Get Personal

Much in the way that congas — drums that originated in Africa and Cuba — have found their way into Latin, reggae, rock, jazz and many other forms of popular music, taiko, or Japanese drumming, can be expressed in contemporary styles.

Percussionist Kelvin Underwood sees this as carrying on the tradition of African-American innovation in music and the arts.

"The African diaspora has always taken whatever instruments were available and used them for expression of their stories and struggles," Underwood says. "I take taiko out of its authentic context and use it to tell my personal story."

Underwood — along with Masato Baba, Kristofer Bergstrom and Shoji Kameda — is a member of On Ensemble, a taiko ensemble based in Southern California. He also heads up his own group, Meidoko, based in Ashland.

On Ensemble will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 13, at the Unitarian Fellowship, 87 Fourth St., Ashland. Meidoko will open the show.

Tickets cost $20 in advance and can be purchased at Music Coop in Ashland, online at or by calling 541-535-3562. Tickets will cost $22 at the door; $10 for ages 12 through 17. Kids 11 and younger get in free.

Meidoko will feature Underwood on shime daiko, okedo daiko and miya daiko, along with various percussion instruments and vocals. He'll be joined by Tristan Gutner on upright acoustic bass and Steve Davidson on tenor and soprano saxophones.

The trio's innovative, percussion-driven melodies will include "Zo," which means elephant in Japanese, written by Underwood for drum, sax and acoustic bass. Another song, "Waiting," will feature Underwood singing raw, soulful vocals. Meidoko will close its set with a piece by contemporary classical composer Erik Satie titled "Jymnopedies No. 3."

On Ensemble — with Masato (Maz) Baba, Kristofer Bergstrom, Shoji Kameda and Underwood — will then take the stage, using taiko as the foundation of the group's mix of world fusion, infusing the rhythms of ensemble Japanese drumming with elements of hip-hop, rock and electronica.

"On Ensemble still emphasizes the Japanese cultural influence and reflects Asian aesthetics," Underwood says. "While the group is making efforts to push past that, its melodies and structures are closer to traditional taiko styles. It's more suitable for audiences who are familiar with traditional taiko.

"There's only an underlying layer of taiko in my music," Underwood says. "Its earthiness is complemented by the acoustic bass and the saxophones, and various percussive sounds such as shakers, rattles and symbols make the sound trashy, rough and crude. Meidoko is reaching for a much broader demographic, such as jazz, rock and alternative rock listeners."

Underwood was first exposed to Japanese culture when taiko group Ondekoza performed at his high school in Fayetteville, N.C. He later joined the ensemble, traveling around the world and performing at such venues as Carnegie Hall in New York City and Suntory Hall in Tokyo.

Underwood also plays percussion with Frankie Hernandez and Thomas Mackay, and he's working on an Afro-beat project he calls the Proper Villains. He collaborates with Ashland dance troupe Dancing People Company and choreographer Candace Younghans.

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