Interview with Kelvin Underwood of Ondekoza

By Rolling Thunder

Rolling Thunder was invited to see Ondekoza perform in Tokyo for their December 1997 concerts, and we had a chance to catch up with featured performer Kelvin Underwood for the following interview.


Rolling Thunder: How long have you been in Ondekoza?

Kelvin Underwood: I have been in Ondekoza three years now.

RT: How did you first get introduced to the group, and then join them?

KU: Ondekoza was on tour in the United States for three years,from 1990 to 1993, running around the perimeter of US. At that time, they started from New York, going clockwise around the US. They came into North Carolina and did a performance at my high school. After the performance, they brought one of the big drums out into the lobby, and invited members of the audience to play. I played, and I guess that the director, Mr Den, thought it was interesting to see me play the drum, so the group asked me again and again to play the drum. I was just happy to do that for them, and talk to the members of the group. Then they invited me to a downtown folk festival in Fayetteville, NC, and I got to play on the float with them. After that, they kept in touch, and the director had ideas of having me on the stage. At that time, I didn't know the taiko rhythms, I was playing drum set, but they just wanted me to play my own rhythms.

Ondekoza came to the states and wasn't just running and doing performances, but also doing home stays, mixing with American people, and inviting American people to help out with the tour by driving the tour vans while the members were running, or even performing on stage. So there were other people who joined, but they did not stay with the group.

Ondekoza had me come as a guest, to play small parts, nothing like I am doing now. Then, after I went to university for one year to study music, they said it was OK to join. However, I wanted to study more, but after a year, I got in touch with them again and asked if the offer still stood, and they said yes, so I joined. That was in the summer of 1994. When I joined, they again wanted me to play my own rhythms, but gradually, I learned all of the rhythms, and being pushed on the stage practically immediately, not just the small parts, but playing the big drums as well,I gained stamina. I had to learn everything, stage presence, body movement - I am still learning now - how to look good, how to use your facial expressions, how to be humorous in the humorous parts, how to play it serious, how to play the various taiko, etc.

RT: What kind of musical background did you have before you joined?

KU: I was a self-taught drummer. I had my own rock band in my hometown. A lot of listening; I never had any private instruction. I took part in the jazz band, but I wasn't instructed; the scores were pretty easy and the drumming was left up to me.

Even in Ondekoza, we don't use scores, we learn by observing and listening I mainly learned that way, no one actually sat down and taught me formally.

RT: How was the adjustment, coming over to japan and working with the group?

KU: At first, I didn't have Japanese friends, I didn't know about the culture, I didn't know any of the language, I didn't know much about the group, I didn't know taiko rhythms, I just jumped in and said that I was going to do this for six months to learn, to have the experience, because not many people have the opportunity. So I did it for that reason.

When I joined, I thought I would just be working behind the scenes, or if I played on the stage it would just be a little like in the past, and they asked me do more solos and play other parts, so I had to learn fast. It was hard, not being able to communicate, so I studied Japanese by myself - I never studied that formally either.

After six months, it was so stressful and difficult that I stopped: I quit. But then they asked me to come back; Mr. Den really wanted to use me, and said I had potential. I kind of thought so too. Then I thought, 'should I go to school or do this?'. I thought that if I do this there would be more doors open for me, more possibilities, more opportunities, I would get more experience on the stage.

That was all what I wanted to do, initially. So I would have experience performing, going to different countries, playing for difference audiences. So I came back, and I have been with the group for three years.

I joined for playing the taiko, and as far as running around China [Ondekoza plans to run around China, similar to their run around America], right now it is hard to say. I don't want to go there for three years or whatever, I feel that I would get lost, as far as the direction I want to go in. I am not able to practice drum set as I wish - we're constantly on tour, moving from place to place. We don't have access to drums all the time and we don't have a practice space now, so it is hard to practice. When we are on stage, with the lighting and everything, the preparation takes a long time.

RT: When you are not on tour, where is Ondekoza based?

KU: Atami, Japan, in Shizuoka Prefecture. We have a Manshon (like a small apartment complex), and we have to share rooms. Its a small space and there is no room to practice. If we do have a chance to practice, its outside, in nice weather, like at a beach.

RT: When you are not on tour, what is a typical day for Ondekoza like?

KU: Get up at 6:30 in the morning, everyone greets each other, does taiso (stretches) and then runs for about 5K (3 miles). Then we have breakfast, and break up into different groups that cooks, or cleans various areas of the house. Then there may be some meetings, or reading books, or if possible practice, or watching videos of all kinds, a lot of action movies. Mr. Den likes Chinese Kung-fu movies to pick up body movement, and to see how we can use them on stage. We are picking up things from everywhere, not just from videos, but everyday seeing pictures, looking around and seeing things. We develop images that way.

Also, when running, it is not just for training, its to experience all the different weather conditions, running in the rain, snow, and on a nice day - I particularly like to run on a nice day - just running through images of nature.

My images are from my experiences, the music I listen to, and the love and support I get from my family and friends.

RT: How much influence from western trap drumming do you put into your work with Ondekoza?

KU: Occasionally there are double strokes, or there are rhythms that are played in western music, particularly rock music, that I like to incorporate. But I don't want to play a drum set rhythm piece by piece. A lot of things don't work, but a lot of things accentuate the taiko sound, so if you play it on a taiko, it has a big impact and it doesn't sound like a drum set rhythm. That is the way I construct my solos - I get ideas that way. I play drum set, but I try not to dwell on those rhythms too much.

When I play taiko, I play taiko. When I play drum set, I play drum set. Because I think it has a bigger impact, and people are more impressed if they see an American come and play Japanese rhythms on the taiko, as apposed to just playing jazz or drum set rhythms.

RT: When you play the Okedo, you do very fast crosses. Where do those come from?

KU: That is one thing from drum set that I use. It has an impact on the climax parts. Art Blakey, and a lot of drummers now do that on the cymbals at the end of their solos. So I did it on the taiko, and Mr. Den got a big kick out of it. After I had done it on the taiko for a while, I said, well, maybe I can do it this way, and came up with different combinations and mixed that with the energy that the players in the past had. A lot of drummers didn't play those rhythms on the taiko, but they had the energy, and the jumping [around on stage]. So I took that and the other things from drum set, my own rhythms, my own way of doing it and mixed it up to come up with that part.

RT: Ondekoza is know for a very communal lifestyle. I know you come from a large family, how do they compare?

KU: My family is my family. Ondekoza is not my family, its a group that I work with. Naturally I don't like to be in the same place with everyone for a long time, I like my privacy...

RT: Which is difficult in Japan....

KU: Which is difficult in Japan because the houses are close, the streets are narrow, everything is in a very tight space that we have to stay in.

RT: In the future, assuming Ondekoza goes to run around China, and that is not your path, what kind of musical direction are you interested in?

KU: Right now, I'd say that I would like to get more into drum set, and things like that. Become a studio drummer, work with all kinds of groups. I want to play taiko. If possible, it would be nice to play with people like Mr. Matsuda [shakuhachi performer]. I would play with him if he had some concerts, or something like that. But mainly I want to continue performing. I like to play for people, the challenge of being on the stage. Like the challenge right now of playing with the water coming down [Underwood had to perform a solo while being drenched with a deluge of artificial rain during these concerts]. Usually I play on the Odaiko, but I have to play a different rhythm in a different way, and play that in the rain. I would like to play more drum set.

RT: When you get back to drum set, do you intend to incorporate Japanese rhythms or Japanese instruments into your playing?

KU: It would depend on who I am playing with. If I was playing with a jazz group, I would prefer to stay with the drum set, or if it was R&B, then play that, but if it was a more avant garde setting, I would be more likely to use taiko.

The rhythms are different. With rock, or R&B, they usually have a pocket that you stay in. That is a groove you keep, and usually you don't stray from that. Whereas in taiko, the orchestration of the drums changes a lot: when this drum comes in, then the music changes. It is more complex, in that sense. Rhythmically, it sometimes doesn't get as complicated as drum set. It doesn't require as much coordination.

Right now I don't see anything with drum set and taiko, but right now I am stuck in two different worlds.

RT: How it like working under Mr. Den, who is known as being very demanding?

KU: Well, with him, what he says usually goes, but when he says something, you don't always have to do it that way. You take his idea and work with it, stretch it a little bit. Or you take some of what he said, and then work it your own way. For instance, right now I am playing in the rain, but you don't just play in the rain. You have to think about hitting the drum, the water is going up, how you are going to hit the drum, what kind of fill or what kind of rhythm you are going to do. That is one way of working with him.

RT: So in other words, he gives you a direction, but allows you the flexibility to fill it out?

KU: Yeah, with solos, or how you are going to arrange it, everything like that.

RT: Out of all of the parts that you play, what is your favorite?

KU: My favorite part is not always playing solo, I really like to play basic rhythm. When someone else is playing their solo, playing crescendos and decrescendos, accenting at different points, call and response. When they get to a climactic part of their solos and are repeating phrases, I can put other small ideas in, and that is really fun. When I play the back side of the Odaiko, and Ryohei is playing the solo, I really like to push his solos, and when he repeats certain ideas, to answer back. Solos are fine, but I particularly like teamwork.

December 17, 1997


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