A slow, steady beat rises from a large drum onstage, created by an arm well-toned from practice and concentration. The energy in the room builds as more drummers join, hit a rhythm and the sound of their drums overwhelms.

Japanese taiko drumming is centuries old, a form of communication between nature spirits, or "kami," and humans. Taiko, which simply means "drum," also is used for festivals and religious ceremonies. Traditionally the art of taiko, a combination of spirtual and physical awareness, has been the realm of men, except in a few cases.

"Taiko was used as communication between land and sea in some older Japanese fishing villages," says Ikuyo Conant, the leader of the Watsonville Taiko school which is expanding the horizons of drumming by including primarily women as performers. "The men would be fishing so the women would drum on land, to tell them the time or convey other messages."

Conant''s interpretation of a Japanese folktale, "The Dragon Gate," is set for two performances this weekend in Monterey. The story of Ryu, a young carp, unfolds as he explores the stream and waterfalls of his world, wondering what is beyond. Ryu''s fear of a large waterfall finally subsides when he glimpses truth as a pearl in the bottom of a clear pool. He learns what happens in other parts of the stream as carp try to move farther upstream in their attempts to reach the Dragon Gate waterfall, brave storms of ice and fire, and then become a dragon, an Asian symbol of prosperity and unity.

"This taiko piece is different from many others because it is all one story," explains Conant. "Many taiko performances have pieces that may stand alone, but this is storytelling with drumming. Each piece is a statement, but also follows one story. With the drumming and story together, you can see different aspects, it''s a deeper interpretation, and you get a better understanding of Japanese culture."

Watsonville Taiko was founded in 1991, with an advanced group called Shinsei Daiko springing from that a few years later. With Conant acting as sensei ("teacher") and leader, more women became interested in joining.

"It naturally progressed as women saw us. We got an image, more women came as the audience, and some drummers were inspired by a woman leader, I think. Men''s drumming has a different flavor than women''s, and even children''s. I like it to make diversity." Conant says.

In addition to the drums, taiko includes elements of dance and theater. Drummers must be prepared mentally and physically each time. "You must be in the right position as you''re [seated] on the ground," says Conant, "and you must be in the right mind to get the right sound. In the U.S., the emphasis is so much on language, but there''s other arts and nonverbal communication that are powerful too, such as body language and sound."

Watsonville taiko performers also make their own drums, which is more common in the U.S. than Japan. "Drums are very expensive so we couldn''t import them from Japan," Conant says. "There''s a taiko group in Los Angeles who began making their own from wine barrels and that seemed to work well." The act of creating their drums with their own hands is appealing for the connection between spirit and sound.

Keiko Okubo, who works to promote the group and saw the previous "Dragon Gate" performance, explains the drumming is "very energizing. It''s the unwavering focus of Ikuyo and her spiritual approach, not just the performance, that makes them so amazing. There''s a sensitivity and intricacy that women can bring, but it''s very physical. Taiko is fire energy, it hits on your base chakras. It makes you want to get onstage."

Conant feels that taiko has an effect further than just performance for the Asian-American community in the U.S. "There''s probably 300-500 groups now, and it is a positive identity for Asian-American culture. It was a very closed community but now it seems to be opening as a wider audience shows interest."

"The Dragon Gate" takes place Saturday at 7pm and Sunday at 2pm, both at Santa Catalina School, 1500 Mark Thomas Dr., Monterey. $20-25/adults, $12-15/children. (800) 335-5957.

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