It is very difficult to say "Happy St. Patrick's Day" in Japanese.
"There is no direct Japanese word for St. Patrick's Day," one scholarly Japanese friend tells me. "However, there are a number of written languages in Japanese, and one of these is called Romaji, which allows for the direct import of Western words using Latin script. Therefore, St. Patrick is written 'seipatorikku,' 'hi' is 'day,' and 'omedetou gozaimasu' is a polite way of saying 'happy.' So, 'Happy St. Patrick's Day' in Japanese is 'seipatorikku no hi o omedetou gozaimasu.'"
But a week ago — jumping the gun a bit on our annual green-dyed river/"Kiss me, I'm Irish"/Shamrock Shake/parade/beer/beer/beer celebration that started Friday and will last through Monday — members of the local Japanese drumming troupe Ho Etsu Taiko played with some of the city's finest Irish musicians in two concerts at the Midwest Buddhist Temple, a cultural collaboration that transcended language.
One of those performers, whose speaking/singing voice carries more than a pleasant hint of his native County Cork, is the extraordinary and prize-winning Paddy Homan (paddyhoman.com), who played with pals Dennis Cahill (denniscahill.com) and violinist Teresa Shine. He had this to say: "I was wondering beforehand how it might work out. It was very moving. Some of the songs we chose worked so well with the drums, giving the songs a greater feel, sometimes a haunting feeling. The experience reminded me of how rich and diverse Chicago is, and I think I may have found my percussion section for future concerts."
The feeling was mutual. Here's Jason Matsumoto, one of the 10 to 16 (it varies) members of Ho Etsu Taiko (hoetsu.com): "Both concerts went off beautifully. The Irish trio with its masterful strings underpinning Paddy's moving vocals, supported by the booming sounds of the taiko, was a huge success and incredibly well-received. It felt very much like new music that was transformative and innovative. It was a journey through two musical traditions that occasionally crossed paths to forge a new path," he wrote in an email.
Both concerts were crowded with people of all ages. Says the 31-year-old Matsumoto, "Folks from the Nisei generation, second generation Japanese-Americans, essentially folks who are in the range of my grandparents' age and lifelong supporters of the temple, told me that they were brought to tears as they listened."
Matsumoto is a fourth-generation Japanese-American and has been a part of Ho Etsu Taiko since its founding 17 years ago.
"At first the group was only open to members of the temple, but four years ago we began inviting others to join and it's been nothing but positive," he says.
The group's philosophy is expressed thusly: "To spread joy and vitality through each and every drumbeat." Exciting to hear, as well as to watch, the troupe mostly comprises younger performers of varying ethnic backgrounds, eager to express themselves musically.
The concerts Sunday took place at the Midwest Buddhist Temple, tucked into tree-lined serenity in the Old Town neighborhood at 435 W. Menomonee St. It was all for a good cause, and another way in which the MBT hopes to reach out to the neighborhood and the greater Chicago area: Proceeds went to benefit the Legacy Garden set to open June 22, the 70th anniversary of the MBT.
Rick Morimoto was "born into the temple," founded here in 1944.
"My family was part of the vast relocation from the internment camps, and Chicago was one of the few cities that welcomed us," he says. "We are not in Chicago by accident."
He grew up in the Wrigleyville neighborhood, attended Lane Tech high school and is now a professor of biology at Northwestern University. He has been the president of the MBT for the past five years.
"We are making a very real effort to reach out to the neighborhood, to the entire area," he says. "Past generations, our grandparents and parents, operated on the notion that 'We shouldn't be doing anything that brings attention to ourselves.' That has changed."
Like some other marvelous buildings here — the Elks Veterans Memorial at 2750 N. Lakeview Ave. and the Newberry Library at 60 W. Walton St. come most quickly to mind — the Midwest Buddhist Temple (midwestbuddhisttemple.org) has an intimidating look. But all are welcoming and open to the public.
"It does look like a Japanese fortress," Morimoto says. "But we are trying to overcome that with a whole series of events that will interact with the neighborhood, the city."
The temple receives many visitors during the annual Old Town Art Fair in June or the Ginza Festival in August. The success of Sunday's concert might lead to more.
"Our ensemble's goal is to ground ourselves in that taiko tradition while we continue to develop the music through new and exciting projects," says Matsumoto. "Our plans include developing new creative work with a budding artist collective here in Chicago that focuses on the nexus between dance, opera, theater, music, design and fashion. We've also written music that combines violin and taiko, and the ensemble has an interest in developing music for brass band/taiko collaboration as well."
"There is a common language in music," says Morimoto.
Indeed, but few of us know much about Buddhism, the faith of more than 300 million people. Still, there was a bit of buzz about Buddhism in the wake of the recent death of Harold Ramis, whose midlife embrace of the nontheistic religion was mentioned in many of his obituaries. In Buddhism, death marks the transition from this life to the next. Nice thought.
So, happy St. Patrick's Day. Live it up.
And know this: "Ho etsu taiko" in English means "The joy of drumming."
"After Hours with Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun