Drumming Asian America : performing race, gender, and sexuality in North American taiko
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Taiko is a highly physical and theatrical form of ensemble drumming that was popularized in 1950s Japan and has been widely practiced in Japanese American and other Asian American communities since the late 1960s. Taiko’s visual and sonic largesse—outstretched limbs and thundering drums—contrasted with pervasive stereotypes of Asians as silent and passive. This dissertation uses ethnographic participant-observation, archival research, and performance analysis to examine how North American taiko performance produces and is produced by the shifting contours of racial, gender, and sexual identity and community. Taiko groups create, re-shape, and challenge familiar notions of Asia, America, and Asian America through their public performances and in their rehearsal processes. While sometimes implicated in Orientalist performance contexts, taiko players use performance strategically to commemorate Asian American history, to convey feelings of empowerment, and to invite feminist, anti-racist, and queer forms of spectatorship. This dissertation explores taiko’s roots in the Asian American Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, its implications for 1990s multiculturalism, as well as its intersections with contemporary queer communities. My analysis focuses on three case study groups whose origins, philosophies, and geographic locations offer a diverse view of North American taiko and the Asian American/Canadian communities with which they are associated. Chapter One considers how San Jose Taiko’s early articulation of their identity as an Asian American taiko group continues to influence its practices and performances, particularly their taiko-dance piece, “Ei Ja Nai Ka?” and their national tours. Chapter Two examines how Minneapolis-based Mu Daiko negotiates its members’ diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities within a Midwestern context that values multiculturalism. Chapter Three considers how the all-women’s group Jodaiko conveys Asian American lesbian identity and invites queer spectatorship through theatrical performance choices and its members’ everyday gender performances. My analysis extends from my ethnographic participant-observation, which includes personal interviews, attendance at workshops and performances, and spending time with performers; archival research in formal collections, groups’ internal documents, and my personal archive of taiko programs, posters, photographs, DVDs, and other ephemera; and performance analysis that is informed by my twelve years of experience as a taiko performer.