Taiko - Japanese Drumming Ensemble

Barbara Merjan, Director of the Wesleyan Taiko - Japanese Drumming Ensemble


Wesleyan has a long tradition in Japanese koto, shakuhachi, and shamisen and vocal music. The first group (1967-68) of Japanese musicians and scholars at Wesleyan included Visiting Artists in Residence: Yamaguchi Goro, who taught private lessons in shakuhachi, and his wife Namino Torii, who taught koto, shamisen and voice; Koizumi Fumio, a Visiting Professor from Japan; as Gen’ichi Tsuge, a graduate student from Japan working on Iranian music and also knew Japanese traditional music, who stayed on as teaching associate and instrument curator. Tsuge taught Japanese music courses and purchased Japanese instruments for the Musical Instrument Collection and became the mediator for bringing several outstanding visiting artists to teach koto, shakuhachi, and shamisen.

Because of the opportunity to study with great masters here, many Wesleyan students became involved in study and performance of Japanese music. Some MA and PhD theses were written on Japanese music topics during this period. Tsuge finished his PhD degree and returned to Japan in 1975 and during a university cutback, the artist in residence positions in Japanese music were lost as well.

In the mid-1980s, Kazue Sawai, leading avant-garde Kotoist and koto educator, visited Wesleyan, expressed her enthusiasm to introduce some koto teachers and brought back koto music to Wesleyan. She also offered some instruments for Wesleyan. Later, Music Department started anew to invite Japanese visiting artists here, who taught in the private lessons program. First Michiyo Yagi (1989-1990) and Miki Maruta (1990-1991), then, since 1992, Masayo Ishigure, who formed the Wesleyan Koto Ensemble and offers both koto and shamisen lessons.

In 2006, a new initiative of Japanese music took place. Sarah Elmaleh, ’06, who briefly experienced learning taiko during her time spent in Japan, felt there couldn’t be e better academic home for this exuberant, powerful and highly accessable art form, knowing the strength and wide appeal of Wesleyan’s world music offerings. After a semester and summer of exploring, searching for instructor and grant hunting, Sarah got in touch with Mark H. Rooney, Assistant Director of Boston’s Odaiko New England, and obtained a generous grant from Wesleyan’s Freeman Asian/Asian American Studies Initiatives which supported the Introduction to Taiko Student Foryum (2006-07) designed and led by Sarah.

Professor Su Zheng served as Faculty Advisor, and Mark Rooney, who drove four hours each week to Wesleyan, was the passionate guest instructor. With two successful end-of-semester recitals and a popular appearance at Mabuhay under the ensemble’s belt, Professor Su Zheng campaigned and successfully obtained the Music Department’s commitment (then chaired by Sumarsam) in funding the taiko ensemble as a regularly offered course beginning from fall 2007.