Taikoproject + Quetzal: the New Generation of LA Music

Quetzal Flores (furthest left) and the band at the 2013 Grammy Awards ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Quetzal Flores (furthest left) and the band at the 2013 Grammy Awards ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

By Molly Kodros

One of the best parts of living in LA is being able to witness the intersection of different cultures and artistic movements. Sometimes, these connections are obvious, but often they’re truly unexpected. At first glance,TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal‘s upcoming Ford on the Road collaboration would seem to be the latter.

As their name implies, TAIKOPROJECT is a raucous, contemporary take on the traditional art of Japanese taiko drumming. Grammy-winning Quetzal is one of East LA’s defining Chicano rock bands. So what could TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal possibly have in common? A lot more than you might think…

For one, they both exhibit exceptional artistic ability. I watched the two groups rehearse at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Little Tokyo a few Saturdays ago. With their arms and sticks flying, their quick movements and their gleeful shouting, TAIKOPROJECT put a huge grin on my face and made me want to jump right in and join.

Artistic Director Masato “Maz” Baba (center) and TAIKOPROJECT.
Masato “Maz” Baba (center) and TAIKOPROJECT.

Likewise, Quetzal’s songs of longing, displacement and finding home felt quintessentially Angeleno. I really felt the songs and lyrics deep at my core, even with just my rudimentary level of Spanish. The group fuses son jarochorancherosalsacumbia, rock and R&B, with a political vision based in social activism, feminism and the belief that there is radical potential in expressive culture.

Another thing these two groups have in common is the prominent roles they play in their LA communities and their desire to go beyond typical cultural designations. TAIKOPROJECT has been a leader in the Japanese American community since its founding in 2000. Quetzal has played an integral role in shaping the East LA music scene since 1994. Both artists wanted to experiment, to explore what happens when leaders from two different cultures join forces.

In fact, Quetzal co-founder and guitarist Quetzal Flores had the opportunity to experience different Japanese celebrations at an early age – including taiko. “TAIKOPROJECT is the new generation of LA music,” he said. “Taking chances and pushing the tradition forward.”

TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal have something potent to say about modern life and respect each other for it.  TAIKOPROJECT’s Artistic Director Masato “Maz” Baba also grew up around taiko and started playing the music at six years old. He admires Quetzal for the group’s political voice.

Quetzal and TAIKOPROJECT playing together at the preview performance I caught at JANM!
Quetzal and TAIKOPROJECT playing together at the preview performance I caught at JANM!

Maz explained to me that TAIKOPROJECT was influenced by the powerful music and message of the Civil Rights movement. Taiko was a way for Maz and company to find their voice, to “be loud and show people who we are.”

I asked Quetzal what about taiko music he most responds to. “Taiko as a community practice most attracts me to it,” he said. He explained the connection between the two groups and that they had a mutually beneficial relationship growing up so close to one another. In fact, the original drummer of Quetzal is a taiko drummer.

So, given the complexity and plurality of LA’s many cultures, it’s not really much of a leap that TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal started collaborating together. In fact, it’s actually been a long time coming.

Watching both groups perform together was thrilling. Their sets reinvent original songs from each other’s catalog, adding to them and reimagining them with a whole new musical palette.

With Quetzal’s full band on stage and TAIKOPROJECT’s slew of drums and a Zimbabwean marimba and shinobue, I felt like the collaboration was new, unprecedented and somehow always meant to be.

Quetzal + TAIKOPROJECT in Concert performs September 18 & 19 at 8:00 p.m. at Tateuchi Democracy Forum, Japanese American National Museum. Tickets are $25.