Toni Yagami teaches how to drum to the beat of the soul
With her contagious smile, Toni Y. Yagami teaches taiko, Japanese drumming, in Denver.
“For me, taiko is not only the actual sound of the drum, but of all things in nature uniting with the soul of the person playing and the person hearing the sound,” says Yagami, taiko instructor and performer.
Taiko has been described as the ‘heartbeat’; and as the connection between humans and nature and the world beyond.
“To some, it may just be the sound of a bachi (taiko drumstick) hitting the head of the taiko playing some rhythm; but if you really listen and ‘feel the sound’, you will know it is much more than that.”
Growing up in Swink, Colo., Yagami and her sister Mitzi both graduated from Swink High School. Her father’s side of the family – the Yagami’s – moved to Swink before 1920. Her grandfather started on the west coast working for the railroad and ended in Swink where he settled with six children and started farming.
Her father, Mitsuo farmed his whole life and drove the school bus for the Swink School District in the mid-1960’s.
Her mother’s side of the family – the Murakami’s – were from Portland, Oreg. and also arrived there before the 1920’s. Yagami’s grandfather and grandmother ran a small neighborhood grocery store and raised seven children. During WWII, the family was uprooted and sent to the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho. Her mother, Yamako, married her dad in 1948 and moved to Swink, Colo.
After graduating high school, Yagami went on to attend Southern Colorado State College in Pueblo where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Education. She moved to Maywood, Neb. to teach public school instrumental music for two years, then moved to Denver.
Her experience with taiko originated with learning koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi.
“When I returned to Denver in 1976, I wanted to learn more about the music of my heritage,” she said.
“When I saw Denver Taiko perform at Sakura Matsuri in 1977, I knew that taiko was what I really needed to play!”
She joined Denver Taiko, and later moved to California to continue her taiko instruction with San Jose Taiko (SJT) in 1988.
“I became part of SJT’s staff and performing group and was very excited to be able to be making a living doing this,” she said. “SJT became a professional touring group and we performed not only on California concert stages, but across the U.S. – including Carnegie Hall where we opened for a taiko group from Japan, ‘Ondekoza’.”
In 1995, she returned to Denver to marry her husband Lance Acker, professional jazz musician and a friend since college.
At the time, Acker was teaching private woodwind students and performing in various Denver traditional jazz groups, the Denver Centre Theatre pit orchestra, Silver Bullet Band, and many others.
“Through the ‘Young Audience’ organization, I started doing solo school performances as ‘Taiko with Toni’,” said Yagami.
After a couple of months, Acker started playing the Japanese takebue (bamboo flute) and the “ji” (bass rhythm) on taiko; and the two were able to do a larger variety of songs as a duo! Together, they performed for many schools and festivals throughout Colorado, as well as taught workshops in Colorado and at national taiko conferences on the west coast. They also performed with “Taikoza” (based in NYC) on the east coast, Europe, and Russia.
“There is something about the energy that comes from playing taiko that is very addictive; whether it is on stage or teaching a class or practicing with a group or on my own – there is just something about the taiko that can make you lose yourself in the playing, in the movement, in the sound.”
Three years ago, Yagami began teaching an adult taiko class for friends “who just wanted to have fun and learn a bit about taiko”. Many of the class members now join her on stage for local festivals. Her one evening class has grown to three classes, and she is looking to starting another beginners class soon.
“We just recently did a public workshop at Simpson United Methodist Church in Arvada, and hope to start an ongoing class there!”
Yagami is a member of the Denver Musicians Association. She is a charter member of the newly formed national organization, Taiko Community Alliance.
She has also participated in the bi-annual North American Taiko Conferences since 1997. Through KASA (KODO Arts Sphere America), she has helped organize a group tour to Japan (KasaMix) to study with members of Kodo (approximately every two years) – the participants come from the U.S., Canada, UK, Germany, Australia, Brazil, and Japan.
When she is not teaching private saxophone, clarinet, flute and oboe lessons or teaching and performing taiko, she has some moments of downtime. And this is when she enjoys making custom bags for taiko and bachi (taiko sticks).