Happy New Year to all my fellow taiko drummers and fue players!
2016 was a milestone for me personally and it came and went without me even realizing it: Ten years ago, I left Japan and started a new life in Brooklyn, NY in 2006.
I had actually made my decision to leave Kodo in 2005. I told Ryutaro Kaneko on the ferry ride back to Sado after a Spring tour of my decision to leave and his response, I remember clearly was: 遂に来たか (So finally the time has come!). This was about a month before my directorial debut of Earth Celebration, a big annual festival where Kodo hosts groups from all over the world for collaborations and Ryutaro san recommended two things: 1) I wait until after Earth Celebration to make the announcement 2) if I really wanted to do things right by Kodo, I should stretch my transition out for about a year.
As it turned out, Earth Celebration '05, which featured bagpipe superstar Carlos Nunez from Spain and calligrapher Koji Kakinuma from Japan, was received pretty well (I think it rocked actually!) and I was asked to direct again in '06. It was also decided that that would be my final performance as a member of Kodo.
For EC '06, I brought Tamango and his group Urban Tap, an incredible collection of artists representing the best of dance and music from the Ivory Coast, Brazil and American jazz. An incredible momentum began building over the course of the three evening concerts - each featuring a totally different program - until the third night, which brought everything home in a cathartic explosion of rhythm and movement.
For that last night, the plan for the final piece's climactic ending was everybody was to suddenly stop, leaving Tamango, who was to be waiting in the eye of the storm, to do a short intimate solo before everybody returned for the final triumphant note. It was all coming together perfectly, far beyond what I had imagined. All the performers had their featured moments, each to raucous applause and the number of people on stage swelled as the music grew more layered and more intense. Tamango was offstage, waiting for me to give him a cue to enter and to bring everything to a close. Even in the wings, we were dancing, laughing and just taking it all in, caught up in the energy being generated onstage.
So, as planned, the music swelled and came to an abrupt and dramatic pause and... nothing happened. Nothing except Tamango and I looking at each other in bewilderment STILL backstage. I, being the director and the only one who knew what was going on, had forgotten to give him the go-ahead. At that point, there was nothing that could be done so we just laughed and walked out on stage arm in arm. The audience wasn't treated to the clean, climactic ending that I had been planning but it ended up a confusing but somehow joyous mess. Besides, this being Earth Celebration, there were still two fully choreographed encores to go that we knew would bring down the house in a proper fashion.
During the weeks after the whirlwind of Earth Celebration '06, I packed up my belongings and moved out of my house, which sat up the hill from the main street in the town of Ogi. I flew to NYC with no gigs, no drums, no business sense and no name recognition, armed only with the conviction that I wanted to explore and experiment musically, compositionally and artistically. I wanted to create work that embraced improvisation and nuance and was all about a personal and informed re-contextualization of the old and the ancient. I also knew that I wanted to create work that shunned any superfluous theatrics, pseudo-ritual or anything catchy, "exotic", or derivative (especially of Kodo). I wanted to create work that represented and celebrated the entirety of my personal and artistic identity and upbringing.
Fast forward ten years to 2016 - it wasn't a bad year for me career-wise (I'm going to refrain from talking about anything outside of my tiny little world in this post). I still have no business sense but at least I'm a better musician! I still take lessons to improve and am constantly putting myself in musical situations where I get my ass kicked. I had residencies at various institutions including Harvard University, Tanglewood Music Festival and at the New Museum in New York, working with LGBQ youth and young women of color as part of an exhibition there by with the visual artist Simone Leigh. I was able to perform in countries I'd never been before, such as the United Arab Emirates and Brazil. Meanwhile, my small studio in Brooklyn welcomed over a hundred people from all over the world for classes, workshops, intensives, private lessons, professional development training and rehearsals.
In terms of recordings, I was a featured guest on a Grammy Award Nominated album, Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble's "Sing Me Home" and I created music for Martin Scorcese's film Silence, which just came out recently. Last but not least, I am incredibly proud of my album Néo which came out in April. I have been told by people who know of such things, that the music I'm exploring on the album is conceptually unlike anything else out there.
I list all of these achievements not (just) to talk myself up, but because I believe that the music played on taiko and fue has the potential to be at the same levels of sophistication and depth as the music that is played on the cello by people like Yo-Yo, as long as the practitioners go out of their way to accumulate an equivalent amount of training, knowledge and experience that Yo-Yo has. Our music can have the layers of subtlety and meaning as a film by Scorsese as long as we push ourselves and our potential the way he has over the course of his career. I'm nowhere near where I want to be but, believe me, I'm trying. Besides, I can do a lot of things Yo-Yo can't!
Looking ahead to 2017? I know I must remain vigilant and focussed and aggressively empathetic. I must become BOTH stronger and kinder. I must practice, create, study, practice, create and study relentlessly. Day 2 and I've already started on this.
Any achievement I may have had in the last ten years (and all those crucial years before) were made possible by the many professional and personal (and usually both) relationships that I've had over the years. These people, almost too many to name, have supported my endeavors in more ways they will ever know.
I'm wishing for prosperity and success for everybody in 2017!