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Taiko drummer follows musical path to Capitol Hill office

Staffer for Rep. Meng blends her percussion and policymaking backgrounds

Erika Ninoyu, a fellow in Rep. Grace Meng’s office, performs on the taiko drum. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)
Erika Ninoyu, a fellow in Rep. Grace Meng’s office, performs on the taiko drum. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)

How do you get to Capitol Hill? Practice, practice, practice.

At least that’s the path Erika Ninoyu has followed. She’s an avid percussionist, a music educator and fellow with the Asia Pacific Institute for Congressional Studies in New York Democrat Grace Meng’s office.

Ninoyu is an experienced performer in a professional taiko drumming group, the traditional Japanese percussion ensemble. Unlike many of her fellow staffers, who come from political science or law backgrounds, her foundation in music has helped her chart an unconventional path to the Hill. Buoyed by her experiences teaching and performing percussion music, she says both have influenced her role in crafting congressional policy.

Before working on education and diversity issues for Meng, Ninoyu’s life was literally thousands of miles away. She was performing in a traditional community-based percussion group in Japan called Shidara.

Ninoyu, a first-generation Japanese American who hails from Anchorage, Alaska, studied Western percussion and taught music in the Anchorage area. She had long held an interest in taiko, but it wasn’t until 2013 that she made the decision to play taiko professionally in Japan, having won an audition to join Shidara in Aichi Prefecture in central Honshu.

Shidara’s musical routine was highly regimented, meaning “they live and breathe taiko every day of the year.” Taiko refers to the art of Japanese traditional drumming, which has existed for centuries in Japan and has spread throughout the globe.

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“We lived in and trained every day, even on weekends, in an abandoned elementary school building in the mountains of Aichi Prefecture,” Ninoyu said. 

Even though Ninoyu grew as a musician, she felt culture shock living under the strict rules of the Japanese ensemble. As a younger member and the only Japanese American in the group, she was responsible for a multitude of chores for the ensemble and was limited in her creative output.

“I ran 9K every morning, cleaned the dojo, cooked for 20 members and staff, repaired costumes and dedicated countless hours to training,” she said.

 The austere conditions prompted her to reflect more on her identity. “Growing up, I thought I was both Japanese and American, but for the first time I realized there was something called being Japanese American.”

It was this perspective that compelled Ninoyu to advocate for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders upon her return to the U.S. two years later. She spent time working with Japanese American civil groups in Alaska, leapfrogging to her ultimate goal of advocating for Asian American Pacific Islander issues in Congress as an APAICS fellow, a congressional staffing program aimed at elevating diversity in Congress.

“I realized that to some extent, I had taken the liberties that we hold as Americans for granted,” she said. “The liberties that I have and the reason I was feeling that way is that I would not be able to be in this position if it wasn’t for all the advocacy and civil rights movements that generations had overcome.”

Wanting a chance to work on Asian American issues while on the Hill, Ninoyu says her assignment with Meng has been a good fit. Meng specializes on Asian American issues as the vice chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Ninoyu has good company too — several of Meng’s staff are APAICS alumni.

While in Meng’s office, she has also broadened her thinking as an individual educator to consideration of education policy issues. “Having this bird’s-eye view on education has been very exciting,” she said.

The key of Congress

Even among lawmakers, a musical background is rare. Only two members of Congress have music degrees, according to CQ Roll Call member data, Alabama Rep. Martha Roby and Montana Sen. Jon Tester.

Still, Ninoyu argues her training brings valuable insight to working on the Hill. She points to her understanding of managing opposing dualities as important to both creating music and policymaking. Congress, like music, works through successful interplay of opposites: consonance and dissonance, Republican and Democrat.

Legislative work has a musicality of its own, she says. Both music and Congress require understanding of patterns and rhythms, something that resonates with Ninoyu, especially as a percussionist. She believes keeping everyone together with a beat is no different from unifying people through bills and policies.

“We’re really in touch with rhythms and what moves people,” she said. “I think what a musician such as myself brings to policymaking is the creativity and vision to guide these impulses, ideas and expressions.”

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