So that’s the trend we’re trying to work against.

Karen: And there’s nothing that an education can’t overcome, so a lot of what we’re doing is about teaching people what the Procession is about for us and giving new people a way into it, like we’re bringin’ ’em up right. So, when they attend, rather than just waiting for the Finale to start or waiting for the Urn to burn or getting distracted by something else, they can become part of the Urn burning, part of the chant, part of thousands of people grieving and celebrating together. And if it’s their first year, it’ll deepen their experience of the Procession, and they’ll come back next year more prepared, bringing more of themselves.

Because really, the Procession is what you bring to it, and if you make it a big thing for yourself, then it will be. But if you go there just waiting for the fire and you’re impatient, you don’t bring much to the event and it won’t be very moving for you. We’re hoping what we do will help people bring more of themselves into the event.

Jhon: If we can talk just a little more about the idea of making things relevant; not just going through the motions of something that may be beautiful-looking or that may be based on other people’s stories of other times and places, but looking at where and who we actually are here and now, and to adapt that spirit to whatever expression that we have to offer. The All Souls Procession really provides a great opportunity for us to do this, to ask ourselves “well, what is important to me,” and then to find a creative way to express that.

Rome: So Karen was talking a lot about the connection to Obon, and how as someone who is half-Asian, she feels a connection there. I am not half-Asian, although the drums I play of course have their roots in Japanese culture and I speak Japanese and have lived there….which makes me a white American woman who happens to know a bit about Japanese culture. So as far as the Obon connection, I appreciate that: it is very organic to the art form that we’re doing and how it connects with All Souls Procession. I appreciate Obon as a way a community comes together to reconnect and also to pay tribute to ancestors and to everybody who helped get you where you are.

That said, it is also not my organic point of connection to All Souls Procession. I’m very happy to support the Obon efforts of Odaiko Sonora towards All Souls Procession, and to drum, and to help with the cart, and to dance and be part of all of that. But for me the organic, relevant, true, honest connection to the Procession is much more about opening that space between realms, and transforming energy, and grieving, and honoring. But also putting intentions into the Urn, and releasing that energy into the next realm. So for me it’s much more that kind of place to plug in, and what’s cool is that the All Souls Procession can accommodate all of that in a really natural way.

Karen: Yes, it’s ritual, but about real life. Maybe the reason I love the All Souls Procession is the same reason I go to watch the Yaqui-Pascua ceremonies in the Spring: I love when people get together and do that thing they do, whatever it is. It’s about people living and working and loving and dying together, and taking time, sacred time to be aware of those things. Being aware together. Maybe that’s the same reason I love taiko, because taiko is not about individuals; it’s about a team, it’s about a community. 

In terms of sacred time and profane time, we spend so much of our time not thinking about things like transformation, and not thinking about how deeply we can go with our experiences in this world. Whereas at the grocery store it’s easy not to think about your mortality or how much you love this planet, or how cool it is that people can hang out and give voice together, at the All Souls Procession you have a sacred time, where people can bring whatever the concerns of their lives are, look at them from a time-out-of-time perspective… and do this while being supported by thousands of other people who agree this is important. 

For me, spirituality is about being comfortable with mystery. Lately I’ve been considering how uncomfortable people are with not knowing stuff. Everyone’s got their smartphones out, looking up things all the time, and there’s a whole generation of people coming up behind us who have no idea what it means to just sit with a mystery, to just be comfortable with not knowing something. In the ritual of the football game, we’re rooting for an outcome. But so much of life isn’t like that. And sacred time especially, there isn’t like an “outcome.” You’re doing this and you’re hoping it does has an effect, but you really don’t know. You’ll never know. You just have to be here and trust. I like the All Souls Procession for that reason too. It’s not like there’s an outcome that anyone is banking on, it’s about participating, and for me it’s about being comfortable with mystery.

The Procession is a much-needed ritual, because we don’t have a lot of rituals as communities anymore. We may have small rituals as families, or churches, or interest groups or whatever. But an event that cuts across such a wide cross-section of the city we live in, that is like a festival and can include everyone, but which has ritual content, that’s unusual in this culture, in this day and age. I really feel like we’re lucky to have that here.

Odaiko Sonora co-founders Karen Falkenstrom (left) and Rome Hamner (right) in their first Taiko performance, at the Summerfire festival, Jacome Plaza, August 2001. Photo courtesy of Karen Falkenstrom.

For more information about Odaiko Sonora, visit www.tucsontaiko.org



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