Her Beat

Chieko Kojima applying makeup before performance. Photo Keri Pickett

We start our life in the womb listening to our mother’s heartbeat. I believe the sound of the drum brings us back to our roots.

Taiko drumming is a performance art, but at its core it exists to communicate with the gods — to play taiko is to put out healing vibrations. It is associated most closely with Japanese culture — the origins go back to the sixth century.

I was honored to work with several close friends to create “Finding Her Beat,” a film about taiko drumming that made its Minnesota premiere at the Sound Unseen festival in Minneapolis in November. Pain and joy emerge in the process of putting together an historic event.

Making a documentary film is like buying a one-way ticket to an unknown destination, starting out with the belief that an idea or a person is amazing and committing to following the journey. I have focused over the decades on people who are working to right a wrong, ultimately demonstrating how one person can make a difference.

In this case, that person is Jenifer Weir, who knew that Tiffany Tamarabuchi and Megan Chao-Smith had a long- standing desire to bring together the top female taiko drummers from Japan and North America to learn from one another. The film follows the realization of that dream. In 2018, we started filming the process of working toward organizing a taiko all-star concert at the Saint Paul Ordway.

Weir asked female drummers who they would most like to work with. She shared her enthusiasm in grant-writing. Eventually a concert date was set for Leap Day, February 29, 2020. We did not realize at the time how close we came to not having a concert at all due to the pandemic.

Taiko drumming tends to be male dominated. Many women are not allowed to perform on traditional stages. After a lifetime of this kind of limitation, even after being selected for this concert, many of the women of “Finding Her Beat” did not believe they were star performers. It was not until they had gone through 12-hour days of learning from one another during two grueling weeks of rehearsal, and the final performance, that they could see themselves as others saw them.

Co-producers Weir and Mikkelson put together a production crew that included women, queer, and nonbinary people, as well as those of Asian descent I was the director of photography, and my team filmed in a cinéma-vérité style, without the use of interviews, allowing the story to emerge naturally.

For me, the diverse crew made the work environment feel safe and nurturing. It enabled me to move in closer, to not look away when others were going through a hard time, but to embrace the struggles as an important part of the journey.

I believe the authenticity of the film is heightened because it brings power to those who have been marginalized.

Women cannot wait to be asked into a predominantly male world. Together, we make our own dreams come true.