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Drumming with a Pulse

Watch & Listen

By day, Bryan Namba is an HR Business and EDI Partner at the LA Phil. But on Monday nights, he's a drum-pounding, intensely focused musician performing with TAIKOPROJECT Academy. Namba, who calls himself a "four-and-a-half-generation Japanese American," has played taiko since childhood. "I've always thought of it as being like a team," he says. "The closer you are and the more you know, the deeper the relationships you have with the people you play with, the better that music's going to be." As he shares below, the deep physicality and sense of unity that come with taiko doesn't just connect him to the rest of his ensemble—it draws him closer to his Japanese heritage, and to himself.

Bryan Namba, HR Business and EDI Partner at the LA Phil

Did you grow up conscious of taiko as a form?

I was born in Los Angeles, but when I was about four years old, we moved to Arizona. In Los Angeles, there’s a really strong Japanese American community, and there has been for some time, especially after World War II and the internment camps—people found that community, both before and after. When we moved to Arizona, my dad wanted me to be connected to that same type of space, so I joined a taiko drumming group when I was probably about six years old. From that age through high school, I played with a taiko group. It was a really nice way to have a grounded cultural connection to the community. At the time, we didn’t know a lot of other Japanese American families. So it was a nice way to be engaged in the community, which is what my dad—and, I think, ultimately, I—wanted, so that we didn’t grow up fully disconnected from that.

Kids who grow up in the US who have a strong identity connection to another place often talk about the pull between their home culture assimilating into mainstream American culture. Did you feel that pull as a kid?

The pressure of being a model minority, you know, great at assimilating into whatever environment—that’s something that was really felt. I think my parents really wanted me to assimilate, as well. But I think it’s also because my grandmother on my dad’s side is from Japan, and my dad’s dad was born in the US but grew up in Japan. He had that deep connection to the culture that he wanted us to have as well. But I think that was kind of that push/pull of, you want to do all the things that are very, I guess, mainstream American, but then also have that cultural connection.

Namba at age 6 performing with Kyo Rei Taiko Kai at a festival in Phoenix.

Did you enjoy listening to the music itself growing up? What kind of music were you listening to outside of taiko? 

I have always enjoyed taiko. To me, it’s such a powerful and mysterious [music]. You’re always on the edge of your seat for what’s going to come, and that aspect of it has always really intrigued me. Outside of taiko, growing up in Arizona I had that country influence—I loved a lot of country music and grew up with it. I was a big Spice Girls fan. There’s this British group called Steps. All over the place. I always say it’s impossible for me to name a music genre that encompasses me, and now it’s more like folk or classical are two areas I’m discovering and really appreciate.  

What drew you back into performing? 

Being surrounded by music working at the LA Phil was a big driver. There’s always been an element of me that wanted to work in music or at an arts organization, so getting the chance to work here and being surrounded by musicians and people on staff who are so passionate made me feel like, “I’m not done with my taiko.” Naturally, I was looking at TAIKOPROJECT because I was always a fan of their work. I’ve really enjoyed having the routine. For me, it’s on Mondays so it’s a nice start to the week.  

Namba performing with TAIKOPROJECT Academy at the Monterey Park Cherry Blossom Festival in April 2024.

When you reengaged with performing, did your muscles remember what to do? Did you feel a sense of connection to your younger self and your family? 

Aspects of it were like riding a bicycle. The stance, the power, the form, that all came back quickly—although there’s always room to improve. That’s one of the things that’s made me passionate about taiko is that you’re never done learning and growing as a performer. I’m still getting critiques, fixes on stances or form, which I appreciate because I want to keep growing. I would say I’m definitely closer to the family aspect. My aunt plays in a taiko group, or did for a little while, in Orange County. I would love for my grandma to see me perform one day. She’s a little older now, but she’s seen videos, and it’s nice to have that connection again.  

You recently had a big solo. What was it like having your own moment to shine during the Cherry Blossom Festival?  

I was surprised by how comfortable I was with it! This was my second performance with TAIKOPROJECT Academy, and it was very natural, I was at ease. Rehearsals and getting ready for the performance was much more difficult—I felt more pressure there than in the performance itself! 

And now, when I’m playing, I feel very strong. For an hour and a half, I get to be present.

Do you find that your personality has changed at all because of taiko? 

Growing up, it gave me more confidence. And now, when I’m playing, I feel very strong. For an hour and a half, I get to be present. For me, it’s a very mental and physical thing. Yes, it’s a physical form of music, but mentally, you’re so focused, and in the moment I feel very strong and powerful.  

What’s one thing you’d tell someone to prepare themselves for a taiko performance? 

It’s a really high-energy, exciting, expressive performance. Taiko as an instrument, as a drum, has been around for centuries, but it was mainly played for religious events. It wasn’t until more recently that we started having this ensemble style of taiko, where it’s more for enjoyment or musical expression. So because it’s relatively new, there’s so much changing and so much innovation happening within it.