Interview with Kenny Endo

By David Leong

Taiko Master Kenny Endo began his study of taiko in America, and performed with the San Francisco Taiko Dojo before moving to Japan to continue his study of kumi-daiko and classical Hogaku drumming. He is regarded as one of the creative forces in modern taiko and leads taiko ensembles in Tokyo, Los Angeles and well as being the Founder and Director of the Taiko Center of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. He keeps up a busy schedule of performances and workshops, and has released two CDs, Eternal Energy and Hibiki.

Rolling Thunder: Before you got into taiko, what kind of musical background did you have?

Kenny Endo: I started drum lessons when I was in the fourth grade; mainly what was available in the school band.

RT: This was in Los Angeles?

KE: Yes. Actually, I started on snare and bass drum. I didn't start playing drumset until I was in junior high, it was kind of a makeshift drumset put together with the school's equipment. Around the eighth grade or so, I got a drumset, and continued with the school band and orchestra. From junior high, I was also playing in bands - do you remember a group called Tijuana Brass? - we were playing stuff like that. I got into rock, then more into jazz and world music as I got into college. I have been trying to listen to a real variety of music.

RT: When did you get introduced to taiko?

KE: The first time I ever saw a performance of Kumi-daiko was in 1973, at this event in San Jose called Bamboogie. It was a performance by the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, and I was very impressed. As soon as I saw it, I thought, wow, I've got to do that.

RT: I have seen video tapes of you playing with Kinnara Taiko, when did you start with them?

KE: Actually, Kinnara was the first group I joined, in 1975. I saw them in 1974, after I had come back from living in Arizona on a Native American reservation, and I told them that I was really interested in learning taiko. But at that time, it was really just for the members of Senshin Buddhist Church. Then I got a call from Johnny [Mori] the spring of that next year, inviting me to practice with them. So that was my first experience. I stayed with Kinnara for about a year and a half. At that time, they were only playing during the Obon season in summer. I really wanted to study taiko all year round, so they recommended that I look up Tanaka Sensei. I came up [to San Francisco] one summer in 1975, then after I graduated from UCLA in 1976, I moved to San Francisco. I stayed with the San Francisco Taiko Dojo until 1980.

RT: So you were a member of San Francisco Taiko Dojo's performing group the majority of that time?

KE: Yes, that whole time. I was making a living by playing drumset six nights a week in a club here in Japantown, and practicing taiko during the day.

RT: What was the impetus for going over to Japan and continuing your training there?

KE: At about the age of twenty six, I felt that I needed to concentrate on either taiko or drumset, because I didn't want to do both of them half-assed. So I was either going to move to New York and concentrate on the drumset, or go to Japan to study taiko. I ended up choosing taiko.

RT: How were you able to get the introductions to begin your training in Japan?

KE: Through Tanaka Sensei I was able to meet Oguchi Sensei of Osuwa Daiko, and the Sukeroku Daiko group which I later became a member of, as well as my Hogaku teacher. So it was through Tanaka Sensei that I was actually able to study. I could have gone over and tried on my own, but in Japanese society, those kind of introductions are very important.

RT: Let's talk about Hogaku for a minute, since most people are not going to be familiar with it. According to your biography, it seems to be the major emphasis of your studies in Japan.

KE: I don't know if it is the major emphasis, I guess you could say that I studied three genres of drumming equally. One is Hogaku, which is the classical music. The second is called Matsuri-bayashi (festival music), specifically Edo-bayshi. I also studied another kind of Matsuri-bayashi called Chichibu Yatai-bayashi, but I studied Edo-bayashi a little bit more in depth. The third category is Kumi-daiko. The major Kumi-daiko style I studied was Sukeroku Daiko, but I did spent six months studying in Oguchi Sensei's [taiko] shop as well as his group, Osuwa Daiko. There were also experiences with Gojingo Daiko. So I would say that all three genres were equally strong.

RT: Can you give us a brief introduction to Hogaku?

KE: Hogaku means classical music in Japanese, and when you talk about classical music that includes drumming, you are pretty much talking about Japanese theater. Noh is kind of in it's own category. It is a whole art, not just music, but also dance and drama. Noh was a very strong influence on Kabuki. My emphasis was on Kabuki and Nagauta hayashi rather than Noh.

The music associated with Hogaku and Kabuki Theater is Nagauta, which means 'long song'. It is basically a singing and shamisen style, where the Hayashi (drum and flute ensemble) is an accompaniment to that. The basic four instruments that came from Noh are used in Hogaku and Nagauta as well. The shime-daiko, sometimes called the wadaiko; the otsuzumi, also called the okawa; the kotsuzumi, and the nohkan [bamboo flute]. In Noh they are used to accompany the play and the dance, as well as singing. But in Nagauta, the accompaniment changed since the main instrument is the shamisen, and singing is the prominent part. In Hogaku, not only were they playing Noh patterns, but they developed Kabuki-bayashi, which is a kind of music and drumming that developed from Kabuki, and there were also influences from matsuri-bayashi, gagaku, minyo and religious music. The art of Kabuki tended to pull in elements from classical dance and elements of Kyogen and Noh - you can hear gagaku sounding music sometimes, you can hear a lot of different things - so Kabuki is a pretty interesting art. It was always evolving, and even today, you see changes happening.

I studied with the Mochizuki school, which is probably the largest school of the three or four ryuha [schools or styles] of Hogaku hayashi. My first teacher, whose [stage] name is Saburo Mochizuki (his real name is Yutaka Ishizuka) is one of the four original members of Sukeroku Daiko. He was a great teacher for me, because he had the perspective of a taiko player who wanted to develop more musically, so he got more into Hogaku. Eventually he became a professional, and now he is a major player in the Hogaku world. So he understood my interests, and introduced me to my Edo-bayshi teacher. He also eventually introduced me to the Iemoto [head] of the Mochizuki school, who I also studied with, and received my natori [stage name] from.

RT: What the significance of a natori?

KE: A natori, in a lot of Japanese arts, literally means to take on a name, or to receive a name. It is actually two things: first it is a stage name, to continue on the tradition within that school, and second it is a kind of license, or official recognition that you are able to pass the tradition on.

RT: In addition to playing kumi-daiko, you also play the kotsuzumi. Can you describe it for us?

KE: The kotsuzumi is a small, hourglass shaped drum. You can control the sound of it by squeezing or releasing the ropes with the left hand. The drum is resting on your right shoulder, and you strike an upstroke with your right hand. You can produce several sounds: you can hit on the [edge of the head] while squeezing, and we call that sound ta or chi; when you release the ropes after two fingers hit the drum, that sound is called pon. It is like all other music and drumming in Japan, using the system of kuchi-shoka, where you recite the patterns, and there is a syllable for every sound on the drum. We learn the patterns that way, as well as the names of the patterns, and then combinations of patterns. That is the way we learn. It is passed on pretty much one to one.

The otsuzumi is a larger version, it is a hourglass shaped drum, and the heads [do not have lacquer decoration]. I have seen both horse and cowskin used. It has a very high pitched sound, and a lot of times we use what are called saku [hard paper mache caps placed over the fingers] so it has a very high, crisp sound. You tighten it similar to a shime-daiko, so it stays tensioned.

RT: I have heard that kotsuzumi is very difficult to learn how to play, was that your experience?

KE: It is very difficult to learn how to play. I feel like I am just a beginner in kotsuzumi, since it is not something I do constantly. It is difficult, not only the voice [kakegoe], but getting the sound. All the Hogaku instruments are that way, they are very developed and stylized. So they say that if you learn Hogaku shamisen, for instance, then other styles of shamisen will come easier, because the music and techniques have been fully developed.

There are also other percussion instruments that we use, besides the de-bayashi, or when the hayashi group is out on stage. There are also the instruments in geza ongaku [offstage music], like the Odaiko which is used with nagabachi [long, tapered bachi] for sound effects. Patterns are played like nami-no-oto, the sound of the waves. There are a lot of sound effects, having to do with the weather, the geography, or the feelings going on. And just about every form of Japanese percussion instrument is used in some form in Kabuki. Some of them come from temples, or from festival music.

RT: One of the things I really like about your performance is the kakegoe, or the voice. Do you consider the kakegoe to be integral to the performance with the kotsuzumi?

KE: Yes! They say that originally the voice patterns were signals to each other in the ensemble - we're talking hundreds and hundreds of years ago, as Noh was developing - for when to begin, to speed up, slow down. Then over the years, those voice patterns became stylized and part of the music, so they can't be separated. You can play the kotsuzumi all by itself, but in terms of the classical music, the voice is a major part of the music. You have to learn how to play the instrument as well as learning how to develop that voice.

RT: The drummer for Kitaro has sampled the sounds of the kotsuzumi, and plays them with electronic triggers. How do you feel about that?

KE: In terms of electric music, there is so much that is possible. I think that there is nothing wrong with progressing with the technology, and that whole sampling thing is part of the technology. I don't really have any problems with that, in and of itself. In other words, it goes back to what Duke Ellington once said, "There are only two kinds of music - good and bad." I don't really have an opinion one way or another. More important is the quality of the music.

RT: Most taiko players in North America don't have much understanding about how kumi-daiko started, and especially the historical roots from which it developed. How much of this cultural and historical background do you think is important?

KE: I wouldn't presume to say that most taiko players don't know because many people have done some research, and many people have visited Japan. A lot of the groups have made the effort to study that past, but in terms of the whole kumi-daiko movement, there are perhaps 5000 groups in Japan and about 100 groups in America. If you look at the overall picture, that means that what people in the United States are doing is kind of on the fringe, and it's a good idea to check out what is going on in Japan. It is like if you are a jazz musician, eventually you have to get to New York. But then I have heard of groups here in America where the members have never been to Japan, and they are doing very creative, interesting things on instruments that they would never play on in Japan. It is possible to create good music here without that influence. I think it is important that players in this country establish their own identity, their own voice. But for myself, going to Japan to study and perform gave me confidence to create and express my ideas!

RT: With your CD, Eternal Energy, you have made a statement in taiko music. It is a step away from the tradition kumi-daiko style, and embraces a wide variety of influence. Given your traditional training, how did the music for the CD evolve?

KE: I don't really consider my ensemble that performed on that CD as a kumi-daiko group. It is hard to categorize it. I have had experience with kumi-daiko as well as other styles of music. The music evolved as something that I felt I wanted to express. I wanted to hear more variety, more melody, more of a musical and creative content. In kumi-daiko, the positive aspects are that it is very dynamic, very visually exciting. So I wanted to create a music that was both interesting to watch, and interesting to listen to. It's something that I am still working on, it is still evolving.

RT: What kind of musical directions are you exploring right now?

KE: Well, my new CD [Hibiki], has a variety of pieces. One of the pieces is called Swing, Soul and Sincerity, and I got that title from a Bobby McFerrin quote. It is basically a swing piece, although there are a lot of transitions in it. The instrumentation on the recording includes three taiko players, Latin percussion, shinobue, 17 string koto, and bansuri (North Indian flute). Another piece, Yobikake, is probably the most traditional sounding. There is a Nagauta shime-daiko player, I play Odaiko, a person playing nohkan, and a person playing Otsuzumi, so it has a lot of Hogaku influences in it. There is another piece called Sunflower which is more of a slow ballad. The melodic theme is the main part, and it features bansuri, 17 string koto and shinobue. The Spirit of Rice is more of a funky piece, I call it a funky matsuri piece because it has that feeling of funk music, but also a feeling of festival music. I also do a couple of solo pieces where I am just playing. I have one called E-kawa, showing the development of this river, and expressing it through the drums, so it really about a river of rhythm. There is a piece called Taiko-10, which was developed while I was in residency at UCLA. I use Odaiko, a set of uchiwa-daiko, and three taiko, so there is a total of ten drums. I premiered the piece in Tokyo in October, also because it was the ten year anniversary of the Taiko Kan drum museum, which is part of the Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten. Then there is an experimental piece called soaring, which is a very quiet piece, but it is very fast, and the flute plays the main melody in that.

RT: In closing, are there any big projects you are working on that we should be aware of?

KE: I am composing a the music for a play called "Wonderous Tales of Old Japan" produced by the Children's Theater Company in Minneapolis. It will be done Kabuki Style and was written and directed by David Furomoto. In the Spring of 1998 my Tokyo ensemble toured Los Angeles, New York, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Tampa and Washington, D.C.. This was followed by a one month residence at the Lincoln Center Institute in New York. In August we began the first phase of a three year project at the Asia Society in New York. This is a collaboration between artists from China, Korea, Japan and the USA dealing with both tensions and points in common with these countries. The plan is to tour in Europe, USA and Asia. In January, 1999, the Honolulu Symphony will premier a new work by composer Takeo Kudo featuring me as a soloist. Then in the Spring of 1999 I'll collaborate with a modern dance ensemble from Japan in Osaka and New York. Then there are also negotiations for a possible tour of my ensemble in Europe in 1999 and in the US in 2000.

RT: Thank you for your time.

KE: My pleasure.

Text and Image copyright 1998 Rolling Thunder.

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