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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Rigorous Rhythm: Kaoru Watanabe on Taiko

Kaoru Watanabe, courtesy the artist's website.

Drawing on the images, sounds, and techniques of ancient Japanese ritual, taiko drum ensemble Kodo melds rigor with grace in Mystery, coming to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House March 19—21. Led by artistic director Tamasaburo Bando, Kabuki theater giant and a national treasure of Japan, the troupe showcases its legendary drumming alongside virtuosic dance and instrumental performance. 

To get a better sense of this athletic musical tradition, we sat down with Kaoru Watanabe—founder of the Kaoru Watanabe Taiko Center in Crown Heights. In 1997, after graduating from the Manhattan School of Music, Kaoru moved to Japan and joined Kodo—touring across the globe with the ensemble and even serving as one of its artistic directors from 2005—2007. It was, in the artist's words, "a truly transformative experience."

How did you initially get involved with taiko?
A man named Daihachi Oguchi, who—in post-war Japan, was responsible for taking the taiko drums out of the festival and theater traditions and creating a new form of taiko drum ensemble—came to my hometown of St. Louis for a taiko workshop. I was 11 years old and had basically no knowledge of Japanese culture at the time, but stuck with it up through high school.

What instruments do you play? Where did you receive your training? How does your varied musical background lend itself to the work you do with the more traditional medium of taiko?
My parents were both musicians in the St. Louis Symphony. I grew up playing western flute and went to Manhattan School of Music as a jazz flute and saxophone player. I moved to Japan after graduating college in order to study Japanese music and get to know more about my cultural heritage. The use of the taiko and shinobue (bamboo flutes) outside of the context of traditional festival and theater is a relatively new thing, so people are basically free to do what they want with them musically. My background in classical and jazz music strongly influences how I approach composing for and performing on taiko and shinobue. The work I do now on these instruments draws heavily from theater and festival traditions while integrating improvisation's rich structures and the complexities of jazz and other music, so abundant in New York City.

How did you get involved with Kodo?
In 1997, I was a member of Soh Daiko, a taiko group here in New York and was getting more and more drawn to the idea of going to Japan to study this music at its source. I wanted to know first-hand about festival and theater music that I had only heard on CDs. During that time, I saw Kodo perform at Carnegie Hall and was moved to tears by the combination of the high level of musicality, the superhuman precision, and sheer physical intensity of the performance. There was something quintessentially Japanese about the performance, but I also saw in it an example of the potentiality of humanity—a perfect balance of mind, body, and soul.

Kaoru Watanabe, courtesy the artist's website.

What was it like being the only American performer in Kodo? What were some of the practices or routines you learned as part of the Kodo lifestyle?
As an apprentice, my practice regiment was to wake before dawn, scrub the floor of the apprentice center—an old wooden schoolhouse—run six miles along the shore of the Japan Sea as the sun rose, eat breakfast, stretch, morning practice, lunch, afternoon practice, dinner, followed by free time during which there was basically nothing to do except more practice! This regiment happened six days a week for two years straight. We studied drumming, dancing, singing, tea ceremony, woodworking, growing rice, and more. I struggled a bit because I barely spoke Japanese at the time but everyone struggled! In fact, I had an advantage in that I already knew a lot more about music than the other apprentices. It was a grueling regimen but a lot of fun at the same time—a truly transformative experience. Of the 12 apprentices in my class, only seven finished the program and only three of us were selected to join the group.

What were some of your favorite experiences traveling with Kodo? Is there a particular performance or production that stands out?
On my first overseas tour as a member of Kodo, I was able to perform both in St. Louis—in the same hall where my parents eventually played for 44 years—as well as at Carnegie Hall, on the same stage where the performance that had changed my life took place.

For my final performance with Kodo in 2007, I had already left the group but was asked to come back to direct the 20th anniversary of its music festival, Earth Celebration. We had such guests as Zakir Hussein, Giovanni Hildago, and the great tap dancer Tamango among other illustrious guests. It was somehow tasked to me to put together a show uniting all these musical icons in one concert. I had been directing Earth Celebration for a couple years by then and it was always my goal to not end up with a generic global jam session, but to try to create true cross-cultural collaboration.

Why do you think taiko has international appeal? How has the art grown and changed over the last few years?
Whether one is Japanese or not, to witness the athletic movement required to play a large taiko at its fullest potential of sound can be a visceral and profound experience. There is something about not just hearing the sound, but feeling the vibrations deep within the stomach that transcends culture and intellectual understanding.

Kaoru Watanabe, courtesy the artist's website.
I would say most successful taiko groups focus greatly on theatrical elements in performance—the choreography, lighting, and staging. I feel Kodo is also moving in this direction as well, really pushing the boundaries of creating new forms of expression, while maintaining a very high level of artistry and musicianship.

How did working with the renowned Bando Tamasaburo influence your current practice?
The director, Bando Tamasaburo, was recently named an official Japanese National Living Treasure because of his work as a Kabuki actor. Every decision he makes in his life affects and is affected by his art. His eyes perceive the world in ways that most peoples' can't—almost like how animals can smell or hear things that humans can't. Tamasaburo envisions mythical worlds and creates those visions onstage using his vast knowledge of theater, his boundless creativity and invention.

Part of what I got from him, and being in Kodo, is the idea of trying to live a holistic life celebrating creativity, empathy, study, and practice and being aware of how that influences my art. Also, while in my performance the focus tends to be more on the music than the theatrics, I am always intent on developing the sensitivity of my ears and eyes—to recognize potential in performers and learn how to draw on that potential for the sake of the music.

How did you decide to open Kaoru Watanabe Taiko Center? Is there a big market for taiko classes in NYC? What’s your approach to teaching this ancient art to novices?
The taiko drum is by design an instrument that strengthens community and cross generational communication. In the small towns and big cities of Japan, the father would teach the son the rhythms that were taught to them by their fathers in preparation for the annual festival or matsuri. Since I'm not from that sort of family, when I teach taiko, it's done in a very codified way, dealing with techniques and styles of drumming I learned over the years from various sources. I think this way of teaching reflects the changes that have taken place over the last few decades in how and where taiko is used.

However, the notions of respect and communication are still always at the forefront. The first thing I teach people is how to bow to one another and say the phrase yoroshiku onegaishimasu or "let's please work well together." From there we practice developing our minds and bodies to better listen and express ideas with each other.

Do you have a philosophy about music, particularly taiko, that you would like to share?
In Japanese, the word natsukashisa means the feeling of nostalgia or yearning for past times. Whether about taiko drumming or any other music, the performers who speak to me most share a desire to understand what has come before them in as deep and far-reaching way as possible, while understanding their place within the history of the music. I listen for a sound that feels new and old at the same time and strive to achieve that with each performance.

How should audiences prepare for the show if this is their first time seeing a taiko performance?
Reading this interview is enough! Simply go with an open mind, ears, and eyes!

Kaoru Watanabe is a practitioner of various Japanese transverse bamboo flutes, the taiko drum as well as Western flute. He currently heads up the Kaoru Watanabe Taiko Center, a Japanese drumming studio in Brooklyn, NY.

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