He was calling from a mental institution in Northern California. Seiichi Tanaka, founder and leader of San Francisco Taiko Dojo Drummers, spends each Monday and Wednesday there, teaching disturbed children the art of taiko drumming.

"They have so much frustration inside," he says, "and when they beat the drums they feel so much better -- it's a release."

Tanaka brought the Japanese tradition to the United States 22 years ago when he attended the Cherry Blossom Festival and saw there was no drumming there.

"I missed the sound of drums," he says. "So at the {next} Cherry Blossom Festival I started to play the drums, and this attracted the people."

Taiko drumming, the pounding on giant animal-hide drums with wooden mallets, dates back centuries in Japan. Tanaka explains that it is very physical, combining martial arts-style dance with explosive body movements. "It comes from the body -- the stomach," he says. "I'm always telling my students it's a heartbeat sound."

Originally, the drumming was a form of communication with nature. "The farmers at harvest time needed water," Tanaka says, "so they would imitate the sound of thunder to bring the rain. The drumming is always connected with the rain.

"Right now, it's too much a high-tech era," he adds. "Not too many people play drums asking for rain."

The San Francisco Taiko Drummers are performing as part of the Japan-America Society of Washington's summer Matsuri (Japanese Festival), featuring traditional Japanese cuisine, music and cultural exhibits, today from noon to 6 p.m. at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School. For information call 289-8290.