The big bang: Rosendale hosts Drumfest Japan this weekend

(Photo by Steven DePolo)

It’s as impossible to beat a drum and not feel energetic as it is to dive into a lake and not get wet. Five years ago, Fre Atlast, who has been drumming since she was age five, began holding drum circles in local nursing homes. Her Elders Drum Project, as it is called, has brought joy, happiness and a sense of purpose to many depressed seniors: a turnaround so impressive that the project recently merited coverage on National Public Radio.

Now the general public can participate in the fun of drumming as well. The Rosendale Drumfest Japan, held July 27 through 29, kicks off on Friday evening with a “Wake up Your Rhythms” session with shekere master Caru Thompson at the TRANSnDANCEnDRUM Center, located at 415 Main Street. Bring your drums, bells and shekeres.

On Saturday morning, Atlast will sponsor a “Blessing of the Drums” opening ceremony at the Rosendale Recreation Center, followed by two workshops on Japanese drumming by Elaine Fong: an “Introduction to Taiko” session in the morning, followed by an afternoon “Matsuri” group drumming session, in which Fong will demonstrate different festival rhythms. (Contrary to the stereotype of the Japanese as reserved and aloof, they hold festivals “practically every day of the year,” said Fong.). Fong will have taiko drums on hand for the morning session. She encourages people to bring their own percussion for the afternoon class.


Fong, who is based in Boston – she started the first taiko group in Massachusetts back in 1990 – said that taiko, which means “big drum,” has several unique features. Because the drumhead is so large, playing a taiko drum is extremely physical: The whole body is involved in the act, along with the voice, and the huge vibrations result in rich, prolonged overtones. Fong’s workshop will be focused on group drumming, in which everyone creates one voice. (The Japanese term is kumidaiko, “to drum as one.”) “I’ll be working with everyone’s energy and we’ll be feeling each other’s rhythms,” she said. The different rhythms of taiko drumming will be explored in the afternoon class.

Fong said that taiko drumming is at least 1,000 years old and came over to Japan from China (like everything else, including the country’s language) and Korea. In this country, the drum style is relatively new, dating from the late 1960s; Fong said that she took it up in the early 1980s. Unlike some other drum traditions, taiko has never been plagued by gender bias; in fact, Fong said, most of the couple of hundred taiko groups in the US predominantly consist of women.

The festival ends on Sunday morning with a drum circle at the Big Cheese Garden; people should bring their own percussion. The festival is supported by a grant from the Dutchess County Arts Council; donations are welcome.

Rosendale Drumfest Japan will be held July 27 to 29. “Wake up Your Rhythms” will be held July 27 from 8 to 9 p.m. at the TRANSnDANCEnDRUM Center at 415 Main Street. The opening ceremony will be held on July 28 at 10:30 a.m. at the Rosendale Recreation Center, followed by Elaine Fong’s “Introduction to Taiko” from 11 to 1 p.m. and “Festival Rhythms of Japan” from 3 to 5 p.m. The closing drum circle will be held on July 29 at the Big Cheese Garden from 11 a.m. to 12 noon.