Do Volunteers work harder than employees? Working at the Exstasia Taiko Festival

Four days of outdoor, physical labor in the hot sun, usually lasting until 10 pm or midnight and the only physical payment received was free meals and iced tea.

That is one way to describe volunteering for the Exstasia Taiko festival hosted by Asano Taiko. Although it was hard work, I don't have any complaints.

To be honest, I rather enjoy hard, physical work. One feels a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, and the results are often concrete. Secondly, the experience of volunteering at a large event like this provides invaluable learning, especially for someone like me, who may be trying to put on my own taiko events in the not-so-distant future. It was almost like a mini-internship. Finally because I really enjoy playing taiko and being around other taiko people, and meeting such fine, professional taiko performers (Hono Taiko, Asano Machiko, Wadaiko Yamato, Fu-un no kai). I was very glad to volunteer for four days at Exstasia. I actually wish I could have volunteered more, and I hope to do it again next year.

It's kind of funny, but I was thinking while I was working that people will give a lot more as volunteers, when they are not getting paid, than if they are employees. I was imagining that most people, if asked by their employer to work 15 hour days for several days in a row, even if they were getting paid for it, would probably not do it nearly as gladly as those who might volunteer to do the same work. I guess it has something to do with having a choice to be there, as opposed to being told one has to be there.

Anyhow, I'll try to give you a quick idea of what the volunteer work was like.

Last year's Exstasia was at an indoor concert hall, so there was much less work to be done (or so I hear, I couldn't volunteer last year). This year, they returned to the traditional outdoor venue, the Matto Undo Koen/Park. I believe this is Exstasia's 15th year, and out of all those years, it has only been held indoors twice.

The main work on preparing the venue started about a week before hand. I was able to volunteer on Monday, and we spent the day filling sand bags and assembling partitions for a barrier, which would surround the venue so that passers-by could not watch the concert without purchasing tickets. Tuesday and Wednesday were slow days, and they said no volunteers were needed. Thursday I volunteered again starting around noon and spent the day driving metal stakes into the ground with a sledge hammer and using a fire hose to wash off the stone amphitheater seats where guests would sit. Friday I had to work (at my job) in the afternoon, but was able to show up to volunteer around 5 pm. We worked till about 10 putting up huge 10 meter banners around the sides and the back of the concert area (there were about 30 in all). On the banners was written this year's theme for the Exstasia Taiko Festival, which was: 烈火 挑発, which means "raging fire" and "provocation". These banners were hand "written" by a Japanese calligraphy artist, and took him around 14 hours to complete all thirty of them. He used a huge paint brush/pen. Writing them was not only physically, but mentally tiring as well, and he needed breaks between each banner as well. Here he is painting a banner:

And here is one of the finished banners standing up outside:

(These two images are from the Asano Taiko "Asano Tsushin" blog)

The whole process was quite impressive, and to top it all off, the artist did not make one single mistake while painting all 30 of these banners!

Saturday we put the finishing touches on the concert venue, and were pretty much done by 7 pm, which was when the dress rehearsal was to start. Traditionally, volunteers are able to watch the dress rehearsal, because most of us would not be able to watch the concert the next day. I was reminded of how it is often the little details that make a difference between a good and great performance as I listened to Mr. Asano's comments after the rehearsal. One of the areas he said was not yet at a satisfactory level was in the movement of the stage hands. These were the people responsible for moving around the drums to the correct locations between each group/number. He told them they still looked a bit sloppy and as if they weren't always sure exactly where they should be or what they should be doing. He asked them to study the diagrams more, meet together and even to walk in step as they moved onto the stage. Stage hands walking in step is not something most people would expect or even notice, but I guess it's one of those things that give the whole experience that extra something, the extra sparkle or whatever that just makes you feel like you are seeing something really special. After the dress rehearsal, there was one last quick meeting for the different departments and it was off to bed.

Sunday was the day of the performance. Volunteers had small jobs to do to prepare for the evening. For example, I was to work at the entryway, taking tickets as guests arrived, so my job for the morning was to fold programs which would be handed out at as people came in. Depending on there responsibilities during the concert, everyone had some jobs like that to do, but it was all pretty low-key because we had finished most of the major work on Saturday. But Mother Nature had other plans in mind...

During the morning and the afternoon, there were some final sound checks for the performers. Wadaiko Yamato had the first sound check in the morning, then at 11, we had the opening ceremony, and the other groups were scheduled to have their sound checks after that. During the opening ceremony, however, dark clouds began to roll in and the wind began to pick up.

We tried to keep a positive attitude and told each other that it would blow over and we all went to lunch. After lunch, Hono Taiko was doing their sound check. The clouds got darker, the wind got stronger, there were a few distant rumbles of thunder. I said to one the other volunteers, "I guess the dress rehearsal last night called up the thunder gods." She responded to me with a story about Jige san (of Hono Taiko) in Mexico. Apparently, she was playing an Odaiko solo on top of a Aztec pyramid for a concert there. Before she began, the sky was clear, as she began to play, dark clouds began to creep across the sky. They remained covering the sun during her whole performance, and as she finished, they disappeared and the sun came back out. The power of taiko? The power of Jige san?

Sure enough, during Hono Taiko's sound check, the storm broke. Rain, thunder, wind... it was a major storm. In fact, the wind was strong enough to knock over about 6 of the large banners, and broke about 4 more. Once the storm passed, we had 4 banners to repair (it took two days to get them all up, so taking down four and getting them back up again in just a couple hours was not a small task) and wet seats and wet grass where the guests would sit. Needless to say, what looked like a fairly relaxing day, turned into a rather hectic afternoon. Although the clean up and repairs from the storm seemed to be impossible to complete before the concert began, we all set to work and were able to start on time (we even dried to seating area) and no one would have known that a few hours before, a storm had passed through. The concert was a success.

Next time, perhaps I'll write a bit more about the concert and why I think Wadaiko Yamato are not only excellent taiko performers, but good, quality people as well.


Edie said...

those banners are honestly amazing. i want some o..O

haha, i like the clarification between your daughter and your wife in your "about me" section. i laughed quite a bit at that.

Raion Taiko said...

Yes, Edie, they were rather impressive. I don't know what they did with them after the show. Should I ask if there are any left for you?