Gwen Battad Ishikawa
Taiko has often been referred to as the “heartbeat of Japan.”
If you’ve ever seen a live taiko performance, you literally understand what that means. The constant rhythmic beat produced by bachi sticks hitting the skin that stretches over the taiko barrel is powerful enough that your own chest feels like it’s being pounded upon. You can’t help but be mesmerized.
Japan’s taiko drum, over 2,000 years old, traces its origins to the Chinese jiegu and Korean galgo, and its predecessor, the kakko, which was used in gagaku (Japanese imperial court music).
At the end of the 12th century, the samurai class gained power and a new cultural movement of ethnic Japanese appeared. Taiko served as accompaniment in Noh and Kabuki plays and joined other traditional instruments such as the shamisen, koto and shakuhachi (flute). Taiko was used mainly in religious ceremonies and local festivals.
In the 1950s, Daihachi Oguchi, founder of Osuwa Daiko, created the kumi-daiko style, in which an ensemble plays on various drums as a performance art.
This more contemporary style of drumming is what Kenny Endo is known for. “It’s only been around for the last 50 or 60 years, so in terms of Japanese history, it’s not that old,” he said.
Endo is an internationally renowned taiko solo artist who began drumming in 1975. To celebrate his 40th year milestone in taiko, an anniversary concert titled, “TEN TEN,” will be held Saturday, Oct. 10, at 7 p.m. at the Hawaii Theatre.
Endo’s interest in drumming began at the age of 4, but it wasn’t until age 9 that he began taking lessons.
“I was lucky that my elementary school had a band program, but it was the basic bass drum, snare drum and cymbals. My family likes music and my mom was supportive when I wanted to start drumming,” he said.
Endo’s love of taiko stems from the connection he feels to nature.
“It’s made from natural materials like calfskin and a tree trunk. The deep sound and vibrations — not only can you hear it and feel it with your whole body, you can experience it.
“Taiko gets you closer to nature. In the modern world, there is more convenience and easier ways [to do things]. You lose touch with nature sometimes. For me, taiko reminds me of the connection that is lost.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Endo attended the University of California at Santa Cruz and later transferred to UCLA.
Although he wanted to major in music, his school credits forced him to remain in a social science, so he graduated in political science. It allowed him, however, to take a lot of music classes as electives.
While at UCLA, Endo was a member of Kinnara Taiko. The group performed at Senshin Buddhist Temple, where he met his wife Chizuko.
In 1980, the Endos went to Japan so that Kenny could study taiko. “Originally, we were only going to stay a year or two in Japan, but the more I studied and got into music from Kabuki and Edobayashi (Edo festival music), the more I realized how little I knew and it would take longer to get into it.
“There’s a Japanese saying, ‘Kiri ga nai (no end to it).”
Two years stretched out to 10. “Even after 10 years, there was still so much to learn,” he said.
Endo studied hogaku hayashi, or classical music, for five years in Japan. He studied under Saburo Mochizuki and then Bokusei Mochizuki and was presented his natori (teaching license and stage name) from the iemoto (head) of the Mochizuki School. Endo was the first foreigner to receive a natori in hogaku hayashi. In the Hogaku world, he is known as Mochizuki Tajiro.
In 1990, Endo decided to apply to the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa’s ethnomusicology program and to the East-West Center for a scholarship.
“I wanted to start documenting what I did in Japan,” Endo explained. “I had unique experiences working in Kabuki theatre. Also, the ethnomusicology program at UH was quite famous and highly regarded in the field.” To his surprise, Endo was accepted into the program and received the scholarship.
The Endo family, which now included sons Miles and Zen, then ages 3 and 1, respectively, moved to Hawai‘i. While Kenny finished his coursework and worked on his thesis, Chizuko, who studied Noh mask-making in theater form, entered the graduate program in Asian Studies.
Ethnomusicology is the study of folk and classical traditions around the world, outside of European classical music. Although it is more academic-based for professors who want to teach musical cultures, it played a great part in Endo’s role as a taiko artist.
“I’m primarily a performer, composer and teacher, he said. “Getting the degree in ethnomusicology was really great for honing my writing skills.
His thesis, titled, “Yodan Uchi: A Contemporary Composition of Taiko,” was based on Kinnara Taiko’s most popular songs, “Yodan Uchi.” His advisor told him that it was valuable that he was able to bring an insider’s and an outsider’s point of view to his thesis — inside, because Endo was a member of the group and played that piece, and outside, because he was able to look at it from an academic standpoint.
While working on his graduate degree, Endo was approached by UH’s continuing education program to teach taiko. Four classes eventually grew to 10, outgrowing the facilities at the music school.
In 1994, Kenny and Chizuko started Taiko Center of the Pacific and offered public classes at the Kapi‘olani Community College Chapel.
With family in California and more to possibly learn about taiko in Japan, the Endos contemplated moving back to either location. “We were open to staying here — Hawai‘i is such a great place for kids to grow up,” he said. “There was a lot of interest and support for what we were doing [in taiko] and so we decided to keep our roots here.”
For 20 years, TCP’s home has been the chapel on the grounds of Kapi‘olani Community College. With renovations being done to the chapel, classes were moved to Washington Middle School.
Taiko Center of the Pacific holds public classes in six-week sessions, ranging from taiko for tots to advanced players.
Endo recommends that in order to really know the basics, students should stay in the program for at least six months to a year. There are some students who gave up after one week, while others have been taking his classes for 10 to 15 years.
He explained that there are two aspects to taiko drumming, rhythm and form (kata). Some people with a musical background will have an easier time with the rhythms, and those with backgrounds in movement (martial arts, sports or dance), will understand form better. Bringing the two together is a challenge and explains why some people give up sooner than later.
“That’s why we intentionally keep sessions short at six weeks. That was my whole idea when we did public classes. So people can try it without a big commitment.”
The line is drawn, however, when you make the commitment to perform.
“When you perform in front of an audience, do as best a job as possible,” he says. “Maybe there’s someone seeing taiko for the first time. What kind of impression are you leaving? Or, maybe someone’s seeing taiko for the last time, for whatever reason. When you go see a performance, whether it’s a shopping mall or wherever, to me, it’s not a question of professional or amateur, it’s a matter of quality.”
It’s that commitment to taiko that makes up the members of the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble and the TCP Youth Group. Those who apply to be in the ensemble practice more often and are promoted within the group as their skill level improves.
Over the years, Hawai‘i’s taiko community has grown nearly five-fold since Endo began.
When Endo first started, there were only a handful of taiko groups — Hawaii Matsuri Taiko, based in Wahiawä; Kauai Soto Mission; and groups in Hilo and Kona. Today, there are more than 20 groups, including Okinawan taiko and eisä.
With so many taiko groups, performance requests get thinned out. TCP will get requests to perform at school demonstrations and various parties like graduations or weddings, yakudoshi or retirement. There are also corporate gigs.
“Hawai‘i is limited, so that’s why we market ourselves for the Mainland or other countries.” There, he says, the demand for taiko concerts is higher.
While the Hawai‘i community has embraced taiko, Endo concedes that from a performer’s point of view, it is advantageous to be in Los Angeles or New York, especially when collaborating with other artists.
Geography has not deterred him in any way. Endo just returned from a tour of Washington state and North Carolina, and following the “TEN TEN” concert, he’ll be on tour on the West Coast and Japan. In the spring of 2016, he’ll travel to the East Coast, Midwest and the South.
In addition to collaborations with the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra and orchestras in Hong Kong and Brazil, he has collaborated with various artists. Among them is Island Breeze, with slack key guitarist Jeff Peterson and shakuhachi player Riley Lee. The group was recently nominated for a Nä Hökü Hanohano Award and performed at the awards ceremony.
Another is Rhythm Summit with drummer Noel Okimoto and bassist Dean Taba.
A third is Uncommon Time, which features three drumming traditions: Endo on taiko, John Santos on timbal (Afro Latin percussion) and Abhijit Banerjee on the Indian tabla. The group premiered last year at Leeward Community College.
As a solo artist, Endo performs in different contexts that include Edo kotobuki jishi and Edobayashi.
“When you talk about drums and classical music, you’re talking about the drums used in Noh and Kabuki. The style I studied was from Kabuki. I don’t always have the opportunity to do it, but sometimes I use a hand drum in a performance, or I sometimes get asked to do something with shamisen or more traditional.”
As a composer, Endo does more contemporary pieces. “I take traditional elements and add my own twist to it,” he said. Growing up, Endo listened to rock,
funk, jazz, Latin and classical music. He also enjoys music from India, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Africa, Brazil and Cuba.
The varying styles have a big influence on his compositions, which may include instruments such as the koto, shakuhachi or shinobue (bamboo flute), as well as vibraphones like a marimba and guitar.
Endo composes at least one new piece a year, more if he is commissioned to do a piece.
“Traditional music is rhythmic and melodic. Sometimes a rhythm will come to me. I’ll tap out a rhythm and write it down or remember it. Sometimes a melody will come from shinobue, or keyboard or piano.
All his pieces are thematic, a story he’s trying to tell. “The rhythm and melody and movement have to fit the theme I’m trying to portray,” he says.
His 40th anniversary “TEN TEN” concert is named for the sound of the rope-lashed taiko drum. Struck twice in the middle of the drum, it makes the sound “ten ten.” Coincidentally, it is also the date of the concert.
Special guests will include Hiromitsu Agatsuma (Tsugaru shamisen, Tokyo); Hitoshi Hamada (vibraphone, Tokyo); Kaoru Watanabe (bamboo flute, New York); and local artists Jeff Peterson (slack key guitar), Noel Okimoto (drums, vibraphone and marimba), Dean Taba (bass), Todd Yukumoto (saxophone and flute) and Yi Chieh Lai (guzheng, or Chinese zither). In addition, the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble and Taiko Center of the Pacific Youth Group will premiere new pieces.
“For me it’s an honor for one of them, let alone eight of them to be in the concert,” Endo said.
The first half of the concert will feature three pieces by the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble and three pieces by the TCP Youth Group. Two pieces will be world premieres by the TCP Youth Group. The last piece of the first half is “Midnight Moon,” a collaboration between TCP and the University of Hawai‘i dance department. Choreographed by Peggy Adams, the piece features six dancers and six drummers who will play uchiwa daiko (flat drums with handles).
“The concept of the piece is that the dancers are the musicians. Each drum has different tones and rhythms,” Endo explained.
The second half of the concert will have the stage preset with all the instruments, allowing the performers to come in and perform solo, duet and group pieces.
The last piece, “Spirit Arise,” will feature all the artists in a party-type feel.
Endo’s goal for the next 40 years is simply to “keep on the path of creating, performing, learning, sharing and being healthy.”
At age 62, Endo doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon. “I will retire some day, but until then, I want to keep composing, remain adept in my performances and staying active.”
To help defray production costs for the concert and Kenny Endo’s tour that follows, a GoFundMe campaign has been started, with a goal of raising $10,000. To date, they have reached one-third of their goal. For more information or to donate, visit www.gofundme.com/dc3uf34s or visit their Facebook page: facebook.com/kenny.ensemble
Tickets for the “TEN TEN” concert range from $20 to $60 and can be purchased online at hawaiitheatre.com, by phone at (808) 528-0506 or in person at the box office, 1130 Bethel St.
A post-concert reception with the artists is also available for $35. For information or reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Special packages are also available with tax-deductible donations to Taiko Arts Center. For more information, visit
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