Skip to content

“It Gets in Your Soul”: Taiko and the Parks with Karen Young

Grace Ramsdell

[Mel Taing Photography]

| 14 min read

“Taiko and the Parks” is a series led by Karen Young and an intergenerational team to center Boston elders, acknowledge the land, share sustainable gardening practices and celebrate the power of taiko to hold and highlight green spaces. Partners include Elizabeth James-Perry, Mica Rose, Mel Taing, Older and Bolder, BCYF Grove Hall, Blake Estates Senior Housing and the Age Strong Commission.  

The third and final event in the series will take place on September 3 at Fallon Field in Roslindale. Olmsted Now talked more with Erdene Clark of Older and Bolder and Karen Young about “Taiko and the Parks,” which is supported by the Olmsted Now Parks Equity & Spatial Justice Grant and Ben Jen Holdings 1431 Capital. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.   

Karen Young and Erdene Clark on August 3 at Savin Hill Park. Credit: Mel Taing Photography

Could you introduce yourselves? How would you describe your program? 

Karen Young: Mama Erdene, do you want to give them a little backstory on who you are and how you got involved and all that? 

Erdene Clark: My name is Erdene Clark, and I’m one of the seniors in Older and Bolder, and I started in March of this year. I got into it in March when Karen invited me to a [taiko] practice and then it just continued on, and I’m enjoying it very much. I live in the Upham’s Corner area, and we have practice at Grove Hall Senior Center. 

KY: Well said. And I’m Karen Young. I’m a teaching artist and cultural organizer and taiko drummer here in Boston. Taiko is a Japanese word that means drum. And it’s a cultural art form that comes from Japan and originates in Japan. Taiko is a vehicle for communication. It’s used in Buddhist and Shinto ceremony. It’s used in cultural festivals. It’s been used many, many years ago to help farmers and workers work. It’s used in all kinds of ways in everyday life, but in a contemporary way, as a performance art, it’s fairly new—since the 1950s, really. It came to the United States with Japanese immigrants but also was used as a way to build community among the Japanese Buddhist community and also by younger Japanese and Japanese American activists that were students in the 1970s. My relatives started the third taiko group in the United States, called San Jose Taiko, and they were college students at the time, anti-war activists. My uncle helped start the first Asian American Studies program at San Jose State. There was an Asian American movement that was forming at that point. There was a Third World strike and a real anti-racism movement that they were part of. And so taiko existed at a time of—and really, in some of the communities, grew because of—the work that was done post-WWII, when the Japanese internment camps were established. And so that generation was really using the art form to really claim an identity and to really be visible as Japanese, Japanese Americans, Japanese heritage Asian Americans. It’s with that spirit that I learned the art form. And in that spirit, I practice. I think specifically, “Who are folks who, with the power of the drum, have a bigger voice?” And for me, seniors, people of color, queer folks, trans folks are folks that I think of. Femmes, women, immigrants, you know, you can go on and on and on. How can we shine our light and show ourselves more fully, and our communities? So that’s a bit more about the term itself. 

This project is “Taiko and the Parks.” I’ve been a taiko drummer in the city for almost 30 years now and really was interested in this project because of the spatial equity, parks equity aspect of it. I’m always interested in using taiko, because it’s such a big and powerful instrument that makes a big sound. What happens when we line ourselves up to play together and we put bachi or drumsticks into the hands of folks that aren’t always centered in our communities? I met Erdene a few years ago when I brought my project Older and Bolder to the Arts Equity Summit, but I feel like I really met Erdene—didn’t we decide it was a year ago, maybe when we had dinner together? 

EC: Yes. 

KY: I had my sights on Erdene because Erdene’s one of those seniors in the community that supports all the youth artists everywhere. But I was like, I think Erdene should be in the center. What would it be like if Erdene got to be on the stage? This project—centering elders, sharing taiko and honoring our lands—was something to me that was just a natural gathering of three things that I really care about—and we care about. 

EC: Yes. This is going to be centered with the seniors. 

KY: We have three locations. The first park was— 

EC: Savin Hill Park. 

KY: On August 3. Our second park [was] Iacono Park in Hyde Park on August 23rd. And our final event, our culminating event, is going to be at Roslindale’s Fallon Field on Saturday, September 3rd, from two to 5pm. 

Michelle Fujii of Unit Souzou from Portland, Oregon, on August 23 at Iacono Park. Credit: LD Tran 

Building off of that, how did you choose these locations for your program?  

KY: Yeah Erdene, what’d we do? 

EC: We wanted to do parks that were small parks and also not well-known. Mostly every event always comes, like, to Franklin Park or one of these well-known parks. But Boston has so many small parks that are not utilized—not as far as having events like this. So, we went around to different small parks all throughout the city. Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park, Roslindale—and this is how this came about. We wanted to have shade, a lot of nature like the trees, and be where it’s accessible for the seniors. So, there was a lot of thought put into this—of the locations, the visibility, the shade, all of that. This is how we came about the ones that were chosen. 

KY: Remember the parks that we saw that had hills and stairs? 

EC: Yes, yes. Because [the program] is really focusing on the seniors, some of them have walkers. We’re older and so we have joint pain of our knees and back pain. And so, we wanted to make it where we would be able to walk comfortably and not be out of breath. We chose parks that were small and also for the comfort of the seniors—visibility and accessibility, making sure that we were going to be comfortable. 

KY: Yeah, and I think we looked at, over a course of a couple of days, at least 16 different parks. We drove to all of them and looked around. We looked at where there were benches. I think shade was also really important, and in the cases where we didn’t have shade, we thought about tenting. We had to think about chairs. We had to think about porta potties. All of those things. Some of our seniors said that they just hadn’t been to parks for years because they don’t feel safe in parks and green spaces. So, we thought very carefully about where [to host these events]. And honestly, Roslindale’s Fallon Field is my neighborhood, and also Mica Rose lives here. And as artists of color, we wanted to really find a place in our own neighborhood where we could bring other BIPOC artists and seniors together in a community where we live, and so that was really important, as well. 

Why do you think parks need more equity and spatial justice programming? How does your program speak to that need in Boston parks? 

KY: This program is called “Taiko and the Parks,” and we were very, very conscious about choosing that word “and” instead of “in the parks.” Because when I first heard about this grant, and I understood that it was about parks equity and spatial justice, [I thought about how] you can’t really talk about parks without talking about lands and honoring the lands. We’ve been good at honoring “who”—the tribes and the First Nations people who were removed from these places and are still here. But there’s also the lands themselves—the ecosystem, the trees, the soil, the rocks, the bugs, the organisms that live here. It was really important for me to partner with Elizabeth James-Perry—who’s a scientist and an artist—to talk specifically about the lands and that we build a program that centered honoring the lands. For me, if Boston’s going to try to reckon and we’re going to reckon and face our history here, we have to look at our green spaces and look at the history, and then also not only look at the history, but build in practices of restoration. And I’m really excited about Elizabeth being part of this project because so much of her work is about restoring. 

Teaching artist, cultural organizer and taiko drummer Karen Young on August 3 at Savin Hill Park. Credit: Mel Taing Photography

I noticed that about the title of your project—using “and,” not “in”—and could tell that it was intentional. It does make you stop and think about the difference. Just that one word difference. 

KY: It was really interesting because we were like, is it “in the park”? Is it “and the park”? Is it “on the park”? Is it “with the park”? At our first event, in my little small group we were talking about the trees and the importance of trees. There were seniors that were talking about really needing to honor the trees for what they bring to our comfort in terms of shade and oxygen. And then there was another senior that spoke really openly about being afraid that a tree was gonna land on their house and actually destroy their property, so they had to cut down a tree. Then we had a really nice conversation about the question: How do we live with nature? Not on, but with—engage with. Elizabeth James-Perry talks about actually engaging with the plants and nature—not just having them to look pretty, but actually eating them, using them as dyes, using the fibers to weave—and I think that’s a really important framework. 

What about parks and public spaces makes you most grateful? 

EC: Seniors are sort of an isolated group of people. We tend to not have the ability to get out like we would like. For this “Taiko and the Parks,” to be able to connect with each other is breathtaking. It’s very gratifying. It gets into your soul. “Wow, look at all that is out here in nature that we miss if we’re sitting in our houses.” A lot of us feel alone. A lot of us feel isolated. Like we’re over the hill—and we’re not—and no one’s really paying attention to us. To be outside is, to me, just very enjoyable. And to be with other seniors. 

KY: As an artist, to bring taiko to seniors in public space, in small parks, in areas that don’t get a lot of love is all about bringing love and thought and awareness and tenderness to places that we tend to forget. I’m so excited to be working with Erdene and all the seniors and to have guest artists and to bring this project forward. The feedback that we have been getting from the seniors has been that it’s been just really healing. 

What collection of words do you think captures the essence of your program? 

EC: Invigorating, powerful, peace, connection, enjoyment and inner healing. 

KY: Refreshing, connected, respecting, centering. 

Teaching artist, cultural organizer and taiko drummer Karen Young on August 23 at Iacono Park. Credit: LD Tran

Is there anything else you would like to share? 

KY: For me, as an artist of color and as an artist that practices a cultural art form, this project is also about making visible a cultural art form in a way unencumbered of anyone else’s agenda. Often as performing artists, we get asked to perform—that’s what we do!—for a lot of other events and in a lot of other environments, but not often on our own terms. For me, in Boston, to be working with Elizabeth James-Perry and Older and Bolder and the elders from Blake Estates and BCYF Grove Hall to bring taiko artists together means a lot because it’s with folks I want to be with, you know? And to center Black, Indigenous, people of color in public space, with an art form that’s deeply meaningful to me and my family and my community is really exciting. At times I’ve felt wary about, you know, recruiting for this event in any big way, because I wanted the intention to stay on building community and networks and relationships with other people of color. And often we don’t get opportunities to do that with each other. It’s kind of rare. And so, I’m excited about that. And I’m excited about having allies come and support the event. All ages are welcome—if people understand that we’re centering elders, we’re centering people of color, we’re honoring the lands, I’m more than happy to have people come. At these events, I’ve been having guest artists come in from out of town to share taiko, share their history, their perspective of being a taiko artist in North America, and then to actually do a workshop where participants get to learn and create and compose. We’re hoping at our final event to actually practice and show some of the things that we’ve been doing together. 

EC: And I’ll add on, because personally, even myself, before I saw Karen at the Arts Summit, I did not even know what taiko drumming was. And there’s so many people of color, that now that I’m in it, they ask me that question automatically. “Taiko drumming, what is that? What are you doing?” So, to bring it to the parks and show people? To me, it’s just fascinating, and that’s why I said it was powerful. It’s educational and something that once you see it, you want to do it. So, to me, it’s very fulfilling. 

Related Posts

Share your story