Paul Yoon describes taiko as not just audible melodies and rhythms, but a full-sensory experience: “The whole package is really important. You see the movements and feel the vibrations. You feel the pulse hit you, and that’s where the power is.”

Yoon, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Music, is teaching students to embrace both the visual and audible nature of taiko, while also growing their understanding of the history behind the music and its connections to Japanese culture.

As Yoon explains, taiko (also the Japanese word for “drum”) has been around for centuries, beginning with a style of ceremonial drumming used as background music during festivals. The style of taiko most commonly seen today — called kumi-daiko, meaning “ensemble drumming” — developed in the 1950s in Japan. The genre gained traction in the U.S. and Europe when ensembles toured Japanese communities, particularly along the West Coast, and inspired Japanese-Americans to start their own taiko groups.

Yoon’s own experiences began when, as an ethnomusicology graduate student at Columbia University, he joined New York City’s Soh Daiko, the third major U.S. taiko group and the first on the East Coast. He saw the group not only as a chance for musical expression, but also as a way to connect with the city’s Asian-American community.

“I really liked that this was an Asian-American art form and something that was different from other Asian-American art forms,” Yoon says. “I saw it as a way to combine my interest in music with my more political interest in the promotion of an Asian-American identity.”

Before Yoon arrived at UR, the University’s global music ensemble had focused on gamelan, a style of ensemble music from the islands of Bali and Java, and Ewe drumming, which originated in West African countries. With Yoon on the faculty, taiko became an ideal focus for the course.

The global music ensemble is required for music majors, but the course has drawn students of all majors and musical backgrounds. Their public performances and partnerships with local schools drew interest from community members, leading to the formation of River City Taiko, an open ensemble for Richmond residents.

With diverse membership across both ensembles, Yoon has seen participants find ways to relate their taiko experiences to their own majors and professions, particularly in the context of cross-cultural communication.

“The sound of taiko is very simple and taps into Japanese aesthetics of minimalism, of less is more,” he says. “One way to immerse yourself and get even an inkling of understanding another group is to take up an art form and understand the aesthetic of that group, and an understanding of yourself outside of what you’re accustomed to doing. It’s crucial that we put ourselves into a larger global context — whether that context is business or charity or an aesthetic — and recognize that we’re stronger by having exposure to different discourses or cultures.”