ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One recent evening at a local karate school, the bachi, or drumsticks, were flying. Instructor Anita Gallegos counted out a rhythm in Japanese: “Ichi, ni, san, shi.” One, two, three, four.
Ten-year-old Max Jimenez eagerly followed each command with resonant beats on a barrel
-shaped taiko drum, elevated from the ground on a dai, or platform. His legs were aligned in a strong stance, while his arms moved in a choreographed pattern.
During a break, Max, an Albuquerque fifth-grader, said he’d been drumming with Gallegos at Bushido Kenkyukai dojo, near Eubank and Southern SE, for about two years.
The scene was taiko drumming, an ancient Japanese art, which blends martial arts choreography and synchronized drumming. Gallegos, a black belt in karate and martial arts weaponry, teaches the drumming as a way to channel musical and physical expression.
“It helps with stress,” he explains.
His dad, Alex Johnson-Jimenez, a local school teacher, credits taiko with keeping Max engaged.
“It opens up a different world than he would otherwise be exposed to.”
For the soul
For thousands of years, taiko drumming was part of ceremonies, communication between villages and battle formations, Gallegos explains.
Max began drumming like many other local taiko students by taking a free lesson at the dojo (bkwow.com).
Parents Anthony and Tanya Santor say they like the blend of musical and physical activity that taiko drumming demands. Although Annika Santor, 8, also plays violin, Anthony says she’s always excited to come to her drumming class: “It’s the one thing she’s sticks with.”
Adult local drummer Margaret Lopez says she enjoys taiko because she felt like she was making music within the first year, unlike beginning other musical instruments. “I like that I’ve progressed. It can be a workout, too, but it’s always fun.”
Karen Patrick, an Albuquerque adult with a musical background, says she’s been playing taiko drums for more than five years. She likes studying with Gallegos, because her lessons includes culture and history, so students understand more: “It just sings to my soul.”
Gallegos, whose family is traditional Catholic Hispanic from northern New Mexico, loves Japanese culture, she says.
“Martial arts drew me to Japanese culture,” says Gallegos, who has practiced karate for 27 years and drumming for about 14 years. She has owned Bushido Kenkyukai for 10 years. “Everything I like about drumming relates to karate. It’s through those glasses that I see drumming.”
She began studying karate at the University of New Mexico but soon became a student of Jim Hawkes, an internationally known grandmaster, who passed away last year. “He was a huge influence on my life. I always wanted to learn everything I could from him,” she says.
At his suggestion, she began teaching and opened a school, she says. She also teaches traditional Okinawan Shorin-ryu karate, Kenpo Kobudo weapons and a women’s self-defense course. Gallegos is a fourth-degree black belt in her karate style, a third-degree black belt in weapons and a certified self-defense instructor, along with her day job as a physicist on Kirtland Air Force Base.
Gallegos always excelled at academics but didn’t find herself socially until she immersed herself in martial arts, she says. “I was a totally nerdy kid. I was always reading,” she says. “Karate taught me about myself.”
As she became immersed in karate, she also became immersed in Japanese history and culture, learning to speak Japanese and began taiko drumming after joining the New Mexico Japanese American Citizens League.
“I had no musical background,” she says, recalling that her father used to tease her about playing the radio as her musical instrument.
But she came to love the symmetry, discipline and choreography of taiko drumming and has performed in Albuquerque and elsewhere and now with her students, often in the local Japanese fall festival, Aki Matsuri.
She has studied with many taiko masters, including ongoing studies with world-renowned taiko player Kenny Endo.
At Bushido Kenkyukai, which means way of the warrior research society, she has a workshop in the back where she makes taiko drums.
“I basically moved the shop from my garage to here,” she says as she points out the animals skins, whiskey barrels and rounds of salvaged 18-inch PVC pipe that will be one day become taiko drums. She flips a switch on a revolving spindle where she places partially completed drum barrels for sanding: “It’s a drum rotisserie.”
Learning to make drums seemed like a natural progression, she says. “You need them for performing, so I decided to make them.”