The Genki Spark – Exhale Magazine

The Genki Spark—an all-female Asian taiko troupe—is smashing stereotypes and building bonds of sisterhood for Asian women in Boston.

Taiko is the Japanese word for drum, and these women are not afraid to use it.

“Asian women are taught to be quiet, to think of others first and not take up a lot of space . . . so I fight for space for others,” says The Genki Spark founder Karen Young.

In rehearsal and while performing, Karen encourages the group to be genki. Genki is a Japanese word that means healthy, happy and energetic.  And, it’s working.

Their exuberant performances with dancing and spoken word pleases crowds in their videos posted on YouTube, but the ladies of the troupe are doing much more than just beating a drum. They’re listening to each other closely, on and off stage.

“We’ve gotten comments like ‘Y’all don’t play for us, you play for each other,’ ” shares troupe member Trisha Mah.

Their bond runs deep.

“This is the first time in quite a few years that I have women I can talk to,” Trisha adds. “There’s a mob of women behind me to back me up. We’ve built this sisterhood. Internalized sexism and racism makes it hard [for women] to be close.”

With initial funding from the Boston Women’s Fund and fiscal sponsorship from ASPIRE (Asian Sisters Participating in Reaching Excellence), The Genki Spark was founded in 2010 as a result of a performance at the Boston Asian American Film Festival. They have since performed for various organizations, schools and corporations, including Boston Latin Academy, the Boston Children’s Museum and TEDxMassArt.

Karen was a founding member of Odaiko New England (ONE), New England’s premier performing taiko group. She performed with ONE for more than 10 years and conducted dozens of educational programs in schools across the state. She helped launch advocacy projects such as Youth on Board at YouthBuild USA, The Corporation for National Service and MAP for Health.

She received her BA in Human Ecology at Humboldt State University in California and relocated to Boston in 1993. Karen uses her skills as a trainer, counselor and facilitator to shape the women of The Genki Spark.

Here she chats with Exhale about why The Genki Spark is so special.

Why is The Genki Spark important to the Asian community?
I think we need more models of us taking leadership, being visible, telling our stories and sharing information. It’s misinformation that creates stereotypes.

Why taiko and not something else?
For me it was really about being introduced to it and having a visceral reaction to it. Twenty years ago I didn’t have the vocabulary to express how I felt. I didn’t know how to talk about issues of race or gender. I just knew when I saw people on stage that looked like me, I felt proud to be me. When I saw people playing taiko. . . it shattered something inside of me. Some mold I had been trying to fit into broke.

What are the things that you have done to ensure that women feel empowered and respected?
I’ve been really intentional about respect. Also, I’ve been very clear that as women we’re vulnerable to being catty toward one another and not treating ourselves or each other well as a result of societal mistreatment we’ve faced as women. I try to contradict the onslaught of negative messages by asking questions like: ‘What do you like about yourself today?’ . . . If someone is doing something well, I ask for some concrete appreciation.

What do you wish for The Genki Spark’s legacy?
That’s a good one. Ultimately, I want to leave behind a space where Asian women and girls can see who they are and who they can be.

What are some of the challenges you encounter as a Pan-Asian group and how can you be sensitive to other cultures?
I think we’re still learning how to do that. You have this honeymoon period in the beginning and then the hard stuff happens. The hurts and divisions between groups surface. It’s not just intercultural, it’s intergenerational too. So, I try to slow things down and address issues as they surface.

How do you share the mission with strangers who come in for one class?
Every performance, workshop or class, we talk about the genki spirit. Before we play taiko for the first time, we start with the genki attitude. When we invite members of the audience on stage, I ask them to say their name on the mic. You can jump, shout [or] explode! When you say your name, it has to be YOU times 10! That spirit shows in all of our work.

Can you pinpoint the moment you realized you created something special?
Oh gosh, our very first performance. The moment we finished, we hit the lobby, and there was such a feeling of: We did it! We were on fire. I had never led a group of Asian women before. I told them I didn’t care if they made a mistake, just be proud of yourself, be proud of what we’ve done. All of us held hands. I knew we couldn’t stop.

For more information on The Genki Spark, visit

PDF version The Genki Spark Exhale Magazine

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