Last year, St John’s Church echoed to the unmistakable sounds and rythms of Japanese taiko drumming, when Wadaiko Ensemble Tokara brought their memorable performance Tenchi Shinmei to Edinburgh as part of the Festival of Spirituality and Peace.
This year they return with an expanded show. We caught up with Tokara founder and taiko expert, US-born Art Lee, to find out more about Tokara and their plans for this year’s performances.
Can you tell us a little about your own journey as a taiko drummer; from what first attracted you to it, to how you came to be a prize-winning practicioner?
I first saw a taiko drumming performance in 1993 while I studied at culinary arts academy.
I was extremely mesmerized by the experience, the dance and martial arts movement and the thunderous sounds that came from the drums. I was lucky enough to find an amateur group located only one hour drive away where I could take lessons up to three times a week.
In 1994, one of the world’s most famous groups, Ondekoza, was on tour in the U.S. for three years. During this time, they were secretly looking for two non-Japanese performers who they would choose to join them for their upcoming Japan Tour which had been planned for years and was being produced by Japan Arts, the top tour production company at the time. While teaching workshops all over the world, they allowed each member of each workshop to play one of their largest drums.
Participants thought this was just for fun, but this was Ondekoza’s method for seeing who was ready to be scouted for this upcoming tour. After my first time playing the drum, I was confused as they asked me to play a second time, then a third time while they watched intently. After the workshop was finished, they invited me to join their Japan Tour. This time to Japan was my first time on a airplane and first time in a foreign country. It was my first experience in Japan, and probably the defining point of my future.
Since those days, I studied almost religiously even while on world tours. In 2001, with the permission and support of my teachers, I was awarded the first and still the only artist visa in the world for a non-Japanese to be considered among the top performers and instructors in the world…which was an indescribable honour.
How would you describe the taiko discipline? It sounds almost a way of life – what does a typical day (if such a thing exists) in the life of a taiko drummer look like?
When most people think about drumming, either hand drumming or kit drumming come to mind. Taiko on the other hand, uses sticks that are big and heavy. When I first started, I felt like I was holding small tree trunks in each hand.
Back then, my teacher was really strict with new students, and we would have to do an exercise called “Uchikomi” where everyone would play the same rhythm for 45 minutes to one hour with no break…being as big as you could be and hitting as hard as you can. Not only could you not move after that, but the next few days were filled some of the most dreadful muscle pain caused just by standing up.
Taiko is very much a way of life. For Tokara, daily routines usually require us to run 10 kilometers, do 200 sit-ups, 200 push-ups, and other exercises before breakfast; clean the office and practice drumming for three hours before lunch. Then practice pounding on big drums with big, wooden sticks for another three hours before dinner.
However, it is not only performing, composing and teaching drumming, it is a way of thinking and acting that makes one a professional taiko artist. For example, in Japan I rarely have a written contract with a client, so I must make sure that the client is not simply satisfied with what they have requested, but rather, it is my goal that they feel they may have even paid too little for the performance or workshop that they have requested.
Can tell us a little about Tokara as a group also – who are the other musicians and artists you have the pleasure of working with?
The group official name is Wadaiko Ensemble Tokara (although can be referred as Tokara), which is a small group of dedicated individuals who work together not only for performance, but we also create our own costumes, posters, flyers, website, stage lighting, sound and everything else that we need for our professional lives.
Tokara is a group which I created in 2004, but it didn’t really become a strong performance group in its own right until approximately two years ago. We actually have three full-time performing members, two extension members and one apprentice. The three performing members (Yukari Ichise, Dean Havixbeck and myself) and the apprentice (Takafumi Onozawa) live in Japan and work with each other everyday.
This year, we also have the pleasure of being joined by our Japan Tour partners, Ensemble Rivelta, who are undoubtedly one of the best traditional music groups in Japan because of their range of music, from traditional japanese to classical and spanish flamenco music, all on traditional Japanese music instruments.
Tell us a little about Tenchi Shinmei’s shows – The Ocean and The Mountain – which you are bringing to Edinburgh this year? What can audiences expect; and how do the shows differ?
‘Tenchi Shinmei’ was an inspiration that came to me just after my teacher and mentor in Japan passed away from being hit by a truck. He often taught us to practice and perform our art as if there were no extra lighting or sound to amplify our movement and sound. That way, we needed to be careful and focus on every movement and be careful not to lose concentration no matter whether we are hitting a beat or changing the style of drumstick. This idea was actually one of the founding philosophies upon which the “Tokara-style” is based.
‘Tenchi Shinmei’ is a mixture of both hard and soft style of taiko, and rhythms both Japanese and abroad (such as African and Korean). Edinburgh in 2011 will be the first time ever where we are separating the hard and soft aspects of ‘Tenchi Shinmei’ and presenting them as two different performances.
“The Ocean” represents the melodic subtlety of ‘Tenchi Shinmei’ and performed mostly by Ensemble Rivelta, with one taiko drumming piece in the middle.
“The Mountain” represents the rhythmic power and is performed mostly by Wadaiko Tokara with interludes by Ensemble Rivelta.
The difference accentuates the hard and soft separately, but also shows that one cannot exist without the other.
How would you describe your Edinburgh experience during the Festival last year?
Last year was the first time Wadaiko Tokara had performed at the Edinburgh Festival. It was very much a highlight of the touring year as it was the first time for Tokara to perform in Europe as a group. Edinburgh has such a vibrant and artistic energy during this time of year so that we felt energized throughout each day whether during rehearsal, PR or just seeing the sights.
We knew that we needed to work hard everyday to promote the performances from early morning to late night as we didn’t have any kind of budget to hire someone to help with it.
We were so happy with how the audience accepted us and how many people came back to see our shows three and four times, and often asked for two and three encores in one show. Also, working with the staff at St. John’s church for the Edinburgh Festival of Spirituality and Peace was a delight for us. We really fell in love with the city of Edinburgh and with Scotland.
Truly, we are very happy to be able to return this year with our full show and staff for the whole festival.
And what do you and Tenchi Shinmei have planned for after August?
Next year in 2012, we are working with an Indian Dance company to present our new production called “1,001 Buddhas”. Currently there are performances planned for North America in January, and Japan in June and July.
‘Tenchi Shinmei’ will continue on world tour with performances in Japan from May – September 2012 and possibly Europe in late autumn.
We are also accepting new apprentices from the early summer of 2012 and hope to build our group into a twelve member strong touring group.
Tokara will be performing The Ocean and The Mountain as part of the Edinburgh Festival of Spirituality And Peace. Both shows run at St John’s Church with The Ocean from Aug 5-23 at 14:00 and The Mountain from 5-29 Aug at various times. You can find out more and book tickets on the Festival of Spirituality & Peace website; and you can also find out more about Tokara on their own site.