Of the many art forms represented at Folk On The Rocks, few originate from farther afield than the sounds of SkyFire Taiko.
The Yellowknife-based quartet performs live shows inspired by Japanese taiko drumming, a centuries old form that combines martial arts choreography with music.
Nancy Mullick, who founded SkyFire with Kevin Cull in 2015, said their upcoming performance on Sunday afternoon will be like a “full circle journey.”
“The first time I saw taiko was in 2008 at Folk On The Rocks,” she said about the Uzume Taiko performance. “It was a really inspirational moment seeing that the art form existed and that I could learn how to do it.”
While the duo kept SkyFire going for its first few years, Mullick helped infuse it with new rhythms by making trips to Japan, where she learned new repertoire and drumming techniques. Cull has also contributed his own rhythms and choreography.
Invigorated by their practice sessions, SkyFire’s third member, Leslie Gray joined in 2018.
“I think we all love drumming!” Gray said. “We all really enjoy playing together and learning new songs (and) the challenge of learning a new rhythm and doing it together.”
SkyFire’s first performance as a trio took place just weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in the NWT, in March 2020. The Hemispheres event at Northern United Place featured taiko groups from Oregon, British Columbia and even Australia, with SkyFire joining for some larger group performances.
Pandemic restrictions suspended public SkyFire shows for many months, but they kept practising in Mullick’s backyard and at Collective Soul Space, despite some hurdles posed by Covid-19 regulations.
“It was difficult to practice in masks while jumping and shouting,” Gray said, with a laugh, recalling those practices. “I think the love of drumming and the desire to keep learning has kept us going.”
Mullick began teaching taiko classes at Collective Soul Space during the pandemic. One of her first students — Eva Paul, who was particularly dedicated — officially became SkyFire’s fourth member in February this year.
“Being able to teach in the last two years showed me there’s a lot of interest in taiko. It was motivating to keep going,” Mullick said.
The group plays on a set of five taiko drums, one of which was custom made using buffalo hide by Mullick’s partner, Richard Bergen. Two others are from California and one comes from Japan.
After their last public show in June 2021 at the Multicultural Festival in Somba K’e Park, the drummers are more than excited for their Sunday performance, though Paul won’t be able to join.
“There’s huge support from the Folk On The Rocks organizers. Along with our joy in drumming, I think there’s a nice feeling of community support,” Gray said.
Mullick will also host a taiko workshop after their show. There will be 10 practice drums and 14 rubber practice pads for attendees.
-by Blair McBride