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Japanese taiko drummer climbs and performs on Piestewa Peak daily for a year to cope with pandemic

Miguel Torres Arizona Republic

March 26, 2021

On Tuesday, at the top of Piestewa Peak, a Japanese taiko drummer began to pray.

It was just before sunrise as he bowed to the four cardinal points. Against the wind, his hair flowed out behind him, and he balanced on one leg and continued to pay his respect to the sky and ground. He did this as a group of hikers settled in among the peak’s carved rocks.

That morning marked two anniversaries — his first anniversary of climbing Piestewa Peak every day, and the 18th anniversary of the death of Lori Piestewa.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began a year ago, Ken Koshio, like many others, felt lost. Koshio typically performs and teaches taiko drumming, but the start of social distancing meant he would have to cancel a major part of his life. He said he tried online classes but ran into problems.

“Most of my students don’t have their own drums,” he said, and when he tried renting them out, he found that apartments make poor drumming spaces. So he decided he needed to change tactics.

“I needed to do some commitment to keep my art work and myself centered," he said. Hiking has been something he had been doing regularly since 2011, but making a commitment to greet the sunrise everyday would help him center himself through discipline and seeing the sunrise would inspire him to reflect positivity through the dark times ahead.

A drummer finds peace in times of crisis

This is not the first time Koshio has taken on national crisis. Almost 20 years ago, just after 9/11, he had a moment of crisis. At the time Koshio had been living in Los Angeles, following his dream of rock ’n’ roll stardom. When the attacks on the twin towers hit, he felt like he needed to do something in the aftermath.

So he started a tour centered on the idea of the "1,000 cranes" ceremony. He traveled from Los Angeles to New York and along the way performed and folded origami cranes. By the time he got to New York, he and people who joined him made almost 10,000 cranes in a show of peace and prayer.

The climb up rallies his audience
Koshio arrived in his large white van to the base of Piestewa Peak at 5 a.m. on Tuesday.

It is still dark out but the glow of the city and the lamps in the parking lot provide enough light to see. Other hikers have already arrived — some are already climbing up with head lamps. From the bottom they look like fireflies floating to the top of the peak.

Koshio starts to gather his things. His long hair is wrapped in a bun. He’s plainly dressed: knee braces, red shorts, and an old sweatshirt. He stretches his calves as he gets ready to go. He lifts the taiko drum, which is about 3 feet tall with a 2-foot diameter, on his back and walks to the base of the dark trail and begins his climb.

Along the way to the top, Koshio keeps a quick and steady pace as he climbs. When he speaks his tone is cheerful and excited, and his climbing reflects that.

As he passes people in the dark, those that recognize the man with the drum cheer him on. His climb up is a performance in and of itself. Like a true rock ’n’ roll star, he gets his audience excited for the main event.

After the 1,000 crane tour, Koshio came to Arizona, where his son was born. He became more and more familiar with the Hopi Tribe and found links between his music and his ancestors.

Japanese taiko drumming and Native American drumming “originally is for prayers, more ceremonial,” he said. He began incorporating Hopi flutes and drumming into his music and prayers.

It was this connection that gave him another bond to Piestewa Peak, which was named after Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman serving in the U.S. military to die in combat. She was part of the Hopi Tribe.

Every year on the anniversary of her death, people gather to remember and pray for those lost in action through a drumming ceremony. It was while he was drumming at this ceremony that Koshio says he felt his promise solidify.

His playing passes on a moment of peace. It was only half an hour later when Koshio made it to the top. For those unfamiliar with the trail, it is a 1.2-mile-long hike going 1,200 feet up. Most everyone took longer to reach the top and none of them were carrying a drum on their back. Some of those hikers were inspired by Koshio and had come to support him.

Marisa Ramella-Hicks, a hiker, explained, “Ken has got us all together at this destination, (for) the top and the prayer."

Just before the peak, the trail leads to two boulders with a sliver of space for one body to go through at a time. Once you shimmy through, the world opens up twice as big as it was before. Piestewa Peak is the second highest point in the Phoenix Mountains, so the view encompasses all of Phoenix, and just before sunrise the city is still twinkling.

Koshio begins by first explaining that his playing is a form of performance but also a form of prayer. He is trying to create a positive rhythm both spiritually and physically. The prayers aim to inspire positivity for all those there and those viewing at home via a Facebook Live video Koshio set up on his page.

“It’s not just the drumming,” Koshio explained, “Positive energy gives more people positive behavior.”

People listen to Ken Koshio, a Japanese musician and performer, on the summit of Piestewa Peak in Phoenix on the morning of March 23, 2021.
As he plays the taiko drum he picks up the speed of the beat and shouts, “Come on boxer!” egging on a man shadow boxing to the beat of the drums. The crowd cheers watching both of them. At another moment he plays a rendition of "Amazing Grace" on his bamboo flute. He explains that he hopes to impress the spiritual aspect of his playing on his audience by connecting to a spiritual song they might be more familiar with.

He does all this to help himself and others tackle the stress of the pandemic. With business closures, social distancing, and losses of loved ones, he said that among all that negative stress he hoped he could provide people with a moment of release.

“The condition of the whole world under last one year under COVID, I don't think a lot of people are positive but how can we find out in the moment of those kind of negative or tough situation to be positive and feel more happiness and joy and gratitude,” he said. “At least for me, my everyday achievement in nature has given me more and more to appreciate.”

Reach breaking news reporter Miguel Torres at Miguel.Torres@arizonarepublic.com or on Twitter @MTorresTweet.

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