Promotional performance

A couple weeks ago, we went to a mall near our house, where Asano Taiko was doing a PR performance for the upcoming Extasia Taiko Festival on July 27th. The group performing is Sasuke, consisting of all junior high or high school age students. Earlier this spring, they took part in the All Japan Youth Taiko Competition as a representative of Ishikawa Prefecture, and they received an award (not the top prize, though). Furthermore, I just learned yesterday that they have been selected to compete in another national contest in Tokyo later this summer.


Shipping your taiko around the world

This past Tuesday, we had our Matto Bayashi practice as usual. Our practice area is called Asano-EX and it is a mile or two down the road from the main Asano Taiko buildings. It is also not available as a practice space to the general public, like the practice area (新響館)at the main building is. So it is where most of the Asano sponsored groups practice, like Matto Bayashi, Sasuke and even Hono Taiko. When we came in, there were many taiko near the doorway in cases and wrapped up as if they would be shipped off somewhere. I asked Yamada san (our teacher, and member of Hono Taiko) if Hono Taiko was going anywhere for a concert. She looked slightly confused and asked what I meant. I pointed towards the taiko in the doorway and she said, "Oh yes, we're going to Spain and Russia in July and August." July and August are quite a ways away. It is only the middle of May right now, but I realized that sending taiko, which are extremely heavy, by air would be outrageously expensive and sea and surface mail would be the only affordable option.

In fact, we had a similar conversation just last week with some other taiko friends of ours, Wadaiko Yamato, of Nara. Last week we had some business to take care of in Osaka, and since Nara is not that far from Osaka, we stopped by to visit them. It was one of the rare times when they were all present in Japan, instead of touring all over the world. (Last year, they were on tour for almost 11 months and I think they played something like 200 concerts) Anyway, I was also asking some of the members of Yamato how they moved their drums all around the world and coordinated between concerts in Europe, N. America and Japan. They, as well use sea and surface mail, sending their drums out two months ahead of them. But they also said they have about three sets of drums, because sometimes the times between tours is too short to get the drums from Europe to the US, for example. This amazed me when I thought of the cost involved. I recently researched the cost of Asano drums for the 12 - 15 drums that we would ideally like to have and the cost was over $100,000! Yamato certainly has more drums than 12 - 15 and what's more, they have 2 or 3 sets of them! Amazing.

At least this year's schedule is a little more relaxed in comparison with last years. They are based in Nara for the next 3 months or so, before they head back to Europe (?) for the fall. They have quite a nice facility, with a large practice area in the basement in their hometown of Asukamura, which is in the southern part of Nara Prefecture. It is surrounded by hills and rice fields and they even have a nice keyaki tree in front of the buidling. A keyaki tree is known as a Japanese Zelkova tree in English. Why is this significant? Because most taiko are made from keyaki wood. They said, maybe in 200 years or so, it will be big enough to make a taiko from it. I will write a little more about keyaki trees and Asano taiko another time. In the meantime, here are a couple pictures from our visit to Nara.

Here is a view of the hills surrounding their house.

and the keyaki (zelkova) tree in front.



The Monday following the big concert this week was the "Children's Day" holiday in Japan. Following two weeks of nearly daily taiko practices, including some strange dancing, which exercised muscles I have never used before, and ending with two hours of stage tear down, moving large and heavy taiko around, my body was actually pretty sore. In fact, I probably aggravated a pulled back I hurt a few years ago moving a piano (it is all better now). I was actually hobbling around like an elderly man, a much different figure than the person who had energetically played taiko the day before. Still, instead of resting my tired body, we decided to take our two children to a park down by the Saigawa River in Kanazawa for a little carnival that was going on in honor of Children's Day. There were many craft tents, small amusement rides and international foods to sample. Of course, there was taiko too. Not just any taiko, but Toranosuke Taiko of Wajima City in Ishikawa's Noto Peninsula. We saw them a couple times before in the fall, and I even posted some video of their performance in Komatsu.

Anyhow, what is so special about Toranosuke is that this past March, they were awarded the top prize, for the second year in a row, at the All Japan Youth Taiko Competition. So they are a highly regarded group, even if they are not known so much outside of the Hokuriku area.

We tried to leave early, getting to the park about 30 minutes before Toranosuke was scheduled to play, but the parking lot was full. So I dropped off my wife and kids, and drove the car to her sister's house to park it there and walk back. My body being in its less-than-prime-condition, it took me a little longer than normal to get back to the park. I ended up only catching the last 60 seconds or so of the taiko performance. Most of those 60 seconds I spent trying to get out my video camera to record the performance. As soon as I had it ready to go, however, it was over. So I apologize, there is no video to accompany this.

After the performance, we were wandering around the park and we saw the Toranosuke members. I thought a picture with them and my daughter would be nice, and I asked her if she wanted to take a picture with them. She was shy about it, but she said okay. As I walked over to ask for the picture, one of them said to me, "You were in the concert yesterday, weren't you? Matto Yume Mitai?"

"Uh, Oh, yes. Yes I was. You were there?" I asked, immediately straightening up and trying to conceal that my back was hurting. "Did you enjoy it?" I asked.

"Yes, it was a lot of fun," they answered. Cool, I thought, I was recognized on the street. Of course, it's not as big a deal as it might seem. Although many of the other groups that performed were likely musically more memorable, as far as appearance goes, I was the only non-Japanese that performed on Sunday, so in that sense, perhaps I would be the most easily recognized on the street.

Anyhow, here is the picture of me and my family with Wajima Toranosuke Taiko.


Golden Week Concert - Wow! Taiko Shock!

Wow! Taiko Shock? Yes, that is what Asano Taiko named the special Golden week concert in which I participated last Sunday. I guess, to a native English speaker, it is not very catchy and doesn't really seem to roll off the tongue all that smoothly. Still, this does not mean that it is the same way for Japanese people. Regardless of the name, I was very happy to have the opportunity to be a part of this event. From Friday evening to Sunday evening, my memory is all a sort of blur of rehearsals, schlepping drums, setting up stages, tearing down stages, etc. At some point, though, during one of the times we played our piece, there were a lot of people in front of us watching, they clapped enthusiastically when we finished and before and after we played, there were some very famous taiko players who performed. (I guess that must have been the concert). I haven't seen any video of our performance, so I am not sure really how we sounded. As far as playing the notes and rhythms correctly, I don't recall making any mistakes. Stylistically, musically, etc. it is harder to comment on without actually watching it. However, a very important critic did tell me the next day, "You are a good taiko one, papa." Well, if my daughter was happy, then what more can I ask for?

It was very exciting to be part of this event, though. We were surrounded by world famous taiko performers and groups, who have toured around the world. There were former members of Kodo (Kaneko Ryutaro) a father and his three sons who actually taught Kodo one of their songs (Miyake Taiko) Hono Taiko, who have played concerts all over the world, and others as well. I imagine my feelings must have been similar to my brother and his band when they had their first chance to tour with Grammy award winning band Wilco. We weren't playing in front of 2000 people, like they did, but we played to a full house. The audience had payed 3000 yen per ticket ($30) and there was literally standing room only.

Here is the complete list of peformers/groups who participated in the concert:
Miyakejima Hozonkai - Mr. Tsumura and his three sons
Matto Yume Mitai (the group I am in)
Yamabe Taishi (?) of Kurashiki Taiko
Hanakagami - made up of former members of Hikari and current Hono Taiko members
Kaneko Ryutaro - former member of Kodo
Ayano Yamamoto - a former member of Hono Taiko, classically trained (?) and an excellent shime taiko soloist
Sasuke - Asano sponsored group made up of junior high and high school male and female students. They recently took part in the all Japan Youth Taiko Competition and received honors for Ishikawa prefecture.
Hono Taiko - Asano Taiko's top group, made up of three women

Seeing as this was a real concert, as opposed to a recital, taking video and pictures was not possible, so unfortunately I cannot post any. I did, however, get a picture during the morning rehearsal, which I will put up. This is Hono Taiko and Sasuke playing the song called "Shoko". Later, I may have a chance to put up a performance of the song at a different event. In the mean time, use the picture to imagine what it sounds like.


Miyake Taiko Workshop

It is the last day of the Golden Week Holidays. Since Sunday, I could finally relax for a couple of days, but there are many people at Asano who had to get up Monday morning and continue working, practicing and performing.

There were so many new experiences this past weekend, I honestly don't know where to start, and I'm afraid I will forget about some of them if I don't write them down. For the time being, I guess I'll just begin chronologically and write about the Miyake taiko workshop.

There were two workshops on Saturday for Miyake Taiko. Both my wife and I took part, but at different times. I attended the first workshop since I had a rehearsal for the next day's concert later that afternoon. There were about 10 participants in the workshop, including Jige san of Hono Taiko. At the start of the workshop, Asano san gave a short greeting to everyone. He told us that he had been wanting to invite Miyake Taiko group for an event at Asano for a long time, but they are very difficult to get. He talked about how the Miyake style/song is very well known, because it is an established part of Kodo's repertoire. Kodo's Miyake, however, is slightly different because they have made some adjustments for stage performance. The Miyake taught by this father and son quartet (Tsumura family) is very traditional.

After Asano san's short introduction, the Tsumura's played a short demonstration of the piece, for those who were unfamiliar with it. They begin with traditional vocals, and after a verse (?) the ji uchi begins (da don, da don, da don, ...) It gave me chills the same way it did at the Earth Celebration last summer.

Following the demonstration, Mr. Tsumura (the father) taught us the melody rhythm in three sections. It is fairly simple, and can be learned fairly quickly. After that, he gave some guidance on how to hold, position and swing the sticks as you play. One of the important aspects of playing Miyake taiko is getting a big sound. This is one thing that I really notice when watching this family play, and comparing them with many other groups that perform this piece.

There are a couple factors that contribute to the loud sound. One is longer sticks. One of the things they told us all at the beginning of the workshop was that all are sticks were too short. I think I heard them say that their sticks are at least 50 cm long. This allows them to get a loud sound, but it also protects your hands. The drums they typically use for Miyake are about 1.8 shaku or 2.0 shaku. Those drums have a diameter around 60 cm, so if your sticks are short, you are likely to hit your hands on the rims of the drums. The way you hold the sticks is also different than regular taiko playing. Normally, you would grip the sticks with your bottom three fingers (pinkie, ring, and middle), leaving the thumb and pointer finger fairly relaxed. For Miyake, it is the opposite. The thumb and pointer finger grip the stick firmly. I don't know how to explain it well, but this allows you to get a wider (?) swing, and more speed, thus, leading to a louder sound.

Following his guidance on stance, holding, and swinging the sticks, we practiced playing the melody a bit more. We then went on to the ji-uchi, or base rhythm. It is also a simple rhythm, almost like swing eighth notes, but not so smooooth. Instead of duu ba duu ba duu ba duu, it's more of a da don da don da don da don. The key points Mr. Tsumura mentioned for ji-uchi was to swing the sticks parallel to the ground, instead of diagonally, and to swing the sticks with a big motion, making sure that the left hand especially swings all the way back. One reason for this big motion is because the person doing ji-uchi has their back to the audience (not the case with Kodo) and this large motion makes it more interesting for the audience to watch.

After we had practiced the melody and the base rhythm, we were taught how to smoothly transition between players, without a break in the song. As we watched the group, along with all their regular students, play last summer at the Earth celebration, they continuously switched players, without a break for nearly a half hour. They each played the melody rhythm about 5 times, and then another member would step in to take their place. When you watch them do it, it appears quite simple, but it is a little more difficult when you actually try it. The ji-uchi player switches out first. The new player backs in and takes over the rhyth, as the first player moves out of the way. The melody player is a little trickier. S/he pulls in the right foot towards the end of the phrase, kneeling down on the right knee. The last two notes before getting out of the way, the left foot is moved back, making an opening for the new player to step in. Most workshop attendees never quite got the hang of it, including myself.

Now we had learned the melody, the base rhythm, and how to transition between players, so we spent some time rotating around the room between two taikos so that Mr. Tsumura had a chance to watch each of us and give us a little bit of individual commentary.

The next thing to learn was speeding up. After playing the melody for awhile, someone usually decides to pick up the tempo, until it gets ever so fast, and finally the vocals come in again, and it slows back down. This is not so technically difficult, it simply involves listening to the base rhythm, and following that as it speeds up. The physical aspect is another story, though. The squating position of Miyake style and the moving back and forth is already strenuous, and when it speeds up it becomes even harder to do. With practice, though, I'm sure that those muscles build up and it gets a little easier. The musical point Mr. Tsumura made here was that the tempo should not start slow and gradually speed up, but rather, it starts slow, and stays slow until a certain person decides to go into the accelerando. Still, you don't play faster and faster as you play the melody, but rather you up the tempo each time you start the melody anew. Even then, it followed some sort of pattern like this: 1st time speed up, second time, speed up again, third time maintain tempo, fourth time, speed up, fifth time, speed up. Mr. Tsumura said that these sudden jumps in tempo, as opposed to gradual ones, make it clearer that you are not just getting faster and faster because you cannot keep a tempo, but rather because it is part of the music. Personally, I like the effect of the tempo jumps better as well.

Finally, we got a bit of a special treat because we had a small class (and perhaps we were faster learners than usual?) Anyway, Mr. Tsumura said that usually he didn't teach this aspect because there was not enough time. What he taught us was where to accent the ji-uchi as you accompany the melody. The accents pretty much fall in line with what the melody is playing. We practiced this as well, but not having built up the Miyake Muscles, our accents were a bit weak. The next day, at the concert performance, there was a point were all the Miyake players dropped out just one of them played jiuchi with these accents. The accents were so effective, though, that it still sounded like two people were actually playing.

At this point, there was only about 20 minutes left, and from then until the ending time, we just practiced what we had learned, rotating around the room between the two drums.

I was tired afterwards, but not so much as I imagined that I would be. I was mostly worried about having sore muscles, which I didn't really feel that much that afternoon, nor the next day (Monday was a different story, but I don't think that was from the Miyake workshop).

An interesting note Mr. Tsumura mentioned during the workshop. As most people know, Miyake Taiko is one of the standby numbers of Kodo. As I pointed out after seeing the performance at Earth Celebration, there are some differences between the Hozonkai style and Kodo's style. One of those differences was that during the ji-uchi (base) the Kodo players kneel on one leg, while the hozonkai remain in the squatting position (much more strenous). Mr. Tsumura shared with us the reason for this during the workshop. It seems that the only instruction Kodo received on Miyake style was also a two hour workshop (probably similar to what we had) from Mr. Tsumura and his sons. Mr. Tsumura said that when they first teach ji-uchi to students, they always do it from this kneeling position because it is usually too difficult for new learners to maintain for long periods of time. They also taught it to Kodo in this way, and since they only had the one workshop, they only showed them in the kneeling position. Some time later, when they asked Kodo why they played the ji-uchi from a kneeling position, there answer was, "because that's the way you taught it to us." Anyway, at least that is what I understood. I could have misheard some details, since I am not a native Japanese speaker, but my wife (who is) seems to have heard the same story. (I know I have an occasional Kodo apprentice reader out there, so if you know there are any flaws in this account, please let me know.)

So that is pretty much my experience with the Miyake Taiko workshop. Now that we have received some proper instruction on the style, I hope we can continue to practice it and improve. If you've read all the way to the end of this, thank you very much. You must be a big taiko fan or a relative. Next time, I will write about the concert on Sunday.


A big weekend

It seems like it's been a while since I had a chance to make a posting here, and I guess it has been nearly two weeks. The last two weeks have been rather busy, though. Sunday is the big concert, where Yume Mitai (one of the groups I play with) will get to play with former Kodo members and the Miyake Taiko hozonkai, as well as several other big names in the taiko world. Here is a link to the concert information, but it is only in Japanese (at the bottom of the page). In preparation for this concert, I have been at Asano nearly every day for the last two weeks. Maybe it finally caught up with me yesterday, because I seemed to have gotten sick. Last night I had a rather high fever. Luckily, it was mostly gone by the morning and by the time I left for work, I felt healthy again. This evening I had a rehearsal from 6:30 to 8:30, tomorrow I'll have a workshop with these guys:

Then another rehearsal from 4 pm till 10 pm. Sunday, the day of the concert, we have dress rehearsal in the morning, starting at 9, break for lunch, more rehearsing, and the concert at 3:30. So it should be a busy couple of days. Hopefully I will not be too exhausted after the Miyake taiko workshop. If you watch the video, you probably can tell that it gives your body a workout. I found another blogger who did the same workshop at last summer's Earth Celebration on Sado Island, and she went and did a concert directly following the workshop. So apparently, it is possible to go from the workshop directly to another strenuous activity, however, sometimes, the sore muscles don't really hit you until the next day. Oh well, sore muscles only hurt when you don't use them.

Seeing as how I have a busy two days ahead of me, I am going to go to bed.