The Journal Gazette
 
 
Tuesday, May 11, 2021 1:00 am

Taiko group's start simple

Drummer steps away as leader, still playing

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

For 25 years, Allison Ballard has lived and breathed Taiko drumming.

But her beginnings in the craft didn't start out easy. In fact, there were times when Ballard questioned herself about whether it was worth the effort.

All she knew was that after watching a performance of the Japanese drum troupe Katari Taiko in 1992, she wanted to start a Taiko group in Fort Wayne.

“It was a pivot point for me,” Ballard says of the performance.

Another pivotal moment for Ballard was her recent decision to hand over leadership of the now-well-established Fort Wayne Taiko to another group member.

“After 20 years of that being my primary focus, I was ready to take a vacation that didn't have anything to do with Taiko,” Ballard says.

Last year would have been the group's 20th anniversary show. But like most everything else, the pandemic caused it to be canceled. The group, in which Ballard still remains involved with, only recently was able to rehearse again.

Over the years, Fort Wayne Taiko as an ensemble has ebbed and flowed, Ballard says. It became a program of Fort Wayne Dance Collective and eventually was able to receive grant money to help pay for such things as drums.

Before that happened, however, Ballard had to figure out things for herself. That included building her own drums.

“I was the only one stupid enough to do that,” she says.

There were no other Taiko groups in Indiana in 1998, which is when Ballard became serious about starting a Taiko group in the city.

Taiko is a Japanese musical tradition that means “big drum.” Musicians use large, hollow, skin-covered drums to create a range of rhythms using choreographed hand movements.

Taiko drums are expensive. With no money to launch her dream, Ballard began to search for barrels she could use. Using some connections in Kentucky, she managed to get seven whiskey barrels. “They still reeked of whiskey,” Ballard says.

She took one of the seven barrels home, cleared out her dining room and began the long process of building a drum. It took two years to finish just one.

Now that she had a drum, she had to learn to play it. She began going to conferences in California and workshops, oftentimes paying for it out of her own pocket, and began to practice. The great thing about not having a Taiko group in Fort Wayne was that “no one can tell you you were doing it wrong,” Ballard says.

Eventually people became curious, Dance Collective added a Taiko class and the drummers began showing up at community festivals. Looking back, Ballard doesn't see her earlier performances favorably.

“I look at some of that early footage and I just wish it would be destroyed,” she says.

But today's group is different, as is Ballard. The group, which has eight drummers of all ages, performed in March at Embassy Theatre for the first time in more than a year and they have been rehearsing to record a performance for the Fort Wayne Cherry Blossom Festival, which will be virtual Sunday.

And Ballard is continuing to share her love of Taiko. She created a one-woman show, “I Am the One,” about her journey as a Taiko drummer, which was performed at the DivaFest in Indianapolis last month and will be performed locally in the fall. In addition, she is teaching Taiko classes to elementary school students at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

The biggest change is that Taiko drumming has spread to other parts of the state as its popularity grows.

But Fort Wayne was first. And the city has Ballard to thank for it.

That's why she wants to continue teaching others the art, especially young people.

“It is life-changing for them,” when they discover Taiko, Ballard says. “It happened for me.”

Terri Richardson writes about area residents and happenings that affect their lives in this column that publishes every other week. Email her at trich@jg.net or call 461-8304.


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