Sunday
Jul292007

Extasia Ecstasia taiko festival concerts

This past Sunday we were able to enjoy nearly four hours of taiko performances. The day was split into an afternoon concert and an evening concert. Following the afternoon performance, my wife and I simply looked at each other. We were literally at a loss for words, other than "wow". Anything we could have said would have taken something away from the experience. At several points, we were nearly moved to tears. We found out later, when the town mayor gave some opening remarks for the evening concert, that he also had been moved to tears.

I also feel that a "play by play" description of the groups and their performances would be a disservice to them. Taiko of this caliber cannot be described, it must be experienced. Perhaps there are a few aspects of the afternoon and evening, which I can share, however. I was rather ... "excited" ... that the first performance of the afternoon featured three genuine Geisha. Many people outside of Japan seem to be aware of Geisha, but I would venture to guess that their ideas regarding them are most likely inaccurate, especially if they are based on somewhat recent movie, "Memoirs of a Geisha". Unfortunately, this movie, was not an accurate portrayal of Geisha. In fact, many Japanese were offended that in making a movie about something so closely associated with Japanese identity, that no Japanese actresses were cast in lead roles. (not to say that the Chinese actresses are not attractive). At any rate, a geisha is a skillfully trained in many traditional arts, such as music, dance and other things. It is rare to see geisha, even in Kyoto. At least during my two years living in Japan and my subsequent yearly visits, I never saw a real Geisha until Sunday. Some may believe they have seen Geisha in Kyoto, especially around the Kiyomizu Temple area, but these are often tourists who pay to have a formal picture taken in Geisha/Maiko dress, and then take some time stroll around the tourist areas following the photo.

Anyhow, I have strayed a bit from the topic. What I mean to say, is that seeing as how Geisha are a rare sight, I felt privileged to be able to enjoy their dance at Ecstasia.

Another group that played was from Kagoshima, in the south west area of Japan. It was made up of all girls (maybe about 20) between around 4th or 5th grade through high school. Their performance was one of those that nearly brought tears to my eyes, simply because of their passion in playing the drums. I think one of the rules of this group contributed a great deal to their moving performance and stage presence. The rule is: "You can't accomplish anything on your own". I'm certain this idea has formed their mentality and helped them to have a feeling of unity as they learn to play taiko together. In order to achieve their performance level, everyone must rely on each other, help each other. If one person struggles, the whole group struggles. If one member performs poorly, it reflects on the whole group. I suppose it's sort of like the saying, "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link". I think this may be a very Japanese idea, or way of thinking. Westerners, maybe Americans especially, like to be in the spotlight and strive to be a standout in the group, or on the team, but I think the result of this unified thinking is much more impressive.

I've often thought of this regarding sports teams as well. We like to see the star players perform, it's entertaining and impressive to watch, but one or two star players can easily be beaten by a good all around team.

Hono Taiko was the finale for both the afternoon and evening concerts. It's kind of funny that I mentioned the Mitsu uchi style taiko in my last post and said that it wasn't really performed any longer. At least that is what Mr. Mogi, who gave the lecture said. Wouldn't you know that Hono Taiko performed the Mitsu Uchi style for one of their selections in the afternoon concert. Perhaps it will be revived after all.

There were many more groups, but as I mentioned, to try to describe them all here does not do them justice. I just have to recommend that someday you come to Matto to see Ecstasia for yourself. It's worth it.

Now we move on to plan for our trip to Sago Island to visit Kodo's Earth Celebration on the 17th and 18th of August. In the meantime, we will start taiko lessons at Asano Taiko this Thursday. Stay tuned for more updates.

Saturday
Jul282007

Taiko Lecture

This afternoon is the Ecstasia Taiko Concert in Matto. We are looking forward to attending the performances all afternoon and evening. There will be many different groups from all over Japan performing this year. As the event is sponsored by Asano Taiko, Hono Taiko will naturally be headlining the afternoon and evening concerts. I am looking forward to seeing them perform again. I have not seen their performance since 2000, I guess. Since then, I suppose I have only seen Yamato's live performances.

Yesterday we were able to attend a pre-event lecture and mini-performance. Jige-san of Hono Taiko even sat right next to us. The lecture was at least 90 minutes and all in Japanese, of course. I was rather pleased with myself that I was able to understand enough to follow the main points of the presentation. Having not lived more than a few weeks at a time in Japan for seven plus years, I honestly did not expect to be able to follow an academic lecture.

The lecture was given by Mogi Hitoshi and was titled 「伝統と創作、それが太鼓の生きる道」 Which translates to something like "Tradition and Creativity, That is the Way of Taiko". The majority of the lecture dealt with the history and traditions of taiko in Japan. The last half hour or so, he spent talking about some of the creative styles that developed out of those traditions, such as Ooedosukeroku taiko (大江戸助六太鼓) and Mitsu Uchi (三つ打ち) style. The Mitsu Uchi Style seems to have been influenced from the traditions of Gojinjodaiko (御陣乗太鼓) from the Noto peninsula. It is a very flashy style using many fast rhythms and sticks decorated in red and white, which are twirled and flipped often during the performance. Apparently, this style has died out, though, and is not really performed any longer. The Sukeroku style, however, is still often used. Many North American taiko groups have adopted this style of playing.

When looking back at the traditions, from which these styles developed, there is quite a big difference. "IN THE BEGINNING" drums in Japan were not used for entertainment. It was almost always for more pragmatic purposes. In fact, it wasn't until the latter half of the 20th century that they were even considered as a possible entertainment vessel. Long, long ago they were used for purposes such as defining village boundaries. The boundaries were as far as the sound of the drum would carry. They were also used for scaring away pests from fields, homes and villages, or for calling for rain. Mr. Mogi actually spent quite a bit of time discussing taiko being used to call for rain. As one can imagine, the taiko sound was associated with the sound of thunder. Since the sounds were similar, people believed that the taiko would call the rain. So it makes sense that the Japanese image of the god of thunder would also have drums in it. He showed several graphics of the god of thunder (you can see one of the graphics here: http://www.emuseum.jp/cgi/pkihon.cgi?SyoID=2&ID=w307&SubID=s000 ) Notice the small drums surrounding the god on the left.

Taiko were also used in festivals and other events as an offering of sorts to the gods and spirits. Sometimes this was in a festival setting. One festival, of which he showed a short video clip, I thought was particularly interesting. It was held in the middle of the night. There were probably about 20 or 30 people with staffs and bamboo poles striking the ground in a steady marching type of rhythm. Behind this group, a huge taiko drum was being pulled along on a cart, while priests (I think) on either side of the drum were striking it with a "bat bachi" (basically, a drum stick shaped like a baseball bat). It was struck probably once every few seconds or so. No complicated rhythms, but the sound must have been quite moving.

He also spent a bit of time discussing taiko in Gagaku music. This is Japanese classical music. There seem to be two taiko which are always part of this, one representing the sun, and the other the moon. The drum representing the sun is on the left (east) and the drum head is decorated with a mitsudomoe (like a yin yang design with three parts) and the drum on the right (west) is representing the moon and is decorated with a futatsudomoe (yin yang design). Gagaku music, I believe, was also a sort of offering to the gods, or perhaps the Emperor, who was/is also considered a god.

I think what struck me the most was how far the taiko that is prevalent today has come from its roots and traditional uses. I don't mean to say that it has strayed from its foundation. The traditions from which these newer styles developed are still evident. But the beginnings of taiko, or at least what I saw yesterday, are much simpler than modern taiko.

Although there is more to say, it is now time to depart for Ecstasia. With my limited understanding of yesterday's lecture, I hope that I have done justice to what Mr. Mogi wanted to say. I do not believe I have given any false information, but I may have given incomplete information. I did purchase his book yesterday, "An Introduction to Japanese Taiko". As I read through the book, I will come back to this post and edit, correct, add as needed.

Stay tuned, hopefully an entry regarding this afternoon and evening's concert will soon follow.

Saturday
Jul142007

My first experience ...

Our departure date is now only a little more than a week away. As we get busier with our moving preparations, we are getting more and more excited about studying taiko drumming. I think I first saw a live taiko performance in 1998, when I first moved to Japan. It was incredible. It was evident that the passion with which the drummers played, moved everyone in the crowd who was watching. The name of the group was Honno Taiko of Ishikawa ken. The group is made up of three women. They were accompanied by several other drums for this performance at some sort of street festival in Kanazawa. Between songs, one of the women jumping around yelling at the audience (in a friendly way). I was actually surprised at her energy, because it seemed that everyone in the group had used up there energy (and then some) during the performance, yet this woman seemed to have an endless supply. Anyone who is familiar with Honno Taiko has probably already realized that I am speaking of Jige-san, who is still a member of the group, and still seems to have no limits to her energy. Anyway, at this point, I had only been in Japan for about two weeks and had a very limited understanding of Japanese. From what I was able to understand, it seemed that Jige-san was inviting us to a larger event later on that month, where Honno Taiko would be headlining. This was most likely Ecstasia, an annual event put on my Asano Taiko in Matto, near Kanazawa. I didn't attend that year, but I did the following year and was, again, speechless with awe at the way these drums were played, and seemed to have the same effect on everyone in attendance.
I also was able to see Kodo perform twice when I lived in Japan from 1998 - 2000. What left the biggest impression on me from their performance were the songs, "O-daiko" and "Yataibayashi", which were performed one right after another. Both of these pieces require an extraordinary level of physical endurance, which was very obvious during the performance. By the time they were at the end of the song, I felt like the drummer's heart was ready to burst. Literally burst, and yet, I also felt that if that were to happen, he would die with a smile on his face. I recently read Jack London's "Call of the Wild". At one point in the story, London writes about certain sled dogs' desires to die in the traces of the sled. The dogs felt shame at being cut out of the traces, even if continuing meant certain death. I felt as if these drummers maybe felt the same about playing taiko. Although I've never heard of any taiko fatalities, I wonder if these drummers had a choice, they would choose to go on stage, literally playing their hearts out.
I am very excited that we will be experiencing these two groups again very soon. We have already purchased tickets to this year's Ecstasia in Matto, where I'm certain Honno Taiko will be peforming along with numerous other groups from all over Japan. We are in the process of making plans to travel to Sado Island in the Sea of Japan, where the members of Kodo live, and practice.
Every summer they hold their annual Earth Celebration weekend. We are hoping to go and camp out on the beach, while spending a couple days enjoying taiko performances and workshops. I am certain I will have plenty to write about following those two events.

Sunday
Jun242007

A Journey of a Thousand Miles ...

 

千里の道も、一歩から
A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.


I don't remember when I first heard this maxim, but it first took on meaning to me about 10 years ago. I was standing at the top of a hill in Germany, looking east. I had been working as a business intern at a wig factory in Kronach, in isolated town in rural, northern Bavaria. Weekend entertainment options were minimal, and at that time (1997) most shops in Germany still closed around 1 PM on Saturdays, so I had often spent weekends exploring hiking trails in the area, often walking for 6 hours or more at a time.

 

I find that I do some of my best thinking when I walk alone. Perhaps it is being alone with one's thoughts, or the rhythm of one's steps that gets the mind going. In fact, I often found myself thinking out loud, having conversations with myself. I was completely alone, why not? (I did get "caught" on one occasion, however.)

Having spent so much time walking and thinking, I began to wonder about what was out there, to the East. I knew the Czech Republic bordered Bavaria directly east of where I was, so I began to wonder how long it would take to walk there. Perhaps I could walk there and back before Monday, in time for work. I let this train of thought develop, and thought about what lay beyond the Czech Republic: Russia, the Middle East, Asia. Then one of those crazy ideas came into my head. It was the type of idea that everyone has from time to time and probably most of us simply write them off as crazy, impossible or unlikely. Whatever we label them, we never accomplish them because as quickly as these ideas come into our minds, they leave. But I held on to this one just long enough so that I did not forget it. I wanted to walk from London to Hong Kong! Why not? (Of course, I couldn't walk across the English Channel, but other than that...) Yes, it was a prodigious distance to travel by foot, but what is walking after all? It is just putting one foot in front of the other, and doing that enough times would eventually bring me to Hong Kong.

Every great accomplishment must have started the same way, with an idea, and an idea never becomes an accomplishment by thinking about how impossible or unlikely it is to achieve it. Whether one is speaking of literal steps in a trek from Paris to Hong Kong, or small increments of advancement in a career, or a project, it is the discipline and dedication of continuously "putting one foot in front of the other" that allows all of us, no matter how exceptional or how mediocre we are, to achieve greatness.

This mindset reminds me of another maxim: "10% inspiration, 90% perspiration," which also first took on meaning to me when I was in Germany in 2003/4 working on a Master's degree (a story I may share in a future entry). The idea is only the first step. Talent is only a small part of success. Discipline to work hard and dedication to reach the goal count for much more.

I wish I could end this entry by saying that I had realized my dream of walking across 2 continents and share all the wonderful, life-changing experiences I had, but I have not yet been able to do this. Not yet. Although it may be unlikely that I will ever complete it, I also have never given it up, and I never will. My hilltop epiphany of 10 years ago has changed my thinking and my approach to life. I rarely discount ideas I have, if I think they are worth pursuing, no matter how unattainable they may seem. I write down the ideas that intrigue me the most in hopes that I will not forget them and may achieve them someday. Some of them I have, others I have not (yet!). Even in my daily life, I tend to set my goals beyond what I think my reach might be, hoping that I will reach my full potential. I can think of several instances, where I had set goals I thought were impossible to reach. I have not yet failed to achieve them.

It is in this spirit, that my wife and I move to Japan and begin the study of taiko, or Japanese drumming. There are few people who can experience a live performance of taiko drums and not be moved to a near spiritual level. My wife and I have been captivated by Japanese drumming for several years now and have decided to begin our own amateur group and school in a couple years. In a couple weeks, we will move to Japan and begin study of taiko. After several years, we plan to return and pass on what we've learned to others. This online journal is intended to share our experiences as we take this first step, of several thousand miles. Please join us.

 

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