August 22, 2005

Taiko drumming culture shares open source issues

Author: Jay Lyman

Although their strikes against the tightly stretched drum head are much more graceful and powerful than the strokes of the keyboard, taiko players of North America have battled some of the same issues as open source software developers, including patents and the desire to share their innovations.

As a result, some taiko performers and leaders are fostering an open source taiko movement, complete with its own songs, including "Omiyage," which from Japanese -- where taiko playing was born out of kabuki and festival performance on the magnificent drums -- translates to "gift."

"It's not really new," said "Omiyage" composer Shoji Kameda, who plays with L.A.'s On Ensemble and Taiko Project. "The concept is about continuing the idea of openness and community. It's somewhat borrowed from open source software."

Spoken songs codified with FOSS

Kameda explained the basic ideas of the open source movement have always been a part of the taiko community, which typically shares its songs and teaches new players with spoken notes -- "don, kara, ka" for example, that are then played.

"Many groups play a version of 'Ashira,' which was taught openly by Kinnara Taiko, one of the first two North American taiko groups," Kameda wrote in an email. "More recently, P.J. Hirabayashi wrote a dance and taiko song to be shared with the North American taiko community (NATC) titled 'Ei Ja Nai Ka,' which by all measures is an open source piece. The idea of ending the Taiko Project show with a piece titled 'Omiyage' was that we would leave it as a gift for the communities we visited. It was conceptualized by Bryan Yamani and was based on the Japanese tradition of gift-giving when visiting someone's home. What Kris [Bergstrom, another On Ensemble member] and I have done in the NATC is use the language of the FOSS community to reinforce and codify the ideals that we would like to see continue within our community."

Bergstrom, who runs On Ensemble's Web site with old hardware and Linux, wrote an essay that was originally meant for just his group, but has been making its way to others in the North America taiko community.

"It was intended mainly for discussion within On Ensemble," he said in an email. "We have since solidified some of the group's policies about sharing music and I'm in the process of revising the essay to explain our stance. I'm hoping it will also explain how our new album is released, under a mixture of Creative Commons licenses. Once it's done, I'm hoping to get it out to as many people as possible to get feedback."

"I believe the issues of ownership versus free sharing are critical to the taiko community and to all creators," Bergstrom continued. "Copyright and patent law are surprisingly pertinent topics to artists and I am excited that the taiko community has been addressing them. My hope is that the end result of these discussions will be more sharing, less centralized control, and greater number of advocates for free culture."

Bergstrom said his interest in free and open source software and its potential with taiko and other applications started with his own use of Linux in classes at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.

"At the time, I was really impressed by the technical aspects of the software, being able to do things better than were possible with proprietary offerings," he wrote. "Over time, I came to learn about the concepts of the GNU GPL and got more and more excited about the fact that so many people, so loosely connected, were able to collaborate to make something wonderful. Now, the ideals of free software are even more exciting to me than the software itself, and I find myself trying to apply the concepts to everything I do. As a musician, it makes sense for me to try and write music that is free to be shared and that will hopefully be a benefit to society. I have realized I'm a free culture advocate at my core, and music is the way that I am participating in a creative society."

Playing style patent and perversion

While taiko songs were traditionally passed along by the spoken word and sharing was common even in the roots of the art in Japan, a controversy erupted more recently when North American taiko groups -- born out of the Asian-American cultural movement of the 1960s -- played a style of taiko known as slant-stand playing, or Sukeroku, after the group that pioneered the style.

Although it is not Microsoft and there is understanding and appreciation of the group's efforts creating and perfecting the slant-stand playing style, there is also apprehension over the idea that the work entitles Oedo Sukeroku Daiko of Japan exclusive rights to play with the drum or player in a certain position.

Kameda, who said the controversy, along with the RIAA crackdown on file trading, helped propel the open source taiko idea, explained that while some of the Sukeroku members who created the style are happy to see it grow in the US, others are dismayed by the lack of knowledge of the style and low quality of pieces and performances in the US.

"In 1997 the Sukeroku elements who were unhappy with the bastardization of their style in the US started applying pressure to their representatives in the US and issued [North American taiko godfather] Tanaka Sensei a letter requesting that as the Sukeroku representative in the US, he stop groups in the US from playing in the Sukeroku style or the Sukeroku repertoire without permission from Sukeroku Daiko," Kameda wrote. "In the end, the Sukeroku style and slant-stand controversy is less about copyright and patent and more about Sukeroku trying to control their style and wanting recognition and respect for their innovative work."

Nevertheless, the North American taiko community has chosen to ignore the request, although awareness has risen, Kameda added. Still, some representatives of Oedo Sukeroku Daiko have sought to enforce copyrights and patents against US taiko performers, and the controversy has continued to some degree.

"One key element to the problem has been the cultural differences between the NATC and taiko in Japan," Kameda said. "I feel that there are several cultural differences between taiko in the US and taiko in Japan. Here in the States, taiko really developed out of the Asian-American movement, and the ideals from that movement are still alive with the NATC. Community-building was an important part of the Asian-American movement and continues to be a vital element to the NATC. It was built on the spirit of openness, sharing, and solidarity. The problem with the Sukeroku request is that it went against these ideals, even though it is justified from their point of view."

Taking taiko to the Web with open source software

Kris Bergstrom, a member of the On Ensemble taiko performers, hosts the group's Web site using free software, which he also uses personally after experience with Linux and other open source in college.

"Things are pretty straightforward and simple, and a bit out of date now that I think about it," Bergstrom said. "On a stock Debian Woody box, I'm running Apache 1.3, Postfix and Cyrus for IMAP mail, and BIND 9 for DNS. I have a separate backup server running a script that my friend Ron Golan wrote that implements Mike Rubel's concept of rsync snapshots. That's maybe the sexiest part of OnEnsemble's technical infrastructure ... it takes regular snapshots of all the machines connected to the network so even if I delete a file and don't realize it for a week, I can go retrieve it. Several weeks of snapshots only take up about 2x storage on my system. It's dreamy and it's saved me a few times."

Bergstrom said, "It has been so empowering to use free software for, and for my personal use. I switched entirely to Debian GNU/Linux about five years ago when my frustration with Windows reached a peak. Learning enough to be comfortable in a much more advanced setup has been a lot of work, but it has been incredibly rewarding. The whole Unix philosophy of combining small tools to do big things is beautiful. For OnEnsemble's fund-drive mailings, for example, I use sed, uniq, and sort to prepare a CSV file of addresses for processing by LaTeX for the mail merge and typesetting. It makes me smile every time."

For his part, Bergstrom said he could understand the concerns and frustrations of the Sukeroku artists, but ultimately felt the attempts to control a playing style were mistaken. "As a member of the free culture movement, the idea of telling people they can't perform a particular drumming style seems misguided to me, like telling someone they can't do a certain skateboard trick, or paint with a certain technique," he said. "Playing styles fall under the general category of information and human creativity that should be free for all to study, practice, and use."

"My hope is that the taiko community can address Oedo Sukeroku Daiko's concerns in productive ways," Bergstrom added. "For me, personally, rather than not using the slant style, I need to use it more, and ask Oedo Sukeroku Daiko for help to improve my admittedly sorry skills."

Software is art, music is useful

The open source taiko proponents also discussed the similarities and differences between software and music, which might both be considered art, but might also both be considered useful tools.

Kameda said the main difference applying open source ideas and licensing to taiko music amounts to the difference between developing a tool, such as software, and a piece of art, such as music.

"There is a lot of overlap, but art by its nature is subjective and personal," Kameda said. "I'm not comfortable with releasing all of my music under an open source license because some of it is too personal. It is an expression of myself, it is my voice and who it is I want to be in the world. I don't know ... Maybe if I were more secure or enlightened or if I could detach myself emotionally from my work I could release all my work under a GPL, but emotionally, I'm just not there yet."

Bergstrom, however, said he did not believe those definitions necessarily apply to software and music in that manner.

"Many people talk about a distinction between the two as useful versus artistic creations," he said. "But I think such a distinction between useful and artistic works is false. Not only because the definition of art is so vague (certainly many works of software qualify as art), but also because the subjective nature of music makes the ability to remix even more potentially beneficial.

"Music that is free to be modified enables people to make more variations that meet more people's desires. I believe free music has the potential to generate a greater variety and greater quality of music, in the same way free software has made such astounding successes. I think the concerns over altering the creator's voice can be addressed by requiring that alterations are clearly noted as revisions to the original."


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