The Japanese American Cultural & Community Center recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with a gala event on March 30th. This commemorative occasion featured performances ranging from archery to traditional enka music by Jero.
Taiko artist Kenny Endo collaborated with traditional Japanese musician Kaoru Watanabe and Western percussionist Abe Lagrimas in a powerful, moving piece that opened the festivities. From his very first swing onto the impressively large drum, Endo exuded a relentless passion and energy through his performance. He was not only playing an instrument; he was dancing with his drum onstage. Endo uses his entire body to counter and control the massive taiko drum, maintaining a steady, precise rhythm. With vigor and fluidity, Endo grips the stage floor with his feet as he recoils from the impact of the taiko drum, before swinging again, never missing a beat. With each strike of the taiko drum, he sent vibrant waves throughout the Aratani theatre.
APA talks to Kenny Endo about his musical beginnings, the neverending excitement and challenges of taiko, and his upcoming work.
Asia Pacific Arts: When and how did you get interested in taiko?
Kenny Endo: This is my 35th year playing taiko, so since 1975. I’ve always liked drums since I was a little kid, and I started playing the Western drums when I was nine years old. The first Japanese drums I saw was kumi daiko, which in Japanese is the art of a group playing drums. That’s fairly new, in terms of Japanese history. It’s not a traditional form, but when I first saw it in 1973 I thought, "Oh, I want to do that." You could hear the drums not just with your ears, but you could feel it all the way to your bones. It was also a part of my cultural heritage, so I wanted to get in touch with it.
APA: Do play any other musical instruments?
KE: It was mainly drums and percussion. I played in school band and school orchestra, so I played different orchestral instruments like snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, timpani, those kind of things. And then I also played the bamboo flute, the shinobue.
APA: As there are many different kinds of taiko drums, is there any particular kind that you specialize in?
KE: Not really. When I was learning, you were expected to learn all the different kinds. I guess what I specialize in mainly is the big drum, the odaiko. Also if you noticed in my last piece from the JACCC anniversary concert, I used a set of drums that I call my taiko set. There are three different sized drums in that. I also specialize in the tsuzumi, which I used in the very beginning when Hirokazu Kosaka was shooting the arrows. It would probably be those three, the tsuzumi, taiko set and odaiko.
The kotsuzumi (also known as tsuzumi) is the hour glass drum played with your hand. That’s the only one I know where you don’t hit with a stick, or a bachi as we say. You hit with your bare hands, and you can release the ropes. The history of that is different from taiko, because it comes from traditional Japanese theatre, originally noh and kabuki, so the music is actually very old. The odaiko is very physically demanding because the sticks are really big and you have to really swing hard. So, that takes a lot of stamina. The taiko set was something that I developed because of my background in Western music. Typically in traditional music, drummers might use two drums at the most, but they don’t usually use three or more like that. But, I was in a lot of musical situations where I was the only drummer or percussionist, and I felt the need for these sounds. I use it a lot, and it’s something I’ve been trying to develop. I’m still constantly practicing and trying to improve. There is always so much room for improvement.
APA: Considering that you’re familiar with both Western drums and taiko, what do you find to be the main difference between the two? How was it transitioning from one to the other?
KE: I guess the most difficult thing is that you have to use your whole body. When you play Western drums, you just sit down. I don’t do that often anymore, but I still enjoy that kind of playing, and I still listen to that kind of music. But in taiko, you’re standing up and using your whole body. So, it’s a whole mind-body-spirit harmony sort of discipline. That was really appealing to me.
Photo credit: Toyo Miyatake
APA: When I was reading your biography on your website, I saw that you performed with Los Angeles’ Kinnara Taiko and San Francisco’s Taiko Dojo.
KE: Kinnara was based at a Buddhist temple which is actually very close to USC.
APA: Is it the Senshin Temple?
KE: Yeah, at the Senshin Temple. They are very community-based. It is also Buddhist-based. I really like that group because everybody watches out for each other, and it’s not so much based on quality but cohesiveness within the group, and I think that’s really important. San Francisco’s Taiko Dojo was formed by Tanaka-sensei who is a teacher from Japan, and in the old days when I was in the group, he was very strict and he had a background in martial arts. So, he taught the school very strictly and it was a different approach. It was a very Japanese approach, but it was very good for me to be in that sort of structure.
Actually, later in 1980 I moved to Japan and ended up living there for ten years. In Japan, what I wanted to learn was traditional music. So, I really got into the music from kabuki which is considered classical music -- the word for classical music is hougaku. That’s where I started learning the tsuzumi and studied with some incredible teachers. Actually, one of the teachers I studied with was a ningen kokuhou, or national treasure, and I got into music called edo bayashi which is Tokyo festival music. I was going to stay for a year or two, but that wasn’t enough and it ended up being ten years and even my two boys were born over there.
APA: How was it transitioning from your taiko studies in America to learning taiko in Japan?
KE: I guess the biggest transition for me was [adapting to the] cultural and language [differences]. Although I’m a Japanese American, and my father was born in Japan, I could understand Japanese but couldn’t really speak it. It was a good experience for me. This was in the 1980s, and it was a good time to be in Tokyo because the economy was really strong. It was an exciting time to be there.
APA: How did you know or decide that you wanted pursue taiko as a career?
KE: I guess when I started playing taiko, I knew that it would possible make a living doing this and that I wanted to do it. The more you get into it, the more you realize you don’t know enough about it, and I really wanted to know more. I also believe the longer you’ve been playing, the more you need to practice. There are just so many things to keep up with, so many things to review, so many things to create. I really enjoy taiko, because it’s such a challenge, and I want to keep working at it.
APA: You received a natori (classical stage name) in hougaku (classical Japanese music) and on top of that you’re the first non-Japanese national to receive it. What is the significance of achieving this award to you?
KE: Well in a technical sense, natori is a stage name to perform by and a license to teach taiko to others. I’m happy that I did it, but for me when I received a natori, it’s not so much an achievement but a beginning -- a stepping stone. There’s so much more I can learn. It’s like there’s a saying in Japan “kiri ga nai” which means “there’s no end.”My focus since I've been in the States has been starting a school, composing my own music, starting my own group, things like that.
APA: Aside from hougaku, what other music styles have you played? What would like to experiment with in the future?
KE: Well, I started with hougaku and edo bayashi. In terms of what I want to create, I’m trying to create something that has its base in traditional Japanese music, but also has influences from all around the world. Some of my pieces have influences from music from Brazil, Cuba, India and even Indonesia, so I’m interested in all those different influences.
Photo credit: Shuzo Uemoto
APA: I saw that you opened JACCC’s 30th anniversary gala event with Kaoru Watanabe and Abe Lagrimas. The collaboration you presented had a very unique combination of classical and contemporary feels to it. How did you go about preparing for that performance?
KE: Actually, the very opening when it was just Kaoru and I, while Hirokazu, the archer, was shooting arrows behind us -- that piece was totally improvised. We have a background in classical music, and improvisation is a huge part of the style. Later, the odaiko came out, and I played one of my earlier works, “Safe Landing” from my first CD.
There’s a lot lot of improvisation in my music, and both Kaoru and Abe are very good at that. Then, I played “Ame” which means rain, but I wrote it after 9/11, and the English title is “Tears of the Earth.” Not only was it dedicated to the victims of 9/11, but the victims of 9/11’s revenge. That’s what that piece is about. And then we did “Swing, Soul & Sincerity” from my second CD, kind of had more of a jazz feel. Then, we ended with a traditional taiko piece and that was kind of an improvised piece as well.
APA: Soon after performing for JACCC’s 30th anniversary event, you held your own concert celebrating your 35th anniversary of taiko drumming. Did you have a particular concept or theme you wanted to present to your audience for your anniversary show?
KE: The JACCC called it "Kenny Endo and Friends," but there’s this word called mitsudomoe in Japanese. Mitsu means three, and domoe means swirls. You can sometimes see it painted on taiko skins. There are different interpretations of that symbol, but my interpretation is mind, body and spirit. So that was the theme of my concert and how I approached it. Most of the pieces I performed were my original music, but I played with a lot of guests. It was a lot of fun.
APA: I believe you have a day dedicated to you called "Kenny Endo Day."
KE: Yes, I think it was in 2002 or 2004, but that one day I was honored by the city of Honolulu and by the state legislator. It was kind of just a day where they honored some of my achievements.
APA: Is it an annual event?
KE: Oh no no, it was just that one day. [laughter]
APA: How does it feel to have reached 35 years of your career?
KE: It feels good. I never knew I’d be able to make a living doing this. Sometimes it’s still very tough to do it, because it’s not exactly mainstream music, but even musicians who play mainstream music have a hard time because of the economy right now. If you play a kind of obscure music style like, it’s even harder. It’s not that I’m surprised that I lasted this long, but I’m surprised I’ve been able to survive doing it.
APA: Where would you like to go from here?
KE: This year we’re trying to do a major tour in the US, probably in October and November. We’re going to have a concert on June 11th in Honolulu at the Hawaii Theatre with special guests. I plan to release 2 CDs in the next month or so, and I have ideas for a couple more CDS. I guess I’d like to record some symphonic pieces in which I performed as a solo in, but I’d like to get funding to record those and put it on a CD or DVD.
I still want to continue composing and performing. We have our school in Honolulu where we teach younger people how to play. We’re just trying to pass the tradition on. I want to do a lot more collaboration with other artists, not just other artists from Japan, but artists all over the world, different countries. Not just Asian music too, but all different kinds. I’d like to do some film scores. Even collaborate with dance, theatre and other forms of art. Lots of ideas and projects, but I guess in the long term, I just want to make a statement that it’s possible to survive by creating your own kind of career and doing what you love.