Taiko Babies

If you watched the video about Hayashi Eitetsu in my previous post (not the survey) did you notice where he mentions the babies in the audiences sleeping during the taiko performances? He talks about how the sound of the drums must be similar to the first sound we all hear in our mothers' wombs. Our mother's heartbeat. Perhaps, this is one reason that taiko drumming can be so moving to some of us.

This also reminded me of the summer of 2006, when we, along with our original members, were preparing for our first "major" performance. Our son had just been born in June, and when we practiced, we had to bring him in the basement with us. We were amazed because as soon as we would start playing the drums, he was almost immediately asleep.

Now he is one and a half and he loves the taiko. If he sees a drum, he heads straight for it. It is nearly impossible to practice with him around now, because he always wants to play too. I guess it's a good sign.

Here is a picture of him and his older sister playing "odaiko" last weekend:


How about a little survey?

Would anyone mind taking a little survey? I'm curious about my readers.


Hayashi Eitetsu

Sunday we saw a concert featuring Hayashi Eitetsu. If you are into taiko at all, you may recognize the name. If not, you probably won't. To be honest, I hadn't heard of him until a colleague, who learned of my taiko interest, introduced him to me. From that point, I heard quite a bit about him, and learned that he is one of the big names in taiko.

Here's a bit of background information, for those who do not know him. (I am taking this info from the Japanese program we received yesterday, so if there are inaccuracies, it is likely due to my translation mistakes, sorry.)

From what I can understand, he was one of the founding members of Kodo, and remained with them for 11 years. He made his solo debut at Carnegie Hall in 1984. Since then, he has become well known as an Odaiko soloist, and a pioneer with collaborations between taiko and many other musical genre, such as jazz and classical music.

The concert was put on by the Orchestra Ensemble of Kanazawa, and the whole program featured traditional Japanese music and instruments combined with a western orchestra. The flyer for the concert featured a large photo of Hayashi Eitetsu, so I was slightly disappointed when I opened the program and saw that he was only playing for one song out of the five that would be performed. As it turned out, though, his performance was still satisfying. It was clearly the climax of the program.

Before I talk more about his performance, let me briefly give an idea of what the other pieces were like. The first piece featured about 50 koto (Japanese harp) players, accompanied by orchestra. The front of the stage was so tightly packed with koto, I didn't think there would be any room for the performers to sit and play. As it turns out, very little space is required to play the koto, and everyone squeezed in without a problem.

The second piece featured a father and son shakuhachi combination, again, accompanied by the orchestra. The shakuhachi is a flute crafted from a single piece of bamboo. There are cheaper models, which can be taken apart, and are made of wood, but the best quality shakuhachi are made from a single piece of bamboo. (Just as the best taiko are made from a single tree trunk.) It is also very difficult to play this type of flute. For some, it takes 3 months of practice before they can even get a sound out of it.

The shakuhachi piece was followed by a shamisen solo with orchestra accompaniment. Up till this point, all the performers had worn traditional Japanese clothing, such as kimono or hakama. The woman who played the shamisen wore a pure white, wispy dress, which brought to mind images of Greek goddesses. My first impression of her was that she was maybe in her early 30s, but looking in the program, she is actually in her late 50s!

Hayashi Eitetsu's piece was next, followed by a finale, including the koto players, a shakuhachi player, and a women's chorus, singing a medly of Japanese folk songs, like "Sakura". Unfortunately, the arrangement of this last song reminded me of one of those hymns arranged for church orchestras, designed mainly to evoke shallow emotions, you know, lots of brass and timpani. It is more like a cheap thrill, than a meaningful experience. I know some of you know what I'm talking about.

I wasn't sure how much I would enjoy the piece with Hayashi Eitetsu. I was skeptical at first. When people think of Odaiko, most people probably think of the famous solos that can be seen at nearly every Kodo performance. A large drum, elevated above the stage on a cart, played by an extremely healthy male, wearing very little, for maybe 15 minutes straight. It's very impressive. The first half of Sunday's piece, however, only featured minimal notes, played very slowly on the odaiko. Although the piece was interesting musically, I was hoping to see a bit more "chops" from Mr. Hayashi, some sort of cadenza, or something. In the end, I was not disappointed. The piece ended with an impressive odaiko solo lasting several minutes.

The name of the piece was Fujin, Raijin. These are the names of two gods in Japan. Fujin is the god of wind and Raijin is the god of thunder and lightning. Obviously, the taiko is meant to represent Raijin. The organ was symbolic of the wind. Were I to write a song meant to symbolize wind, I guess pipe organ is not the first instrument that would jump to mind. Perhaps I associated it too much with churches and cathedrals. After hearing the piece, and why the composer chose pipe organ to represent the wind, it makes perfect sense to me. Most of you probably know that a pipe organ requires rather a large amount of wind in order to produce sounds. This was the reason the composer gave for choosing this instrument as a symbol for the wind. Also, I guess I haven't heard many non-traditional organ pieces, for I did not realize how much an organ could imitate the sounds of wind whistling and blowing around. I would say that the overall piece was quite interesting, and enjoyable to listen to. The connections with wind and thunder were easy to see, and Hayashi Eitetsu's playing was certainly impressive.

I did enjoy the concert, but on a scale of 1 to 10, I would probably give it a 5, overall. This is in no way because of a poor performance of any of the players, but rather just because of personal music tastes. In general, I'm not a fan of "fusion" or collaborations between extremely different types of music. I honestly prefer to hear these traditional Japanese instruments, as traditional Japanese instruments, rather than hearing them trying to fit in with western instruments, or hearing a western orchestra trying easternize itself to fit with the Japanese instruments. At the same time, I suppose many genres of music we have today, likely began as collaborations or fusions of two different types of music. And of course, they were probably met with strong criticism, or little popularity when they first started out. Some of them stuck around and developed into their own genere, and others faded away, never to be heard from again. I guess only time will tell if shakuhachi or shamisen solo accompanied by western orchestra is something that will catch on, or fade away.

On a closing note, I was able to locate an interesting youtube video about a project Hayashi Eitetsu participated in with an arts school in Cleveland. If you watch it, I think you can learn a little more about Mr. Hayashi, more about taiko, and get an idea of some of things we, also, would like to accomplish in Michigan.


Shin nen kai - New Year Party - Matto Bayashi

This past weekend we had a shin nen kai with the members of Matto Bayashi. Shin nen kai is a new year party. Not New Year's Eve party, but rather a party held sometime in January to kick off the new year. We went to a spa hotel type of place. It is basically a hotel with really soft rugs, because everyone walks around barefoot, and they have large, Japanese style baths, restaurants, massage parlors, etc. When you get there, they give you a set of pajamas, which almost everyone wears around the hotel as long as they are there, and you take a bath, eat dinner, relax, and so on. It's quite enjoyable, although we didn't spend the night. It was a nice opportunity to spend some time with the other members outside of practice time and get to know them a little bit.


Age discrimination, Encouragement and the best taiko group in the world

Maybe I'm just easily pleased, but yesterday I received a compliment/encouragement from Hono Taiko's Yamada-san. Asano Taiko sponsors several taiko groups, their top group, and most well-known, being Hono Taiko. At this weeks practice, we learned that one of the sponsored groups is soon going out of existence and they would like to make a new group to replace it. They are looking for people with experience between the ages of 14 to 30 to make up this amateur/semi-pro level group. Although I am extremely interested in being a part of this group, I was born nearly 3 years too early to be considered for it, so I did not bother to try out for it. Still, last night I saw Yamada san and she asked how old I was because she had thought of me for that group. I told her, and asked if they couldn't possibly extend the age limit to 35. Apparently, I'm not the only one who has asked that. Anyway, I was encouraged to be even considered. I don't mean to say that I have become a taiko virtuoso (if there's such a thing) in 6 months of practice, but I feel validated that I am doing well, showing dedication and potential.

On the other hand, I watch a performance like Yamato's last Sunday and, although it is not discouraging, it also gives me a feeling for the gap between us and becoming a truly professional level performing group. Yamato's concert was truly a moving experience. From the first note of the concert, a chill went through my body, and I was moved to the very last. I have seen Yamato perform on 5 separate occasions now: twice in the US, once in Austria, once in Germany and now in Japan. I am pretty sure that this was the best performance out of the 5 that I've seen.

Yamato now has 18 members, of which I think four are trainees, but they still perform in the shows, just in lesser roles than the full members. Also, I think their touring is more limited. When I first saw Yamato, I think they had about 10 members. 10 people is actually a nice sized taiko team, and when you see 10 people on the stage at once, beating all different sized drums with all their body, mind, heart at the same time, it is quite moving. But add eight more people, and it is even more moving. Also Yamato does not change their program all that much. I first saw them in 1999 and when I opened the program at the concert last Sunday, there was only one song that I hadn't heard. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that I've seen the same concert 5 times either. Yamato's leader, Ogawa san, is constantly making adjustments and changes to improve the songs and the presentation. One of my favorite changes was for the song, Hayate, which has always been one of my favorites. The song features 3 of the girls playing shamisen, accompanied by two other members playing kumi taiko (like a taiko drum set). Miyazaki Mika, the lead shamisen player, has always had an excellent stage presence for this piece, and is probably one of the reasons it is my favorite. Anyhow, this time, there weren't three shamisen players, but about seven. I thought it made the song even better.
Several other songs also included an increased number of performers, and others, the music itself had been changed. And some songs, I think, were just performed even better than before.

This Yamato's 15th year (I think) and at one point in the concert, Ogawa san shared a little bit about how the group was started back in 1993. He had already had experience playing taiko with another group, but was working as a glass blower. There was a festival coming up at a nearby shrine and his mother suggested/encouraged him to put together a few songs with a couple other people and perform at the festival. He, and two other friends wrote a few songs, practiced intensively for maybe two weeks and performed. Their performance was well received and after that, they had many inquiries about joining their group, or doing more performances. I guess there was enough interest, that they decided to try to create a more serious performing group.

In some ways, I thought there were some similarities to our own beginning (although there are many differences as well). We, also, kind of started out without any clear goals, or expectations and following our first we also received an unexpected amount of interest and requests for future performances, enough to encourage us to actually try to create a serious taiko group as well. Although we have no plans to become a world touring group, spending 11 out of 12 months in other countries, I hope that we can attempt to practice and perform the drums with the same passion and dedication that Yamato does.

After the concert there was a reception for Yamato and their friends, to which we were invited. There were quite a few people in a rather small space, so unfortunately, there was not a lot of time for one on one interaction and talking. We did get some pictures with some of the members, though, which I will post below. But first, there was, I guess a notable celebrity in attendance at the concert and the reception, but I did not realize it. I noticed him at the reception because he had very unique clothing. I cannot describe it very well, but he had a brimmed hat, and a sort of patchwork shirt and was also wearing a patchwork type of apron, possibly made of leather. I kept wondering what country he had come from. I thought possibly Mongolia or far eastern Russia. I realized that I was probably staring too much, and was just thinking that I should go and talk to him, instead of staring when my wife told me that he was Kansai Yamamoto, a internationally recognized fashion designer and big fan of taiko.

Anyhow, here are some pictures from the reception, but first, as the concert was held in Nara, some Nara-esque photos:
Me with one of Nara's famed, tame "sacred" deer:

And Mayumi in front of a "Sharp Pagoda":

Me and my wife with Takeru Matsushita, one of Yamato's assistant leaders.

Me with Midori Tamai. He is one of Yamato's most recognizable players because of his hair, which is unfortunately not visible in this picture.

Mayumi with current member, Mika Miyazaki (left, the lead shamisen player) and former member, Shoko Kodera (middle).


Just some news

I just got back from Yume Mitai practice. It was our first practice of the year, and Yamada sensei ran things pretty efficiently today. She is trying to get us focused on the recital coming up in March. It is actually a bigger deal than usual because it will be almost like a trial to see if we have what it takes to perform at a major (?) concert event coming up in May. At the beginning of December she told us about the possibility. Apparently there will be a taiko concert during the first week of May, Golden Week holidays in Japan. This is important, because it means people will not have to work and more people are likely to attend the concert. Also, there are some major names on the concert roster, like the Miyake Jima hozonkai leaders, I believe it is a father and two sons who founded the hozonkai. There will also be former members of Kodo playing, and probably Hono Taiko will perform also. I think the concert is partly sponsored by Asano Taiko. Apparently, the people in charge at Asano said if Yume Mitai performs well at the March recital, they will invite us to also play at the May concert. So it is exciting to work hard for the possibility of playing again with world renowned taiko performers.

I learned another fun piece of info at today's practice. When I got to practice today, there was a camera man there also. Apparently, Asano Taiko is making a new promo video for Hono Taiko, and they wanted some footage of Yamada sensei (a member of Hono Taiko) teaching some of the other groups she works with. So, I guess there is a chance that I might be seen for a brief moment in Hono Taiko's promo video. I'll have to be sure to ask for a copy.

And finally, yesterday, we got back late in the evening, from attending Yamato's concert in Nara. It was about a 3 - 4 hour drive from here. I hope to write in more detail about the concert later, but for now I'll just say that I was moved from the first note of the concert to the last. As soon as they hit the first notes on the drum, a chill went through my body. In the past I've often said that Yamato was one of the best taiko groups in the world. I've seen Yamato perform live 5 times now, and I have also seen other world class taiko groups (such as Kodo) perform several times. After last night, I feel that Yamato is not one of the best, but the best taiko group in the world. If they come to your town, please make every effort to see them. Starting next week they kick off a 3 week or so stint in Paris.

Well, I keep trying to make "short" entries, but they always turn out much longer than I intended.


Old Year, New Year

Happy New Year. I have been sick since December 21st and I am still fighting off the last remnants of this stubborn cold, but now I am mostly healthy and was even able to practice a little bit yesterday. Unfortunately, however, partially because of the holidays, and partially because of being sick, our taiko related activities over the past few weeks have been rather limited. Monday, Jan 7, Yume Mitai practices will start again and the following Tuesday, Jan 15, Matto Bayashi will begin again. I am looking forward to getting back to regular taiko practice. I have been practicing my parts nearly every day, but playing the rhythms on your knees is much different that actually playing it on a drum. My goal was to have my parts memorized by the time the break was over. I still have some work to do before Monday.

We did manage to get a little vacation in even though I was sick. We traveled to Osaka to visit some friends I met in college in Chicago. They took us to a large shrine in Osaka, called Sumiyoshi Taisha. Aside from its large size, another one of its famous points is a rather unique bridge, called "Taiko Bashi" ("bashi" means bridge). It is called this because it has a rather steep curvature and when it is viewed from the side, it looks like nearly half a circle. I guess this invokes thoughts of a taiko. Well, you can decide for yourself, here is a picture:

Hmm, I guess it isn't quite half a circle, but it is at least more of a circle than most bridges. Our second day there, we went to Nara to visit our friends in Wadaiko Yamato. They had just returned from nearly a year of touring Europe and North America and that evening, or the next day they would each return to their hometowns for a week or two before returning to Nara to prepare for another year of touring. They also run a taiko school for children in the founder's hometown of Asukamura. It just happened that on that day, they were holding the final event of the year for the students in the school. The event was a mochi zuki taikai. Mochi is a sort of rice cake and you make it by first cooking a special type of rice, and then it is placed in a large wooden or stone bowl and beaten over and over with large wooden hammers until it reaches the right consistency. It is a popular activity in Japan in the fall and winter. Here is a picture of my daughter hammering the rice.

Many of their students and parents were also there. It all took place at their fairly new facility. It is their house, but it is also their practice space. I believe they had the house built to their specifications, and in the basement (a rarity in Japan) is a nice and large practice space, mainly used for the school.

Once the school event was over, the members of the group had one last meal together before going their separate ways. It was a Japanese/Korean style barbecue. (Luckily we had mild weather). But what did they use for fuel/charcoal? Well, since it was the end of the year, it was time to do some house cleaning, so they used all of their old bachi (sticks) which had broken, or been cracked, or were simply in too poor condition to use. This was actually A LOT of sticks. There were several boxes full.
Here are two members just getting started with the stick burning.

Here is something interesting about Yamato. They all make their own sticks. They will take a long, square piece of wood and shave it down until it is the size they want. Right now, for us, when we need a new pair of sticks, we can easily go to Asano Taiko and pick out whatever we need, but I suppose, since Yamato is touring around the world for most of the year, it is a little harder to come by taiko sticks, so it is just easier, or it is more practical to learn to make their own. I think it is something we should also consider doing when we return to Michigan, seeing how there are not any taiko shops in our area.

Other than our trip to Kansai, I have been trying to recover from my cold, and work on my song little by little. We have one more event to look forward to on my last day of vacation before returning to work. We will return to Nara to see Yamato's concert, before they leave again to travel the world. They are already scheduled in Paris from January 15th. So, next week, look forward to a report of the Yamato concert.