Kaga Recital Videos

If you prefer to watch taiko videos, rather than read my taiko journals, then this entry is for you. I think I have about 10 new videos to introduce to you today. They are all from the Kaga Taiko recital a few weeks ago (December 9). You may want to read that entry first, before watching the videos. Also, if any of our personal friends have been waiting to actually see Mayumi and I play taiko, instead of watching other groups, here is your chance. Of course, as I mentioned in most of my posts about Kaga taiko, it is not an easy style to learn, and it is largely improvisation, which is something kind of new for me.

Anyhow, I will start with videos of our performances, please do not view them too critically. We only started learning this about 7 months ago. Without further ado, here is my Kaga Taiko recital performance, December 9, 2007:

And next, Mayumi's. Personally, I think she did a better performance than I did, of course, she says the opposite.

As I mentioned, after the recital portion, there were many other much more advanced Kaga Taiko/Mitsu uchi drummers there, so they took turns performing. Here are some of them. The first one is a lady who is a student at the Ichikawa Juku Kaga Taiko school:

This next man was the most impressive, in my opinion, and I don't just say that because of his tight pants. My daughter, however, seemed to notice them. When she watched the video, she kept saying, "look at his bottom". Anyway, don't let his toit rump distract from his drumming:

The next performer was also pretty enjoyable to watch. She is actually doing a different style than Kaga Style, but closely related and based on the same base, mitsu uchi rhythm. She was from Fukui, the prefecture next to Ishikawa. From what I understand, this is Fukui style mitsu uchi drumming:

Now we have a sort of cross over performer. He was from Fukui, but performs Kaga style instead of Fukui style. Enjoy:

Here is another pair from Fukui. This time, it is a grandfather, performing with his grandson:

This boy is pretty young. I think they said he was in 2nd grade. He looks just terrified to be on the stage. In the end, though, his nerves do not get the better of him and he delivers quite an impressive performance:

This next performer was special because he had recently received a designation as a meijin. I am not completely sure of the meaning of this term, but he had received a special plaque and certificate from the government recognizing his talent/ability as a performer of Kaga Style drumming. From what I can understand, I think it means that he is probably one of the top players:

And finally, our instructor, Matsuya sensei. He was not the last performer, but soon after this, our camera battery ran out, so we could not record any more anyhow. I really enjoy his style of playing, it seems to be very powerful:

I hope you enjoyed the recital.


A Cool Song

If you have been following my journal, you may remember a month back or so I mentioned that I had started working on writing a song. About two weeks ago, I finished writing it. I mean, I finished it in the sense that it had a beginning, a middle and an end, but by no means is it any where near "final copy" quality. It is a first draft. Besides, I wrote it all from my head, or by beating out the rhythms on a table. I haven't actually tried to play it on drums yet. That always brings up new issues, and produces changes in the music. Anyhow, with my limited experience writing taiko music, and limited access to drums to actually try out the song, I decided to ask for some outside opinions. I first thought of Yamada san, of Hono Taiko, who leads the two groups I am a member of, but I thought, instead of going straight for a professional's opinion, maybe I should show it to someone else first. If they had some suggestions for improvements, I could fix it up a little bit before asking Yamada san for help. I was thrilled to learn recently that one of my students is actually a member of Koshu Taiko, the group the played at our school festival. (I also posted videos of their performance.)
So I decided I would ask this girl to take a quick look at the song. I told her, "Teacher needs to see her after school", so she stopped by and I showed her the song. She looked through it and said that she thought it was great. She even said we should play it for a senior graduation assembly coming up in February (Japanese graduate in March). Unfortunately we don't have a place to practice, nor the right drums to practice on at the moment.

My song passed the first test, so I thought I would make a copy of it and give it to Yamada san at the next opportunity, asking her to just look it over when she had time and to give me her overall opinion, maybe tell me some good parts and bad parts. Since giving her a copy, I actually haven't had a chance to go to taiko practice. This week was cancelled, last week I was throwing up and in bed. With the holidays, there wasn't going to be a practice again until January 14! Ahhh! Luckily, Yume-mitai added a practice on the morning of Dec. 24, and the hozonkai added a practice last night. I wasn't able to go last night, but my wife could go. We actually wrote the song together, so when she met Yamada san at last night's practice, she spoke with her about the song. Yamada san didn't say a whole lot about the song, but what she said was a big encouragement to me. Apparently, she thinks it's a really cool song, and she said she will help me make it even cooler! What a boost for my confidence. Well, I mean, "I'll help you make it even cooler" could translate to "I'll help you fix the bad parts", but even if that is the case, if it wasn't any good at all, I doubt she would have offered the assistance. So, I will probably see her at Monday's Yume-mitai practice and perhaps I will be able to set up a meeting time with her to work on it a little bit. I am very excited!


Taiko Jazz - Kaga Taiko Recital

For my birthday this year, my brother, Andrew, took me to the Green Mill Jazz club in Chicago for a jam session. As I am used a father's and a high school teacher's schedule (waking up around 5 AM) the 1 AM start time was a bit rough, but I managed to make it there, and once the music started, I got a second wind and was able to stay awake through the whole session. It was an enjoyable, relaxed evening (morning). After a few songs, the regulars called several musicians up from the audience (including my brother) to sit in for a few tunes. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. The audience was enjoying their drinks, or talking with friends, or listening to the music. I think I would describe the feeling at our Kaga Taiko recital in exactly the same way. Not only because it was held at a restaurant, but the way the music was peformed also reminded me of a jazz club atmosphere.

As our teacher reminded the audience before we began, mitsu uchi style drumming (on which Kaga taiko is based) is several hundred years old and many of the traditional drumming in the Hokkuriku area (Fukui, Ishikawa, Toyama) has developed out of this style. Having been around for so long, many different styles have emerged and each person even seems to have their own signature style when they play. This actually adds a certain degree of difficulty to learning the style. We talked to one of our class members who has been studying for three years, and attends the Kaga taiko school in Komatsu. He said sometimes you are instructed in a certain way by one of the senior members, and then later, a more senior member comes along and gives you instruction that contradicts what you were just told, and later, yet again, another, even more senior member will come along and give you more instruction that contradicts both. So it is very difficult to know what is "correct". But my guess is that none of the instruction he received is wrong, but more because of the individual drummers different personal styles. Eventually, after enough contradictory instruction, you can develop your own personal style.

More recently, perhaps in the last 50 years or so, the mitsu uchi style became popular and was performed not only at festivals and community events, but in restaurants also. In fact, I heard that there was a player who even opened a taiko restaurant. Sort of like a dinner theater, but dinner taiko. As I mentioned, yesterday's recital was at a small cafe style restaurant. The setting was even dramatic. It was right on the Sea of Japan, on a day when the weather was changing every 15 minutes or so. It was quite windy, so the waves were crashing into the rocks, throwing spray up into the air. The clouds were moving quickly across the sky, sometimes letting rays of sun through, and other times blocking it out completely. At times there was rain, and other times hail, and at one point, to my daughters delight, there was a bright and clear rainbow out over the ocean.

The atmosphere was very relaxed. I think most of the people in attendance were also drummers of the mitsu uchi style. There was friendly banter between the MCs and the audience, and unexpected "challenges", like dropping a stick in the middle of a performance, or a performer being in the bathroom or something at the time he was supposed to perform, were easily laughed off and remedied.

Our recital was the first part of the afternoon. Our instructor, Matsuya sensei, began by giving a little background about the class. (He actually seemed to be a little more nervous than some of us) This is the third year the Ishikawa Taiko Association has offered this course. They hold it each year from August to December. There were nine of us in the class. Two had take the class all three years, four were in their second time, and for three of us, it was the first time. He shared that several years ago, at an event featuring Kaga Taiko, he noticed the average age of the performers was rather old. Worried that this style of drumming in danger of slowly dying out, they started the class, in hopes of sparking some new interest. It's certainly worth saving, and we hope to be able to study it enough to bring it back with us and incorporate it into our own program.

We each received a short intro from Matsuya sensei, and then performed our own Kaga taiko improvisations one at a time. It is actually two people, but the other person is really only an accompanist. So it is like you are playing a solo. I suppose it could have been quite intimidating (which maybe it was for some) to play an improvised solo, in difficult style of drumming, in front of a lot of people who are all fairly advanced players, after only studying for about 4 months. For me, though, it wasn't so bad. I had just that slight bit of nervousness that actually makes you play better, but not so much that you cannot concentrate. I think the relaxed atmosphere played a large role in it. You could tell that the audience was not watching with critical eyes, even though there were many very high level players there. They all seemed to be happy to see new people with a growing interest in Kaga taiko, and they wanted us to do well. Besides that, my daughter sat right down in front and smiled at us the whole time we played.

We all made it through our "solos" without any major mistakes, and then we could sit down and enjoy the rest of the afternoon, featuring players from Kaga and Fukui (the next prefecture just south west of Ishikawa. As I said, it was a fun and relaxed program. It didn't seem to have a set order. Most of the performers did not have any type of costume. There was an MC and he would announce, or ask someone to play next. Sometimes they came right up, other times they resisted at first, but were eventually persuaded to play, and other times they were in the bathroom. We really got a good feel for some of the different styles of drumming within Kaga taiko, and between Fukui and Ishikawa.

We did take video of our own performances, as well as about 5 or 6 of the other, more professional players before our battery ran out. I wanted to post them along with this entry, but my fear is that it will take me some time to do the editing and get them uploaded, so before I forget the details of the recital, I wanted to get them written down. As soon as I have a chance, I will put them up, with short explanations when I can. In the meantime, here is a picture of me, our instructor, Matsuya sensei, and another class member, Jingu san. If you're wondering what is sticking out of the back of his neck, well, he nearly died in a bizarre gardening accident last year... just kidding. It is his flute. You'll notice when the videos are posted, that nearly all the performances are accompanied by flute. I guess that's just where he wanted to carry it.


The Asano Taiko Family and enjoy

Now that my schedule has settled down a little bit, I will try to make more frequent entries. In the last two weeks, or so, I've actually had quite a bit to say, but haven't had the time to write it down.

About two weeks ago, we attended Hono Taiko's concert in Kanazawa. I don't think that I have ever seen them "in concert". I've seen them many times at various events, but they were always there as part of some bigger event. So this was the first time that I saw just them. It quite enjoyable and made me think about many things. One aspect of the concert in particular which I paid close attention to was how they constructed their pieces. They are only three people, so it limits them somewhat as to how many parts their songs can have. At this point, my wife and I are only two people, so we also, are limited in what we can do, when we try to create songs. One thing I noticed was that most songs involved a kumi-taiko set up. This means that one person is surrounded by maybe three to five drums. It is basically a taiko drum set, I guess. This allows the song to have a little more variety in the parts.

My wife was commenting on how Hono Taiko is rather like Kanazawa's "Home Team" taiko group. Everyone in this area knows them, and likes them. It provides them a nice atmosphere to "work" in, and they have a lot of support and help. In fact, I am guessing that most of the people who attended the concert actually were acquainted with at least one of the three members. The interactions with the audience were very friendly and even included some personal greetings from the members. It was a very relaxed atmosphere. It seems Asano Taiko (which sponsors Hono Taiko, and the other two groups in which I am playing) is rather like a big family. At the concert, I saw almost every member of the two groups I am in either working at the concert, or attending the concert.

Sorry if this is a bit rambling. I had a lot to say right after seeing the concert, but it seems that I have forgotten what it was.

There are a couple other news items to add, but I'll save them for another time. For now, I'll just mention that our recital for the Kaga Taiko class is on Sunday and we had our final practice last night. There are nine students and at last night's practice we got to each perform our own improvisations twice. The first time was sort of practice, and Matsuya sensei (our instructor) gave advice and suggestions. The second time was rather like a dress rehearsal, and we ran through everything without stopping in program order. One of the comments that almost everyone had during our first run through, was to smile more. If you have been reading along with me, you may remember that I said Kaga style taiko is supposed to be relaxed and fun. Most of the nine of us don't have much experience with this style, so we probably all look like we're concentrating very hard on remember the correct rhythms and not making mistakes. Matsuya sensei said that many of us even looked scary. So for my second run through, I decided to not worry about anything and enjoy myself, have a good time. (This is what I have been telling my students at every speech and drama contest we have had, and so far the results have been good.) I think it worked for me. I smiled, and enjoyed playing the taiko. I am certain I made more mistakes than usual, but when I finished, I noticed the applause of my classmates was noticeably louder than it had been previously. I was even praised by the teacher. Perhaps I did make more mistakes than usual, but I think I played better than usual. Of course, playing well and accurately is important, and if you play too poorly, your audience will probably not enjoy themselves, but also, if you are too serious, your audience will also probably not enjoy themselves. If the performer is obviously worried about making mistakes, the audience will not be able to relax either. They will be on the edge of their seats wondering if the performer will make it through without screwing up. Even if he makes it through without mistakes, the audience is probably relieved when he finishes, instead of wishing they could hear more. Anyhow, lets enjoy playing taiko together! (heh heh heh).

As I said, the recital is on Sunday. Hopefully I'll have video to post of my performance, and Mayumi's (who is better than me, in my opinion).


Performance Art?

I'd like to dedicate this entry to my good friend HallaMeat. I know he would have thoroughly enjoyed the experiences I am describing today. That being said, let me apologize as well because today's entry is not necessarily directly taiko related. It is, however, Japanese culture related, so perhaps I can get away with it.

First a bit of background information. Two weeks ago I returned from a work related trip to Tokyo. I had hoped to fit in some taiko related visits, like visiting the factory from whom we have bought all of our taiko so far, but the schedule was too full, so I wasn't able to. I went to Tokyo with two of my junior high school students for the semi-finals and finals of a national speech/oratorical contest, which is sponsored by a member of the Japanese Imperial family, Princess Takamado (whose English, by the way, is so good, that a British acquaintance I made at the reception said she sounded like Princess Diana). The contest is quite a big deal, of course because it is sponsored by the Imperial family, but also because the top three contestants all get a paid trip to England and scholarships, the largest being about $10,000. Hmmm, I guess you could buy a nice taiko with that money, or maybe a couple credits at an American university with that much. The Princess was in and out of the contest over the four days, listened to a few speeches, then left, came back for the decisions of the judges, and so on. Of course, whenever she entered or left, everyone in the room had to stand (usually, there were actually a couple times when they told us to remain seated). The closest I got to the Princess was at the reception following the final contest, which was held at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. (A pretty swanky place). She passed my table about 5 feet away from me. I could really "feel" the royalty.

Here is where things started to get a bit weird. I had an opportunity in high school to see former president Bush, Sr. on a campaign stop. The high school band played for him, and protocol dictates, that when it was time for the president's speech, we played "Hail to the Chief". I imagine that when the Queen of England enters an event, "God Save the Queen" or some other song is played. But from my experiences at the reception, I don't think there is any protocol dictating what music is to be played for the Imperial Family. I rather expected the Japanese national anthem (Kimigayo) to be played, but it's a slightly controversial song because of its association with WWII imperialism (but it is a beautiful song).

Before she entered the reception hall, there was a drum roll, followed by the trumpet voluntary. I can't remember who wrote it, but we had it played as our wedding processional, so I guess it's a song I associate with weddings more than royalty. This was followed by a quartet playing Bach's Theme from Judas Maccabeus. (Which I played on the violin when I was about 8 or 9, as Andrew will remember) Isn't this also a song often used as a wedding processional? Whatever the case, I felt more like I was at a wedding than in the presence of royalty. The strangest music choice (in my opinion), however, was when the Princess left the reception. After another drum roll, the quartet played "Auld Lang Syne". I know at least every American probably associates this song with New Year's Eve. I wondered, is it a song we sing as a farewell to the old year, or as a welcome to the new year? Or perhaps both? I guess in Japan, it is often associated with endings. For example, it is often played in stores just before closing time to let people know they should make their ways to the exit. Once again, whatever people associate it with, royalty was not the first thing that came to mind.

In any case, I got to see an Imperial Princess, and that's something in and of itself, isn't it. The strangest part of the night, though, happened after the reception. This is when I really wished that HallaMeat could have been there. We truly would have enjoyed these events together.

As I left the Imperial Hotel, I crossed I noticed a large group of people lined up on the other side. My curiosity got the better of me, so I went over to have a closer look. What I saw was maybe 100 people or more, lined up orderly, in rows, facing the street. They were not talking with one another, but simply silently looking straight ahead to the other side of the street. Also, every person (all women, by the way) in the group, had the same light blue scarf on, with someone's name printed on it, and they were all fashioned around their necks in exactly the same way. Here is a poor image of what I saw:

On the other side of the street, there was a somewhat less orderly crowd also of perhaps around 100 people, not lined up, and talking with each other, pointing at the others across the street, saying "What are they doing?" I belonged to this crowd. I noticed an acquaintance I had made earlier in the day and went over to him and asked him if he new what this was all about. He replied that he didn't know. One of his colleagues had even ventured across the street to ask some of them what they were doing, but he was answered with stone cold silence. I suggested that perhaps it was some sort of performance art, or maybe a psychological experiment, and we were all being observed for our reactions. Whether it was meant to be or not, in my opinion, it was performance art.

After several minutes, something happened. Suddenly, the front two or three rows, kneeled down. Immediately following this, a tall, slender, short-haired woman walked past them on the sidewalk. Once she had passed, they all stood up again. This happened about three or four times over the next several minutes. Finally, there was a slight change in the routine. As the front rows kneeled down maybe the fifth time, there were slight murmurs. In the very front row, several gold colored bags were taken out by about 4 or 5 people in front. Then another tall, slender, short-haired woman appeared, this time accompanied by a shorter woman. Several cameras flashed, and as she walked along the sidewalk, she stopped at the people holding the golden bags, and they were given to her. At the end of the line, there was a car waiting for her, which she got into and was driven away. This seemed to be the climax of the event, so it was after this that I went on my way, still having very little idea of what was actually going on.

BUT, I did have a slight idea. I noticed that this group of people were lined up right in front of the Tokyo Takarazuka theater. Most probably wonder what Takarazuka is. I first heard of it from a Japanese woman in my German class in Freiburg, back in 1996. She was a very devoted fan and insisted, that any Japanese woman would be thrilled to be taken to a show. It is a musical theater, where all parts are played by women. They all seem to be tall and slender women, and seem almost as if they are straight out the pages of a Japanese comic book. I find them a little bit creepy. Here is a link to some of their pictures. Feel free to form your own opinions, and if you can read Japanese, look around a little more. So based on what I know about Takarazuka, I could deduce that the tall, slender women were Takarazuka actress and the women lining the sidewalk were their fans, very devoted fans, I would guess. Perhaps they were even rabid fans. They seemed to have a pretty serious dedication to line up like that in silence and wait for the actresses to leave the venue, one by one, kneeling down as they passed. In a way, it almost seemed as if they got more reverence and protocol than the princess had just 30 minutes earlier. There self control was also rather impressive. There were no fences, or ropes, or security personnel for crowd control. As the actresses walked by, no one attempted to grab them, talk to them, or even try to get their attention.

When I made the Takarazuka connection I was slightly disappointed, because I was seriously hoping it was some sort of performance art. In my mind, I think it still was. I wish you could've been there, HM.


Bloody Bachi!

Look at my bachi!

Yes, it's my blood. I wish I could honestly say it is there because I practiced until my palms bled. Well, I guess that's what I did, but it wasn't necessarily a particularly intense practice. Several weeks ago, I think I posted a picture of the blisters on my hands, that had been growing as I practiced more and more. Those blisters had built up to be fairly tough and calloused. Unfortunately, because of a combination of my busy schedule and a couple canceled practices, the past two weeks, I was unable to really play the taiko much at all. As a result, those callouses which had built up, quickly returned to their previous tender state. When I finally was able to practice again on Monday night, about half way through the practice, I had developed new blisters and it didn't take much longer for the skin to break and for it to start bleeding.

I think that after awhile, even a two week interval without practice, will not produce such a result. I used to get blisters on my feet all the time from practicing kendo, but for the last couple years, I haven't had any, even when I return to practice after fairly long intervals. I suppose some might say that in the past, when my feet were getting blisters, I just had bad foot technique, and the reason I no longer get blisters is because I have corrected whatever was wrong with my feet. That could be true. Some say the same about taiko drumming. I've heard it said that if your drumming technique is proper, you won't get blisters. Every serious taiko drummer I know (and that's quite a bit more than a few, by the way) has fairly calloused hands, meaning that they also get blisters from playing.

I'm sorry if I have sickened any of my readers who have weak stomachs with all this talk about blisters and blood. Next time, I will write about something easier to stomach. Until then...


Toranosuke - Don Don Matsuri Festival

Greetings. I just returned from four days in Tokyo. It was not necessarily taiko related, but I did have some experiences that I feel that I'll just have to share with my dear readers. One in particular was the scene outside of the Takarazuka theater. But this is not the time I will share it. Right now, I am just taking care of posting some videos which have been waiting for nearly a month to be seen. As I mentioned in the last post, I've been rather busy, though, and this is the first chance I've had to introduce them.

There are three videos here, all from the same performance. This performance was in Komatsu, Ishikawa, Japan. At the Don Don Matsuri (festival) at the end of last month (October). The group is called Toranosuke. They are a group mostly composed of children, but as you'll see, there are also adults in the group. They are from the Noto peninsula of Ishikawa prefecture. I also just learned this week, that just last weekend they participated in a taiko competition near here and may have won the top prize. At least they won something, I am sure. Please enjoy the videos. I think much of their style is very typical of the taiko in this area of Japan.


Just an Update

It seems like it's been quite a while since I was last able to update this. Maybe it hasn't been all that long, however. Anyhow, I apologize to any of my regular readers (if there are any out there) if you have been anxiously awaiting an update. Let me apologize a second time, because I will soon begin listing excuses of why I haven't written and why it will be difficult for me to write for a couple months. My goal is to make at least a weekly entry, which I have actually exceeded in the first few months. Now, however, we have entered one of the busy seasons in Japan and everyone seems to have a lot going on. For the last two weeks, I have been at work from around 7 am to 7 or 8 pm every day. I also joined a new taiko group (Yume Mitai) starting last night, so that adds another thing to my schedule. I will have a "business" trip to Tokyo next week for 4 days, and then when I return, it will be time for final exams at the school. Furthermore, our school puts on a huge Christmas pageant every year, which we have now begun the preparations for, and that also means some late nights at work. To sum it all up, I will probably be rather busy until January, and then things will settle down probably until April or May.

As I mentioned, I have joined a new group, Yume Mitai. I went to the first practice last night. In this group, instead of the O-daiko (large drum) I will play Nagado Taiko, which is probably what most people think of when they think of taiko. It is a barrel shaped taiko. It sits on the floor and probably comes up to around my thighs or knee height. I haven't had much experience playing this type of drum, actually. We do play it in Kaga taiko, but the stance, style and feeling are much different. I, therefore have a lot to learn about playing it. I think I will catch on quickly, but I noticed many problems last night. The music is not difficult, though, and by the end of the 90 minute practice, I think I had about half of the song memorized.

As far as Raion Taiko (that's me and my wife) are concerned, we haven't had many opportunities to practice on our own lately. We can only practice on Sunday afternoons, but for the past month or so, we have had events going on, or one of us was sick, or the children were sick and we couldn't practice. We have been working, though. We are working on writing our first original song. Up till now, we have only attempted to learn traditional taiko pieces, or songs that we could find on the internet, or from taiko books. My wife kept telling me that we have to write our own music and wanted me to try to write something. I tried once a while back, but I couldn't think of more than a few measures of music, and when I put it together, it was rather disappointing. I decided to just wait and as I learned and practiced more and more, I figured writing songs would start to come more easily. Last week inspiration arrived, and we have a strong start to our own original song. It's actually kind of exciting to see it all come together as I think of knew parts. Our goal is to have it done within a couple weeks, and then I will try to ask Yamada-san of Hono Taiko to look at it and give us suggestions.

That's all I have time for today. Hopefully it will not be too long before I can make an update again.


Happy Halloween - Gojinjo Taiko

Happy Halloween. We took a little road trip last weekend. We had been hoping to travel to the Osaka/Kyoto area, but it did not work out, so we stayed closer to home and traveled up into Ishikawa's Noto Peninsula to Wajima. This is the town where the group, Koshu Taiko, which played at our school festival is from. It is a small town right on the Sea of Japan. It is known for it's morning outdoor market, which is nearly all fish related products.

Although unintended, the trip turned out to have a bit of a Halloween theme. Noto is mainly countryside and the people who live there are probably either fisherman or farmers. We drove up on Friday evening, after it was dark, so we could not see much of the scenery, but on the way home it was light. One of the most frightening things I saw was in a rice field. A farmer had set up two scare crows in his field, but instead of making a traditional looking scarecrow, he had used two fashion mannequins! It was rather surprising, a little scary, and I was glad I wasn't walking past them at night.

The other Halloween themed event we attended was planned. The Wajima area is well known for a certain style of taiko playing called Gojinjo Taiko. There is a performance of this style nearly every evening in Wajima in a small theater on the second floor of what used to be the Wajima train station. This style of taiko drumming uses only one drum, and there are about 5 players. For most of the performance, there are only one or two people playing at one time, at the most, three. One of the most unique points about this song is that the performers all wear masks of demons, or what are meant to be ghosts of the deceased. Most of the masks also include long, straggly hair, which was originally made out of dried seaweed. While one performer plays a base rhythm of straight eighth notes, the others take turns striking menacing poses and playing sporadic rhythms on the taiko. For the majority of the piece, there are only two players on the stage at a time, but for the climax at the end, all the players come out on the stage, each playing a measure or so before moving out of the way for the next player.

This is a well known style of taiko in this area and this was probably the third time I have seen it performed this year. Of course, there is some history and a story that is behind this piece. The original performance of this piece was actually more of a military defense tactic, than an entertainment event. Back in 1576, the village of Nafune, on the Noto Peninsula was under the threat of attack from a warlord named Kenshin Uesugi. The townspeople, realizing they were at a large disadvantage, decided to attempt to frighten away the army. Some of the villagers were able to sneak behind the enemy lines in the middle of the night. They brought with them a taiko drum, and frightening masks made of bark and seaweed for hair. They began playing the drum in the manner described above. The opposing army, being awoken from their sleep by the sound of a war drum, and subsequently seeing the “unearthly beings” who were playing the drum, were thrown into confusion and fear and fled, and the village was saved.

I intended to take a video of this performance and post it. I even brought my video camera with me. When I went to set it up, however, I realized that I had forgotten the battery, as well as the wall outlet adapter. I did attempt to take a short video on my cell phone, but the quality is so poor, it would be worthless to try and watch it. I was able to find someone else’s recording of another performance on youtube, though. In my opinion, this performance is not as well performed as what we saw, but perhaps it is just the recording and/or editing. At any rate, you can get a better idea of what the piece looks and sounds like. There are two parts.

Finally, following the performance, there was an opportunity to take pictures with the performers. My wife took our two children up, while I prepared the camera. Both of our children (4 years and 1 year) watched the whole performance, with the scary masks and all, without any indication of being scared, so we figured they would be fine for a picture. As my wife went up on stage to stand next to one of the “demons”, he reached out, to hold our son for the picture. I guess this was a bit too much for our son because he began to cry. My wife offered to take him back, but the “demon” just asked, “Where’s the camera?” I suppose he is used to that kind of thing. Also, the Japanese tend to think it’s cute when little kids get scared. We snapped the picture quickly. You can see how unhappy he is below. But he cheered up very quickly, as soon as he was back in his mama’s arms.



When I was in high school, I had a friend. He played the bass guitar and the cello. In the high school orchestra, he was principal cellist. He was two years older than I, and when I was a freshman, he was already a junior. Soon I heard that he had also been a rather talented football player on the varsity squad, but after his freshman year, or so, he went to the coach and said he wasn't going to continue because he was worried that he would hurt his fingers and wouldn't be able to play the cello any more.

This past summer, my whole family was together. My younger brother and I were shooting some baskets and we asked our older brother if he wanted to join us. He is also a working musician, who relies on music to put food on his table. He declined our invitation, saying that he doesn't do any types of sports where he could injure something like fingers, making it difficult or impossible to play music.

I think in both cases, I felt like these guys were maybe taking things a little too seriously, but the last couple weeks, I think I may have changed my thinking to be more in line with theirs. This summer, my family attended a pool party. I was looking forward to trying out the diving board. In junior high and high school, I was pretty fearless on the diving board, trying out just about any crazy dive I could think of. I wanted to try those out again, but it had been probably 15 years since I had tried any of them, so I was a bit nervous about injuring something. At the end of the party, I had tried most of the dives I could remember from my teen years, and hadn't hurt myself (nor anyone else). I thought, "I've still got it, I'm still young." The last month has given me reason to feel that I may still have it, but I'm not so young as I used to be.

At the start of October, the school where I work held their field day. Teachers were expected to participate and I was signed up for three or so events, including the 100 meter dash. I would not say that I am out of shape. After all, I am running several times a week and practicing taiko several times a week as well. But I have probably not participated in track and field events since elementary school. I never realized how many of your muscles you use in a all out sprint like in the 100 Meters. I gave it my all and ran as hard as I could. I could hardly move the next day because of sore muscles.

About two weeks ago, the school held another athletic event, this time just for teachers. I played softball. The following day's sore muscles again reminded me of my age. Baseball may look like a slow game, but reacting quickly from a stationary stance to a hit ball uses a lot of muscles that I was unaware of. Again, I was giving 110%, but I'll have to remember next time to take it easy, especially if it's a sport I haven't played in many years.

Of course, the sore muscles were not what changed my thinking to be more in line with my brother's. It was at the softball game, though. At one point, when I was trying a little too hard, I actually attempted to slide into first base. After thinking this through, this action probably showed my ignorance of baseball/softball because I don't think you should ever slide into first base. Anyhow, through that action, I believe I hyper-extended my left elbow. For a day or so, it was quite painful and I couldn't do much with it, but soon I was able to do most of the activities I could before. There was a pain in my forearm, however, which was not going away, and it would even wake me up at night sometimes. After about a week of undiminished pain, I began to worry that I might have fractured a bone or something. Although I was fairly certain this was not the case, some of the feelings were similar to those I had when I broke my thumb practicing kendo about a year and a half ago. This led to 6 or 7 weeks where I could not practice kendo. I began to think of the implications of a broken forearm. That would mean 6 weeks, at least, of no taiko practice. It was my left forearm, which is already weak as I am right handed, and after 6 weeks in a cast, it would be even weaker. When I have to miss one taiko practice because of a cold, or whatever, I am actually quite down. Thinking about missing 6 weeks was rather depressing. Then I began to think of my brother, and when he turned down our invitation to play basketball, and I started to understand why he turned us down.

Last week I finally went to see the doctor. He took x-rays and said there were not fractures, it was just taking a while to heal. Thank goodness. It was a bit of scare, but I am glad it was nothing serious. I do not think I will be cutting out all sports from my life now, but I believe I will certainly be more careful.



It's getting pretty cold here finally. I'm starting to wear sweaters around the house, and for more than a week now, I've been wearing a coat when I go outdoors. The leaves, however, are only just starting to turn colors. If I recall, the peak season for fall color in this area of Japan is closer to the beginning of November. I would imagine that in Michigan, and the mid-west (where many of my readers probably are) it is about the peak season for fall colors. Actually, if you compare latitude, I believe Michigan is around the same spot as Hokkaido, so it makes sense that the colors would turn a little later down here in Kanazawa, which is probably more like Kentucky, as far as latitude is concerned. (And I hope I have not mixed up latitude with longitude, if I have, what I am refering to are the lines circling the globe from East to West)

Before this turns into a weather blog, I suppose I'll get back to the topic of taiko. Things are moving right along, as far as our training goes. We are practicing with different groups/classes about three times a week, and our daughter is attending twice a week. She is 4 years old, and we are wondering if twice a week isn't too much for her, or if she should maybe be a bit older. She is very reluctant to join in the practice for the first half. After a great deal of arguing and so on, she finally joins in, and although before the practice she is insisting that she does not like playing taiko, after the practice, she says how much fun she had playing. Anyhow, when this class finishes (in March) we are thinking about giving her a break, or finding a group where the parents and children practice together. She seems to do better in that type of setting. Furthermore, she is not the only child reluctant to join in at the start of practice. There are a few other classmates (close to her age) that also make a fuss about practicing, which is what makes me wonder if she would do better in a year or so. The other option I just mentioned is a parent-child group so that we could practice with her. This seems to be the way that the Kojira group, taught by Jige san of Hono Taiko, which I mentioned in the last post, is set up.

Over the past two weeks, my wife and I recieved several very encouraging comments from some of our instructors/mentors. In the Kaga taiko class this week we were each asked to improvise a solo. We each had two chances to play. In the end, we learned that the instructor was trying to gauge each of our ability in order to decide what each of us would be expected to do at the recital coming up on December 9. So it was sort of like a test. Most of the class, actually, has been practicing about a year longer than we have, so they did quite well. I think there were only three of us who just began learning in August. Since we started, we have learned probably about 20 different rhythms for this style of drumming. The improvisation, of course, is simply stringing these rhythms together in different combinations. Actually, I shouldn't say simply, because there is some style and guidelines about how they should be connected, so it is not necessarily simple. Anyhow, when it was my turn (both times) all I could remember was about 3 rhythms, so my improvisation was very short and very repetitive. Needless to say, I didn't feel all that great about my "performance". My wife, however, was by far the best of the beginners. Of course, I may be a bit biased, but the instructor validated my feeling by his statement after she finished her turn. He looked ever so slightly impressed and said, "Well, you've certainly been studying (practicing) haven't you." Of course, she played down the comments, when I mentioned it to her, but in my opinion, he wouldn't say something like that unless she had exceeded his expectations.

Although I didn't perform so well this week, I did receive a compliment from the same instructor last week. We were practicing a set phrase of about 8 measures or so over and over. The instructor was moving around the class, giving advice to each individual about areas to improve and so on. When he came to me, he stood and watched for minute, kind of smiled, and sincerely said, "you're doing really well!" Not to say that I'm suddenly an expert Kaga taiko player, (as was shown at this weeks practice), but I guess, last week, I was just "feeling the spirit".

The other compliment came after our hozonkai practice on Tuesday. I mentioned in the last post about the group named Yume Mitai, which advertised that they were looking for new members, and that we are interested in joining. Three of the members of the Hozonkai are also members of Yume Mitai, so I mentioned my interest to them after our Tuesday practice. One of them said, "Actually, Kinoshita san suggested to us that you could join Yume Mitai". Just to remind you, Kinoshita san is one of the members of Hono Taiko. Needless to say, I was filled with pride to hear that she had actually suggested that I join the group, without any suggestion from anyone else. Again, I don't take this to mean that I am suddenly a virtuousic taiko performer, but the fact that in professonal, internationally known taiko player saw enough potential in my playing (after only seeing me play twice) that she would suggest that was a great encouragement to me. After all, if I wasn't any good, she wouldn't have said it, and I probably wouldn't have been able to play with the Hozonkai in the first place.

Just in case we are getting too much encouragement, we are attempting to arrange a visit to some other well-established professional taiko friends in Nara next week. These friends will almost certainly give us a healthy dose of reality. Which is always good to balance things out, and keep focus and perspective.


Another Concert

Yesterday we had another performance with our hozonkai (Matto Bayashi). This time it was more like a recital sponsored by Asano Taiko. The concert was in a nearby hall in a town called Mikawa. The program included the regular groups that practice at Asano: Hono Taiko, Hikari, Sasuke, Matto Yume Mitai, and our Matto Bayashi Hozonkai. In addition, there were performances from some of the beginning level classes at Asano and a children's group led by Jige san of Hono Taiko.

The Children's group is called Kojira, which is a play on words in Japanese. "Ko" means child in Japanese, and Gojira, is the Japanese pronunciaton of Godzilla. I guess it's almost like saying "Kidzilla", I think it's a creative name for a kid's taiko group. The other neat thing about this group is that the parent's played with the children. The kids were up in front, and their parents played taiko at the back of the stage. I think the youngest member was about 3 years old, and the oldest probably was not much older than 6 or 7.

Trying to motivate my own daughter to participate in her taiko lessons is sometimes a chore. After all, her class is early Sunday morning, and she would usually rather sleep a little longer. I think she would probably be more willing to participate if one of us could practice with her. I was encouraged, though, to hear other parents talking about the difficulty motivating their own children to come to taiko practice, so it is not only my daughter. In any case, once she gets going, and finishes practice, she always says she enjoyed it. In contrast, my son, who is 1 year 3 months, can hardly wait to play taiko. If we leave a pair of sticks lying around the house, he will go straight for them and pick them up with a big smile on his face. He loves going to the concerts, too. He would probably get right up on stage and try to play, if we didn't hold him back.

Yesterday was finally a concert with Hono Taiko, where we were allowed to take video. Wouldn't you know it, our battery ran out before they performed. We were able, though to get some groups, including our hozonkai, so if you have been wanting to see me actually play the drums, instead of watching other groups, you will finally have your chance. I even was interviewed by Kinoshita san of Hono Taiko, following our performance. I thought that we would be playing the song along with the members of Hono Taiko like we did last week, but this time, only Yamada san played with us. If you watch the video, she will be the lady with short hair playing the flute.

Unfortunately, I still was only able to play the very end of the song. There are two Odaiko parts/solos, of which the second is the only one I have memorized so far. I am still working on the first Odaiko solo. I have memorized more than half of it at this point, and I hope to have the whole thing memorized by the next practice. Our next performance isn't until March, so I should definitely have it committed to memory by then.

Here is the video of our performance. By the way, this is only half of the whole song. The whole song is more than 20 minutes long. From what we've been told, because it's so long, it's rarely performed in its complete form.

The interview at the end is probably hard to hear, and if you don't understand Japanese, even more difficult to follow. So here is a brief, rough translation:

Kinoshita san: For one of the members of this group, it is only the second time to perform on stage, and I'd like to ask him a few questions. Brian, could you come over here for a moment?
How long have you been practicing with this group?
Me: I joined around the middle of August.
Kinoshita san: So in only 2 months, you are already able to play at this level. Isn't that great, evryone? And where were you from?
Me: I am from the United States.
Kinoshita san: Isn't playing the taiko difficult?
Me: Yes, it's difficult, but it's a lot of fun.
Kinoshita san: Well, thank you for your efforts, and please continue to work hard and play taiko with the Matto Bayashi Hozonkai. Thank you very much.
Me: Thank you very much.

Also, by March, I hope that we will have joined another group. One the other groups that played yesterday (Matto Yume Mitai) announced after their performance, that they were looking for new members. If we can arrange our schedule, I hope that we can join them as well in a month or two. Then, at the March event, we can perform with two groups. My daughter's class will also have her recital at that time, so it will be a whole family taiko event.

Anyhow, I was able to record part of Yume Mitai's performance as well, so you can see an example of what they sound like. The recording starts in the middle of the opening Odaiko solo, so I missed the first minute or so, but the rest of the song is good also.

The first group that performed yesterday was called Sasuke. I do not know the meaning, or origin of their name, but they play quite nicely. They also performed last week and at Extasia in July as well. I mentioned already that their group is made up of junior high and high school students. Here is a video of the piece they performed yesterday.

So that's about it from Sunday's concert. I started writing this on Monday, but the video editing took sometime and I am only posting it now. So when I say "yesterday", I mean Sunday, 7.October.


More on Kaga Style Taiko

I am becoming infected with taiko. It seems that I go to bed with taiko going through my head, and when I wake up in the morning, it is still going through my head. I suppose this is a good thing, seeing as we are hoping to eventually get our bread and butter from playing the taiko.
Perhaps we are just filling our schedule so full of taiko, that it is saturating my mind. The performance last week took a lot of preparation and time, and it turns out that I will get to perform again this Sunday. It's kind of unbelievable for me. Within 7 days, I am able to perform twice with Hono Taiko. This performance also will take up a lot of time. There is a rehersal on Saturday night, and then the performance on Sunday will take up part of the morning, and most of the afternoon, by the time we load the drums and unload the drums. Video may not be allowed at this performance either, but if it is, I shall definitely try to get it recorded and post it.

In the meantime, perhaps you can enjoy learning a little more about Kaga style taiko, which we are also learning. The more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. Often, the result of learning, is realizing that I made inaccurate statements on this blog. For example, I believe I said in an earlier entry, that taiko is never improvised, or nearly never improvised. Hopefully I wrote nearly, because it seems that Kaga taiko is one of the rare styles that is improvised. We have been learning set rhythms in the class, but when the style is performed, the performer strings together the different rhythms any way he likes.

The instructors seem to emphasize being relaxed while we play, and enjoying ourselves. It seems to have a fairly long history, at least its roots go back several hundred years, I believe. I think the style we are learning has been developed more recently, and was developed almost as a style to be played in restaurants and such places, where people might not necessarily be coming strictly to see taiko. It was sort of meant to be entertainment during dinner, or a drink.

In case my earlier descriptions of Kaga taiko have been insufficient, or have, perhaps, left you wanting to know more, we located a site with a couple of short videos demonstrating the style. The site is in Japanese, if you cannot read Japanese, just look for the videos and you can enjoy them.

A Milestone?

I've been waiting several weeks to post this blog. I waited, because I was not sure if it would actually happen or not, but it did. On Sunday, I was able to perform on the Odaiko on the same stage, at the same time as Hono Taiko. For those of you who do not know, Hono Taiko is an internationally known (they just returned from a tour in Spain) group of three women taiko players from Matto. I wrote about them back in July or August and noted them as the first real live taiko performance I experienced. When I saw them 9 years ago, I never would have dreamed that I'd be sharing a stage and performing along side them.

Just to make it clear, it is not necessarily through any great ability of mine, that I was able to have this opportunity. It wasn't as if they invited me to perform with them, but rather, I was allowed to perform with them. It also was not just the three Hono Taiko members plus me. It was the three Hono Taiko members, plus about 20 other people as well. It was a big finale to an outdoor concert. At any rate, it was quite exhilarating to play along side performers of their caliber. I do not think I will ever forget it, and it has only furthered my resolve to continue with taiko studies.

I was sincerely hoping to have a fair amount of video from this concert to post, including a video of my own performance. We were all set to tape, and right before the concert began, they asked people not to take videos or other recordings of the performance. We weren't even able to get pictures. Oh well. There is a chance, though, that we may eventually be able to get our hands on something.

The concert was an outdoor concert in the parking lot of a large shopping center located in Togi, Ishikawa, Japan. Togi is located on Ishikawa's Noto Peninsula. Some may remember about 6 months ago, there was an earthquake in Noto. It was unfortunately soon forgotten because of the larger earthquake in Niigata a few months later, but there are still many people in need and recovering from the Noto earthquake as well.

It has been several years since I have been up in the Noto Peninsula and it was nice to return there. It is very beautiful. The shore is often rocky, and sometimes reminds me of the coast along the Pacific Northwest. One of my favorite parts of Noto are the pine trees near the shore line. They are always slanted about 60 degrees, facing inland, as a result of the constant wind off the ocean.

It seems that the festival where we played was in its second year. It was about 4 hours altogether, but the first 3/4 was filled up by local performing groups, including other taiko groups, high school bands, and dance troupes. The main attraction was, of course, Hono Taiko, along with 3 other taiko groups sponsored by Asano Taiko. These groups are not known internationally, but are still quite good, and are well known in the area. They are Hikari, Sasuke, Matto Yume-mitai and the Shin-Mattobayashi Hozonkai (of which we are members, and why I was able to have the opportunity to play).

Our group was playing in the middle of the program. I think I have mentioned before that the piece, Shin-Mattobayashi, is quite long. I am playing the Odaiko (large drum) part, which does not play for the whole song. There are two sections, though, where it is featured. I have learned the shorter section, but am still memorizing the longer one. Since I have only learned the shorter part, I was not able to play when our group performed. Fortunately, the encore planned to be only the shorter part of that song, which I have learned, so they allowed me to perform with them for the encore. As I already mentioned, it was quite an experience and I will never forget it, and hopefully, it won't be my last opportunity to perform with these people.

There was one more thing I learned from this experience, but it has more to do with fashion, than taiko, perhaps. All four groups met at Asano Taiko in the morning to carpool up to Togi. I wore a dark green shirt, and jeans. When we arrived, I felt a bit out of place. Every single person there was wearing all black. When I thought about it a little more, the taiko groups I've seen here always wear black, when they are together as a group, and not performing. I guess I'll wear black too, next time we have a performance to go out to.


A quick update

My schedule is finally beginning to get a bit busier. I have been wanting to make several entries lately, but amazingly have not had the time to write all that I would like to. The schedule of working, training, and attending taiko classes three times a week, seems to be catching up with me. By the time I get home in the evenings, the first thing on my mind is usually sleeping. I am also finding it harder and harder to wake up to go jogging in the morning. But I am pleased that I have been able to keep up a regular jogging schedule for about a month now. I have tried in the past, but I think I always lost interest within a couple weeks. This time, though, I have a goal to motivate me to continue. At any rate, since my schedule is getting tighter, I may have to resign myself to making briefer entries in the journal.

So here is my quick update:

After worrying that we might have to stop attending our Tuesday evening taiko class (Kaga style drumming) because of work. We have actually been able to attend all but one of the classes this month. Next month also looks like we will be able to attend most of the classes.

The practices for the Shin-Matto-Bayashi Hozonkai have been getting more intense every week, mainly because there are two performances approaching. One this Sunday (9/30) and another October 7th. In fact, this week, practice was led by one of the members of Hono Taiko, Ms. Yamada (I do not know her first name). Needless to say, she made us work twice as hard as usual, which I think you notice twice as much when you are playing the Odaiko. The Odaiko is one of the more strenuous drums to play because, first of all you must use much larger and heavier sticks than the average size drums, and the stance requires your arms to always be in a raised position. An untrained person (that would be me) will likely be nearly exhausted after only a couple minutes of playing. Anyhow, here is picture of the blisters I developed at the practice:

The Hozonkai song is quite long, and I have actually only learned one section of it. When I say “learned”, I only mean the sticking and the rhythms, the technique is a completely different story. Therefore, it has not yet been decided whether or not I will be able to join the group for these next two performances or not. Either way, I will be in attendance at both concerts and if there is opportunity to take video, I will definitely post it for all of you to watch.


A Bit more about Children's Taiko

I recently received a comment from a reader who enjoyed reading the “Children’s Taiko” entry, so I thought that I could write a bit more about it.

I can’t say that I’ve been in Japan long enough to make a judgment like this, but it seems that taiko has become more and more popular over the last 10 years or so, and I am becoming aware of new children’s taiko classes all the time. Of course this could also simply be that as I travel further along the taiko journey, I am just becoming exposed to more of these groups. In any case, children’s taiko classes are certainly prevalent in Japan. My daughter is enrolled in two different classes, each meeting once a week. Many children also have exposure to playing the taiko in their kindergarten and preschool classes. To start my daughter’s first class at Asano Taiko, the teacher asked the parents to share their reason for signing up for the class. There were quite a few parents who mentioned that their children had started learning taiko at preschool/kindergarten and wanted to learn more.

So far, I haven’t come across any groups for children younger than 4 years old. From what I have seen, it is quite an accomplishment to get 4 year olds all playing the drum together. This week will only be our third week in the Asano class, but the teacher has not asked the children to play anything more than single notes so far. The notes are not even part of a rhythm; they are just working on having the correct stance and hand/arm motions. The other class, a neighborhood class, has also not moved beyond very basic rhythms, such as 4 quarter notes, or 4 quarters followed by 5 eighth notes. I am anxious to see what type of song they end up learning.

I have come across children’s groups, which are actually performing groups. Although the average age tends to be a bit older than 4 years old, the members do range in age from early elementary school through high school. One of these groups I saw at Exstasia this year. They were an all girl group from in Island somewhere in Western Japan. It was one of my favorite groups from the Exstasia concert; one of the ones that nearly moved me to tears. They were really incredible. The other group I saw more recently, but they also performed at Exstasia several years ago. They are called Koshu Taiko, or in Japanese writing:高州太鼓. I did not see them at their Exstasia performance, but just last week they performed at the festival of the school where I am working. Their members are also quite young, ranging from around 3rd grade through high school. I got to talk with them for a bit after their performance and we took a photo together.

I was also able to get a video of their performance. The file was too big to upload to youtube in one movie, so there are two parts to it. Please enjoy it.
Part 1

Part 2


Children's Taiko

My daughter is part of two children’s taiko groups. One is a neighborhood group; the other is a class at Asano Taiko for children. Although we are not part of these groups, (we are too old) watching the lessons can be very enlightening, particularly the Asano Taiko class. Here are two things I have learned from observing the lessons:

1. The switch to turn on the taiko – The teacher of the class at Asano began the class by asking the children (mostly between 4 and 6 years old) if they knew where the switch to turn on the taiko is. The kids had a lot of ideas, such as a certain screw on the side of the drum, or turning one of the handles in a certain way. Of course, the switch is not on the drum. After allowing them to make several guesses she told them that the switch to make the taiko play was their heart. I try to think of that now every time I pick up the sticks to play the taiko.

2. Stretching is very important – The teacher spent about half of the class (30 min) doing stretching exercises with the children. Perhaps it took a little longer than usual because it was only the second class and the children are still learning how to do the stretches. Nevertheless, she did mention at one point that it was very important to be as flexible as possible when you play the taiko. I believe she literally said, “People who are flexible when they play the taiko get an incredible sound.” Stiffness is an enemy to taiko playing, but for many beginners (myself included), it seems to be what your body “naturally” does. In fact, it is probably not natural, but unless you consciously think about relaxing, you tend to stiffen up. From playing various sports and learning various instruments, I think it is perhaps a result of nerves and having to think about many different things all at the same time, such as how to stand, how to hold your sticks, the music, etc.

As many wise people have observed, we can learn a great deal from children.


Videos added to Kodo Earth Celebration entries

Just a quick note to say that videos have been added to three of the Kodo Earth Celebration entries. If you would like to see them in context, please scroll back to the previous three entries. Or you can view them in this entry, without the intro.

Miyakejima Hozonkai

Kodo Friday Night Concert - Pre-concert fun

Friday morning performance of Okinawan music and dance


The Miyakejima Hozonkai at Earth Celebration

Part of Friday evening's concert, and Saturday morning’s fringe festival was the Miyake-Jima Hozonkai. If you have ever seen a Kodo performance, live, or on video, it is likely you have seen this piece performed. It is one of Kodo’s old standby numbers, like the Odaiko solo, and Yataibayashi. I believe that Kodo’s continuing performance of this piece has perhaps been a large reason for the widespread popularity of this piece in the taiko world. If you search for Miyake Taiko on Youtube, you will probably find several videos of the song, all performed by different groups.

Although Kodo has helped make this song one of Taiko’s most recognizable, they did not compose it themselves. Miyake Taiko is one of many traditional taiko pieces “kept” and performed by a hozonkai. A hozonkai is a type of cultural preservation group. They seem to be usually dedicated only to a very specific part of culture. For example, the Miyake-Jima hozonkai dedicates itself to the performance and preservation of this single piece of music, which is actually only a few measures of music repeated over and over again. There is also a vocal part which is inserted into the drumming from time to time, but this is also merely a few lines of music.

Perhaps, dear reader, you know the song, “Dueling Banjos”. Imagine a group of people who simply focused on the learning, teaching and performing of this song. If you wanted to learn to play “Dueling Banjos”, you would join this group. The group is dedicated to preserving the folk art of this one piece. From my understanding, this is what a hozonkai does. We have actually joined a hozonkai here, for the song, “Shin Matto Bayashi”. I will write more about that very soon, I hope.

We were able to see the Miyake Hozonkai twice at the Earth Festival. Once during the Friday evening concert with Kodo, and then again, at the Fringe Festival at Kisaki Shrine the next morning. Although the performance at the concert was impressive and enjoyable to watch, the Fringe performance was less restricted, involved more members of the group and lasted nearly 45 minutes. Not to say that I didn’t enjoy the concert, but regarding the Miyake Hozonkai performance, we got a much bigger taste of it the following morning.

I am not good at estimating numbers of people, but I would guess the hozonkai probably had about 50 members with them that morning. They set up one drum on stage, and three more drums on the ground in front of the stage. If you have seen Miyake performed, you know the stance used is very low to the ground and is one of taiko’s most physically demanding positions. Those of you who knew this already may have been surprised when I said they played for nearly 45 minutes. Obviously, with 50 members and only 4 drums, they were not all playing at the same time. Each drum has two people; one is playing the base rhythm (kind of like swing eighth notes - doo ba doo ba doo ba doo) and the other is playing the “melody”. I would say that they switched out players every minute to two minutes. In spite of the short playing time, it was still quite strenuous.

After seeing both Kodo’s performance and the hozonkai’s, I noticed some differences in the music and performance styles.

1. The placement of the drums. Kodo, and most groups that perform this piece, place the drums on a horizontal stand, which is close to the ground. The hozonkai placed all their drums except two directly on the ground. This makes the drum lower to the ground and forces the performer to take on an even lower, more physically demanding stance when playing.

2. Kodo will usually play this song with about 5 drums set up in a V shape. The two performers at the front/center both face the audience, forcing them to mirror each other’s movements. So when one player is hitting the drum with the left hand, the other player is hitting with the right hand. (We tried practicing like this on Sunday, and it takes some getting used to.) The hozonkai did not mirror the person on the other side of the drum. On each drum, one person was facing the audience, and the other had his/her back to the audience.

3. The stance of the person playing the jiuchi (base) rhythm was different. The Kodo players will usually play the jiuchi part with one knee on the ground, while the hozonkai remained on both feet, with their legs spread apart and bent about 90 degrees at the knees. I think they both have advantages/disadvantages. While it is easier for the hozonkai to transition back and forth between the jiuchi and the melody, it seems to be very strenuous for the legs to hold that position for so long. Whereas Kodo’s style of kneeling gives the legs a brief rest, it is more difficult to jump back into the playing stance for the melody and it takes a lot of practice to do it smoothly. It is impressive, though, to see how cleanly they can transition.

4. The hozonkai only played a rhythm of a few measures over and over, whereas Kodo seems to have added different sections in between this “chorus”. They often appear to be improvisations, but I have been told that improvisation is not really a part of taiko playing. Just about every note and movement during a song is planned out.

5. There was also some slight variation in the position of the sticks as they played, but I will not bother to explain that here because it is probably too difficult to illustrate without having a visual aid.

With all their differences, the two playing styles of this piece which we saw were both extremely enjoyable to observe. My wife and I have performed a version of this piece on a few occasions, and we hope to continue to perform it, but after seeing the performances at the Earth Celebration, we could see many areas in which we need to improve. We will continue to work hard and hopefully reach an acceptable level for performance.

Please enjoy this video of the Fringe Festival performance.


Earth Celebration - Kodo Concert

The Concert

In the evening on all three days of the Earth Celebration, Kodo presents a concert along with some of their international guest artists. Kodo headlines all three performances, but the guests artists change each day. This was actually my first time attending the Earth Celebration, but from what I have understood, that is how they have done it for 20 years now.

We were able to attend the first night’s (Friday) performance. The guest performers were the Miyake Taiko Honkzai (about whom I will make a separate entry), so this concert happened to be pure taiko, … The encore, however, involved some international guests. The concert began at 6:30 and must have lasted nearly 3 hours, by the time we they finished.

When we arrived on Sado we were not actually sure if we would be able to attend the concert. We did not have tickets before we left, because the pre-sale tickets were sold out. Uncertain whether there were any same day tickets left, we were forced to wait until we arrived on the island to purchase them. Luckily we were able to still get tickets when we arrived.

It is a bit different, the way they organize the seating. All the tickets are the same price, except that if you are able to purchase a pre-sale ticket, there is a slight discount. Once you have your ticket, you must go to Kisaki Shrine (it is where the entrance to the concert venue is) to receive a color coded seating ticket. Depending on the color you receive, you are given a time and a place to line up for the concert. There are no reserved seats for the concert, so the earlier you can arrive at Kisaki Shrine, the better seating you are likely to have.

The concert venue is called Shiroyama Koen (park) and was built by Kodo specifically for the purpose of giving concerts there (I believe). For those that understand Japanese, you will recognize ‘yama’ as meaning mountain. While the park is not on top of a mountain, it is situated at the top of a rather steep hill. Once we had our color coded entry cards, which we picked up earlier at the shrine, we knew what time we could line up for entry into the park. Our call time was 5:30. Not the earliest, but also not the latest time. We were still able to get quite good seating. Once all the 5:30 people were lined up, each color group began the climb up the steep path to the park.

Towards the top of the hill, some of the concert goers began to rush a bit towards the seating area, in the hopes of getting better seating, I suppose. We chose not to rush and were pleased that we could still secure dry seating, where the view was quite good.

By about 6:15 or so, the park was full. Off to our left, we heard some applause and cheering. I looked and saw several people wearing the traditional Kodo Happi (a style of festival coat). I then looked to my right and noticed a man in a mask, carrying an Okedo taiko making his way towards the audience. His mask covered the upper half of his face and that, combined with his clothing style, reminded me of a character out of Grimm’s fairy tales. Soon, an announcement was made, explaining that these Kodo members were collecting donations for the benefit of victims of the Niigata Earthquake, which occurred in July, I believe. The highlight of this was when the man in the mask finally set up the drum he was carrying and played a short piece. The nice part was that it was not part of the concert (officially) so we were able to take video of it.

As the concert was getting ready to start, there was the pre-concert announcement, asking people to turn off their cell phones, refrain from using cameras and recording devices and other general guidelines and instructions. I was rather surprised to hear them advise guests who wished to stand or dance to use the open areas on either side of the seating area. Dancing at a taiko concert? I couldn’t imagine that. Granted that taiko are drums, and most of the time, drums help to provide a beat or rhythms to dance to, but taiko drum rhythms are often mixed meter (if there even is a meter) and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a piece that lent itself to dancing, or made me want to stand up and shake my bootie (booty? No, that’s for pirates. Perhaps bootay? anyhow…). That’s not to say that I haven’t been moved by taiko performances. As I mentioned in earlier posts, several performances have nearly brought me to tears. Perhaps the pre-concert script was set and was not changed from night to night. After all, the other concerts involved music styles other than taiko, like Latin music, and that certainly will make quite a few people want to dance, you almost can’t help it.

To my surprise, before too many songs had been performed, there were audience members up on the sides of the seating area dancing around. I guess some people just need to dance when they hear any type of music. My son would actually be one of those people, he is only 1, but if he hears music, he swaying back and forth, squatting and standing, leaning back and forth, all to the beat of the music. It’s quite amusing.

Back to the Earth Celebration… The last time I saw Kodo in concert was 7 or 8 years ago I think. I remember the program for that concert was very traditional and rather serious. This time, the concert seemed to have more variety. The traditional and serious pieces were still there, but there were a few “newer” (newer, at least to me) songs which seemed to be more in the modern taiko styles. It was a nice mixture. They ended with their standby crowd favorites: the Odaiko solo, followed by Yataibayashi.

The Odaiko solo is played on a large drum (about 1 meter or more across), which is wheeled onto the stage on a cart surrounded by lanterns. The drum is situated so that the head is facing the audience, and the soloist’s back, therefore is facing the audience. There are actually two people playing the drum, but one is playing the back side and is hardly visible to the audience. This part is more of an accompaniment anyhow.

Yataibayashi is one of Kodo’s most well known pieces, perhaps because of the position in which it is played. The drums are horizontal and placed low to the ground, slightly angled. The performer must play in a position sitting down, yet leaning back like he is midway through a sit-up. Needless to say, it is very physically demanding. These two pieces seem to always be played wearing Kodo’s other signature outfit, the fundoshi. It seems almost disrespectful to describe it as being like a diaper, so if you are unfamiliar with the term, ‘fundoshi’ do a google image search on it and you will get the idea. It seems that only certain members, who have attained a high level of skill, are permitted to perform wearing this “clothing”.

The encore was quite unexpected. By that, I do not mean that I was not expecting an encore, but rather the content of the encore was surprising. By the time it was finished, had lasted more than 30 minutes. I was expecting more taiko for the encore, but the first half did not even feature a taiko drummer, nor a member of Kodo. The first encore performer was Tamango, a West African tap dancer, who lives in New York. He was joined by a Puerto Rican percussionist, Giovanni Hidalgo. You can learn more about them at the following:

They performed for 15 or 20 minutes together. It actually took me a few minutes to figure out what was actually going on. Although the two performers were very talented and fun to watch, I thought that an encore should be more of the same type of performing that was in the concert. After all, isn’t that what prompted the audience’s response? I finally realized that they would be performers in the following night’s concert and they were just doing a little promotion for the next day’s show. Either way, I did enjoy their performances, and they were eventually joined by members of Kodo. The performing group grew as the members of Kodo joined Tamango and Hidalgo on stage one by one, building up to a climax, featuring more than 20 members of Kodo all playing at the same time. Perhaps it is because it was newer to me, but this was almost more impressive than the Odaiko/Yataibayashi finale.

After close to 40 minutes of encore, the concert finally ended and I would guess that the audience went home very satisfied (except for the one fellow who was removed for disorderly conduct).