Yako Miyamoto: Inside, the Soul is Big

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It’s hard to describe the effects of being completely shaken by a mostly un-amplified batterie of 6 or 7 drums, with patterns, rolls, and riffs cleverly choreographed for maximum efficiency and shocking grace for drumdancers to attack and move between giant barrel drums.   But, here goes: it was a full-body assault on an audience by both hands and feet; hands wielding sticks and pounding the beats of traditional drums (taiko) coupled with toe jabs, heel slams, and chatteriffic shuffles.  The overwhelming feeling was ferocious, focused, smart, and primal.  I loved it.  The perpetrators were a troupe of women who are as much dancers as they are drummers – COBU, which means “drum like dancing,” or “dance like drumming.”

COBU is led by Yako Miyamoto, a STOMP cast member, tap soloist, and all-around amazing drummer.  She was omnipresent during many of the scenes of her latest show, “EN,” whether keeping the low ominous waves of drum coming from behind a scrim, or from above, keeping time while the other corps members rocked shamisen (like a banjo), wailed on the floor with hands and tap shoes, and got into kendo-like fights, defending with their drumsticks (bachi).

I read up on Yako, who studied Taiko from the age of 8, then moved here to study tap with Savion Glover.  She also has a black belt in Shaolin Kung-Fu.  I’d seen STOMP a few years ago, and actually taught myself to drum, way back in the basement of my apartment in college – playing along to what else – Taiko drum records from the college library.  So, I tried to minimize my hero-worship in order to meet this multi-disciplined cross-culturally creative drummer, Yako.  A few minutes after the show, she emerged from backstage and took a few minutes to talk with Tom Tom Magazine about her unique blend of rolling thunder, crisp dance, and martial arts – that of taiko, tap, and kung-fu.

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Full Name: Yako Miyamoto
Hometown: Tokyo (Tsukiji area)
Where you live now: East Village, NYC
Current Projects: COBU, STOMP (running at NYC’s Orpheum Theatre)
Most notable show you ever played: Playing with STOMP and COBU.

Tom Tom Magazine: How are you able to be a full-time cast member of STOMP and get this COBU show up and running?
Yako Miyamoto: Well, I’m performing in the East Village a lot.  I do 6 shows a week. STOMP has 8 shows a week, so I have just 2 performances off per week.

Tom Tom Magazine: Do you have any other jobs?
Yako Miyamoto: Nope.  Just drumming and dance.

Tom Tom Magazine: It’s really impressive that you can eat and work and live, just performing, playing drums, and entertaining. Do you perform with any other companies?
Yako Miyamoto: I used to.  I was performing with 4 companies: STOMP, myself – COBU, with a jazz band, and then as a tap soloist [with the Peggy Spina Tap Company.]

Tom Tom Magazine: You have managed to drum with both your hands AND your legs, in a very non-traditional, different way from a kit player. It’s a full-body experience and very athletic.  I read that you also studied tap with Savion Glover.

Yako Miyamoto: Yes.

Tom Tom Magazine: Have you ever played drum kit?
Yako Miyamoto: Yes, a little bit.

Tom Tom Magazine: What other music do you listen to?
Yako Miyamoto: Actually, I love hip-hop music.  I love the rhythms.  Boom CHTH bomn bomnchth bomn bomn.

Tom Tom Magazine: For COBU’s show, EN, you wrote all of the music AND choreographed the show?
Yako Miyamoto: Yes.  I choreographed and composed it, and directed.  Everything.

Tom Tom Magazine: You seemed to have studied some flamenco, what with the castanet-like hand percussion you used. Have you also studied Indian percussion?
Yako Miyamoto: No. Not yet, but maybe in the future.

Tom Tom Magazine: Have you ever seen Brazilian Capoiera?
Yako Miyamoto: YES.  Bim-da-boop-boppa-da-bom.

Tom Tom Magazine: For this show, did you have any of that in mind?
Yako Miyamoto: No.  I love Brazilian stuff, but I don’t get it yet.  So, I have a black belt in Shaolin [kung-fu.]  So the martial arts came from Shaolin.  In the future, I want to get into the Brazilian stuff because I love it.  Yes – the rhythms are so cool.  And the instruments!  YES!

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TTM:What were the small drums called?
YM: Shime daiko.
TTM:And the big ones?
YM: OO daiko.
TTM:The big barrel drums?
YM: Chuudaiko.

TTM: What is your favorite drum warm up / what do you do to warm up before playing and performing?                                       YM: We do a jam session and feel everyone’s rhythm that day.

TTM: In taiko (drumming), are there rudiments?  Rudiments? In western drumming,  we have paradiddles, flams, are there certain strokes in Taiko that you learn first?  Like if you were to go to school?
YM: Well, we don’t have taiko drum class at school.  When I started my taiko drumming experience, there were Taiko artists who came to the junior high school and they had a workshop.  And I just joined the workshop and OK I love this BEAT[ING]  Then I joined it.  But it’s not the curriculum of the high school or junior high…

TTM: Um…well, like when you learn Japanese, you learn hiragana first, then katakana, then kanji…in Taiko, what do you learn first?
YM: SWING.  Bong–guh dong-guh… Bong-guh…

TTM: Swing.
YM: Yes. That’s the basic rhythm.  Always.  [Bong–guh dong-guh…]  It’s swinging.

TTM: Are there certain ways to hold taiko sticks?
YM: Yes.  We are using this finger (picture close-up.)  Like usually drumming is held here [she showed matched grip, with front fingers tightest], but Taiko drumming uses the baby finger.

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TTM: Where do you shop for your drum gear/sticks (bachi)?
YM: I get my bachi in Japan. At a shop called “MIYAMOTO-UNOASUKE”.

TTM: How can I take classes (in New York City)?
YM: You know, you can come to the class – feel free – we have every Sat., daytime, from 11:30-1:30.  We have class [in NYC] at 14th St PMT Studio, 14th & 6th Ave.  69 14th Street.  It’s a dance studio, but we play drums there on Sat.

TTM:How much does the Taiko class on Saturdays cost?
YM: It’s $10 a class! Feel free to come and join us!

TTM: Why choose to have an all female drum troupe?
YM: You know, I didn’t care about male or female.  But at the audition, I took high energy and passionate, strong-willed people – and then [it was] all females [who] came to my company.

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TTM: Do you think that maybe women love to drum more?
YM: YES!  Women have a lot of passion and they want to say something.  A lot of huge passion inside.  Like [there’s a] small body, but inside, the soul is big.


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COBU next performs in NYC in early December at the Madison Avenue Festival on December 6. Their live performance will take place on the stage between 69 & 70 Streets on Madison Avenue. 12-5PM. More details coming soon at COBU. STOMP runs 8 shows a week, here in NYC, and is coming to your city on tour soon.

Interview by: Caryn Havlik

Photos of Yako performing courtesy of DARR Publicity
COBU group photo by Shinji Murakami
Close up of stick in hand and Yako holding a stick by Caryn Havlik

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