Tzo’kam & Sawagi Taiko at Heart of the City 2017

Bringing together cultural traditions from across the world, the unique collaboration between Tzo’kam and Sawagi Taiko performed at SFU’s Vancouver campus for the third time as a part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival. The theme of this year’s festival was Honouring the Women of the Downtown Eastside. Performing for a full audience on October 27, the free show included traditional Lil’wat singing and drumming and the powerful drumming of all-female Japanese Taiko ensemble. Each group shared their own traditional songs throughout the evening and came together for a few songs combining their voices and drums.

This unique performance is not the first for the two groups. Their initial collaboration took place at The Powell Street Festival in 2009. This creative connection that has been strengthened by the friendship between Russell Wallace from Tzo’kam and Linda Hoffman from Sawagi Taiko. “When I heard how the songs we sing can fit in patterns of the taiko performance that really excited me. It felt that this collaboration was meant to be,” Wallace shared.

Hoffman elaborated, saying, “Most cultures begin their musical exploration with voice and drum. Sawagi and Tzo’kam both use voice, drums and movement, so a collaboration seemed natural. When Russell listened to some of our songs, he could immediately link individual vocal songs of theirs to our drum songs.”

The two groups share an important common goal: the preservation of cultural practices. For Wallace and Tzo’kam, they see this collaboration as a way of expanding and sharing Salish language and culture with a broader Canadian society. Wallace expanded, “Canadian society was oppressive to many cultures and peoples and when people from these oppressive histories come together and share with each other it can be a powerful thing.”

Hoffman added that the collaboration is much more than a way of maintaining traditional practices for Sawagi Taiko as well; it is also creating art for the present moment. “For Sawagi, our stance and the way we hit the drum, and many of the rhythms we use are traditional, but the original compositions utilize rhythms from the music we heard growing up.” These modern additions to traditional styles create a dynamic and present sound which evolves further with the addition of the Salish tradition.

Both Wallace and Hoffman expressed that the strength of their performance lies in the fact that both groups are ultimately sharing with each other and their audience. “As a singer I hope that my voice will blend with the other voices and impart or evoke a feeling that will be felt in ways that might be intended by the song or in ways unexpected to both the singer and listener,” said Wallace. “The vibrations of the voice coupled with the vibrations of the drum can potentially be a visceral experience for those in the space.”

Each group remains true to their traditional sounds while simultaneously encouraging the creation of a new tradition through collaboration. As Hoffman explained, “I think the reason the collaboration works so well is because both groups are interested in exploring new forms and new combinations of our two cultures.”

While there are no imminent future collaborations in place, Wallace expressed the hope that “this collaboration can be experienced in other parts of Canada. [. . .] The fact is there is no other place in the world where you can hear this type of collaboration of Salish and Japanese musics coming together.”