Playing a New Tune: Japanese Drum Group Pounds Out a Niche

Strongsville artist produces unique music, pottery and paintings from his years in Japan

It's hard to follow the conversation between the drummers because it goes back and forth from English to Japanese.

It's easy, though, to get lost in their sound.

When the members of Yume Daiko start playing, listeners can't help but be overwhelmed by the powerful beat as they pound out complex rhythms on an ensemble of drums.

"I started playing Taiko when I lived in Japan," said Matt Richards of Strongsville, the group's founder. "When I moved back, I started a group here, and it's grown."

Taiko is traditional Japanese drumming, a powerful story-telling art that is felt as much as it's heard. Richards' kids, Kai, 14, and Maya, 11, -- both born in Japan -- grew up playing and were the original members of Yume Daiko when the family moved back to the United States three years ago.

The group performs throughout the region -- it has played at Strongsville Homecoming, at libraries and schools and at Cleveland Indians games -- and practices twice a week at Drake Elementary School, where Maya is a student and where music teacher Debbie Gonczy first heard the drumming and asked to join with her son, Jonah.

After they performed at Chapman Elementary School, Pat Koch, the music teacher there, also became a convert.

"I love it. I've been playing since last April and it's been wonderful," Koch said. "It's a way to eliminate stress and it's a challenge."

Richards, who grew up in Lancaster, PA, first visited Japan as an exchange student while at Penn State. He learned Japanese in school, and right after graduation, returned in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET), working as an English teacher. 

When that two-year stint was up, he stayed another 15  years, taking a job at city hall as coordinator of international relations. He and his wife, Atsuko -- oddly enough, they actually met in Michigan, where he was visiting on a sister-city mission for a Japanese city and she was teaching in an exchange program -- decided three years ago it was time to expose their kids to western culture.

"We decided for now, it would be better to have them more fluent in English," Richards said.

Both needed English as a Second Language classes when they arrived, but picked it up quickly.

Also in the drum group are Samantha Werstler and her daughter, Mae, 7, of Strongsville, who met Richards in Japan while Samantha's husband was in the JET program. 

"They were the only Americans in a 50-mile radius," Werstler said. "Our kids were all born and raised there."

Richards owns most of the drums the group uses, picking up some on the Internet and building one himself. During practice, Richards guides the players in how to stand, how to position their arms and how loudly or quietly to play.

Don't their arms get tired? "Yes!" the group choruses.

There is some sheet music, but most of the songs are learned by ear and memorized by practicing them over and over. For obvious reasons, most group members can't practice at home, and even at Drake, a neighbor once complained about the noise, forcing a move from the front of the building into the gym.

Drumming isn't the only bit of Japanese culture Richards, an artist, brought home with him. He also produces Japanese-inspired pottery in his Lakewood studio, Ryu no Sakebi, and  paints abstracts based on Japanese characters.

 "Do I miss Japan? Yeah. I miss it every day," Richards said. "But I missed being here, too."




Ken Wood March 10, 2011 at 06:09 PM
It is amazing how you get caught up in the beat, even by listening for just a few seconds. Wow! Great video.
Jill Ralston March 10, 2011 at 07:19 PM
The Friends of Avon Lake Public Library sponsored an outdoor concert by Yume Daiko last summer. It was spectacular!! Over 200 people brought their lawn chairs and blankets for the summer night concert. The performance was incredible, we learned all about the drums and after the concert, kids got to try out the drums themselves. We tip our hat to Matthew Richards and his crew of drummers!


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