Interview with Neil and Miyuki of Mugenkyo

By Jonathan Kirby

At the end of October, I met with Neil and Miyuki, founder members of the UK's only professional taiko group, Mugenkyo. We chatted in their London flat/office, where they had just completed the printing and distribution of the fourth edition of the Mugenkyo newsletter. I wanted to hear how they had started playing taiko, and how they had reached the point where they are now touring extensively, as well as releasing their first CD. I am Jonathan Kirby (JK), recently returned to the UK from California, where I trained with San Jose Taiko over an eighteen month period. I can be contact via email: Mugenkyo can be contacted via snail mail at: 44 Vince Court, Charles Square, London, N1 6HN, UK.

Jonathan Kirby: How did a British guy like you come to play Taiko?

Neil: I was at something of a turning point in my life, having been a rock drummer in several bands here in London, England. Nothing much ever came of it, and I was getting quite despondant about it, being the drummer, stuck at the back, surrounded by people making horrible noises with guitars. My girlfriend, Miyuki, was working in Japan and I went to visit her in summer '92. I didn't have any real plans, but I was looking at the trip as a turning point in my life. One day, while I was there, I happened to mention to someone that I played the drums, and he said I should check out Japanese drumming, or Taiko. I'd never heard of it before.

JK: Where in Japan were you?

Neil: We were in the town of Fukui, in the Hokuriku region of the west of Japan. We didn't know it before, but it's something of a hotbed of Taiko. There are more groups centered here than anywhere else. Kodo are just up the coast on Sado Island, but the first group we saw were Hibiki-daiko. I was absolutely knocked out by it. It was a stunning performance, with such energy, and so much magic and power. I knew immediately that I really wanted to play Taiko, so I went to see the group leader after the concert.

JK: Who is he?

Neil: Masaaki Kurumaya. Miyuki had to translate for us, and I received an offer of training, provided I was prepared to give it 100%. Obviously, I had to think about this for quite a while. I'd never been so disciplined before as to give everything to something like this, but I did it, and became a kind of apprentice to the group.

JK: How long did you train for?

Neil: I was there for two years. The group was based at a Zen Buddhist temple. Every day, I used to run up the mountain, carrying my cardboard drum - they wouldn't let me play a real one for quite a while! - in order to practive among the gravestones that were there.

JK: Practicing among gravestones? Did that bother you?

Neil: Yes, being British it bothered me quite a bit at first, but I was told not to worry, because Japanese spirits like the Taiko.

JK: Were you in training at the same time, Miyuki?

Miyuki: No, I started after Neil. At first, when his lessons were relatively uncomplicated, the language wasn't a real problem, but later I had to go along in order to translate. As I went to more and more lessons, I got drawn into it myself. But our teacher demanded complete commitment, so it took a while before I was able to decide that I really did want to play the Taiko as well. Once I'd decided, it was fantastic!

JK: Was it easy to be accepted, since you are a woman?

Miyuki: These days it's not at all uncommon for women to play the Taiko in Japan, it's in England that people come up to me and say how refreshing it is to see a woman playing the drums! I joined an all-women group, Hana-daiko, that was also been taught by Neil's teacher, and I progressed from there.

JK: Are you still in contact with your teacher?

Miyuki: Very much so. Since we came back to Britain, three years ago, we've managed to return to Japan at least once a year both to perform and to receive further lessons from him. He has also been to London to see us once also, so the relationship is very much alive. He is still our teacher and our inspiration, and we have dedicated our first album to him.

JK: How did you move from training to performing?

Neil: My first performance was a real shock to me. The style of Taiko we learned allows for groups as small as two people to perform, it's very fluid, with lots of space for improvisation. One day, my teacher turned up at our appartment and asked what I was doing that day. On hearing that I wasn't busy, he declared that he and I would do a gig together that very afternoon. So we went downtown to a bar, where we set up and played, just Masaaki Kurumaya and me.

JK: Then you returned to England, and formed Mugenkyo.

Neil: Yes. We've been going for three years now. At first we didn't think there would be any way of carrying on, because we didn't see how Taiko could exist outside Japan. But we had great support from our teacher, and he gave us great encouragement. We left Japan with just three drums: a nagado, a shime, and an okedo. It wasn't a big set-up by any stretch of the imagination! We made our own costumes, and then decided to start playing, just to see what would happen. We didn't have any idea of how people would react to Taiko in this country. In fact, our first gig, was a real test for us. It was in an art gallery in Brighton, on the south coast of England. After we had played the first of several short sets, a member of the audience came up to us and asked when we would be playing again. He asked, because he wanted to make sure that he wouldn't be there to hear what he described as the awful noise we made. "Either you go, or I go!" That was the first public reaction to Mugenkyo in England!

JK: But it hasn't all been like that, I suppose? What other kinds of performances have you given?

Neil: At first we played in cabarets, at festivals. We'd set up pretty much anywhere, just the two of us, and it seemed to go down really well. This gave us a lot of energy and hope for the future. We had a dream that we would create a professional, touring group, and to do this we knew we would need other players. We advertised, and found another player, Mark Allcock, who had also trained in Japan, under Katsuchi Kondo, in Wakayama. He'd learned a very different style, but we were able to teach and influence each other. So then there were three of us, which meant we could expande the show and move to playing places like Arts Centres. By this time, I was also teaching Taiko at Adult Education Institutes around London, and through this we found our fourth member, Liz Walters, who was an extremely promising student. Since that time, Mark has left the group, because he did not want to dedicate his whole life to it - playing Taiko is very demanding, very gruelling sometimes, in fact all of the time! The group continues to evolve and grow, other people have been involved too, and now we're looking to the next stage.

JK: Running the group, as well as performing, must give you both a lot of work.

Neil: Yes, there's a lot of paperwork involved in a group like this. But there's also the challenge of writing new pieces, we've produced three so far this year, and rehearsing and improving the older ones. Having said that, there was a period of three months earlier this year when we didn't rehearse formally at all, because we were gigging just about every single day.

Miyuki: It depends a bit on the time of year. In the summer, we seem to do a lot of festivals, the rest of the year we're doing theatre gigs. And all these gigs take a lot of time, with travel to wherever it is, setting up, warming up properly, performing, breaking down the set...

Neil: Yeah, there are no roadies in Taiko!

Miyuki: So we load the drums into the van and drive to the "Bed and Breakfast" place where we're booked to stay. And the next day, it's on to the next gig. We're away from home quite a lot.

JK: I guess you have more than just those original three drums that you brought back with you?

Neil: Yes. All our drums are imported, and we have quite a collection now: 4 nagados, 4 shimes, 1 okedo, one hirado, a set of uchiwa fan drums, and various pieces of percussion as well. I think it's really important to have the authentic sound and feel of genuine Japanese drums. We are very privileged to be playing some superb Asano drums, and we were honored to be in receipt of some excellent drums from the Miyamoto factory.

JK: So you have the players, you have the equipment, you're getting lots of work... what's the biggest challenge you face here in England?

Neil: We still have continually to explain to people what Taiko is. It's fantastic to have groups touring and coming over to Britain, such as Kodo and Wadaiko Ichiro, because it really does help educate people as to what Taiko is. This is especially true of Wadaiko Ichiro, because they toured the provinces, taking Taiko to the people of the country as a whole. That has really helped us. On the other hand, there are millions of people in London alone, and that's where Kodo focus on getting the message across.

Miyuki: It's always difficult trying to convince promoters and agents that people can actually sit through an hour or more of nothing but drumming! But it has got easier, and more and more people are now coming to us. Nonetheless, it's still a bit of a struggle, because we are seeking to get Taiko established in Britain, where it doesn't naturally belong. I'm the only one in the group with Japanese blood, and we're not trying to recreate or preserve something here, we are looking to create a new tradition of British Taiko, and that's going to be a long, hard road to travel. Because there's no real Anglo-Japanese culture to speak of in Britain, everything about Taiko, from the drums to the direction of your ki, is alien. Finding people who will commit everything to the vision of developing the touring group is always going to be tough.

JK: Would you like to see a Taiko centre in the UK?

Miyuki: Absolutely! We'd love to be part of setting that up, and providing somewhere where people can come and learn about Taiko. It's certainly one of our long-term goals to do this.

JK: But in the short-term, you're back in Japan in November?

Neil: Yes, and we're really looking forward to it. We'll be playing a few dates, but most importantly, we'll be able to reconnect with our teacher, and continue the learning process. With Taiko, that process never stops.

Copyright 1997 Jonathan Kirby, used by permission.

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