Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Japanese drum (taiko) player
(Born in the US and raised in Japan)
Today we introduce you to a Japanese-American man who inherits the Japanese heritage which has been handed down to him for thousands of years.
Isaku Kageyama, a young, up-and-coming star Japanese taiko drummer who won the championship twice at national taiko contests. On the other hand, he is making a new departure in the traditional music world.
One of his approaches is playing Japanese traditional folk songs with electric instruments. He plays the taiko, or Japanese drums, with electic guitar and electric bass players in small live houses. They come together to form a kind of hard rock or punk music and many young Japanese and foreigners alike enjoy their music.
We got interested in what made him come and go between tradition and innovation.
*Interview in Shinjuku
A globe-trotting player.
I was born in San Francisco. I lived there until I was four and grew up in Tokyo. I lived in Detroit for two and a half years when I was 12 because my mother (Yuri Kageyama, a Tokyo correspondent of the Associated Press) was transferred there. So I’ve been in Japan for 20 years.
*Want to read his mother’s story Click here!
I started playing taiko when I was six. But I didn’t play it when I was in Detroit so I’ve been playing taiko for 19 or 20 years. That’s my job right now.
Most of the time I spend in Japan, but sometimes I go overseas with the taiko group called“Amanojaku”, which I belong to. We went to Dubai a couple of times earlier 2009. Also we went to China. I’ve been to Brazil a number of times. I expect to be going there again early 2010.
The rest of the time I spend in Japan, doing concerts, other kinds of performances, doing some workshops and teaching. That kind of thing goes on.
“Amanojaku”, the taiko team Isaku belongs to.
Importance of playing taiko.
I joined the Amanojaku when I was eight. My teacher has two sons that are about the same age as me. So we kind of grew up together. So he is a kind of musical father to me. And his sons are like my musical brothers.
When I started playing taiko, I didn’t understand the importance. I didn’t understand why I was doing it. I didn’t understand what taiko meant. When my parents said, “You’re a Japanese-American and you’re growing up in Japan and going to an International school. So you need to do something Japanese.” That was the reason that they made me play taiko. But I didn’t understand why I needed to play it.
Finding a clue.
I felt it was interesting for me to play taiko at the age 16. That was when I returned to Japan from Detroit. I’ve spent two years and a half in a Midwestern American middle school. There were two or three Asian kids in the entire school. And there were 10 or 15 black kids. Anybody else was white. All the teachers were white.
So when I started to play taiko again, I thought it had a lot bigger meaning. Because the reason my mother recommended me to play taiko was, I guess, when you experience those two years and a half in Detroit and you come back, the word “identity” holds a new meaning.
When I was in Detroit, I needed to find it. But I couldn’t. Because there were hardly any Japanese there. At that time, there was no Ichiro, no Matsui, no Nomo. There were no cool Japanese so it was very hard for Japanese kids who had grown up in the Midwest of America to find a role model who you can relate to. Black kids look up to rappers and there are a lot of role models that white kids look up to.
So I had to find my identity. That was quite difficult. I guess I couldn’t find it in the two and a half years until I came back to Japan and started playing taiko again. Also I didn’t have taiko when I was in Detroit and there were no teachers.
What taiko told me.
I think learning about Japanese culture was one of the important things. Taiko is something that told me to stick with one thing and to work through the problems that happen. A lot more than just learning about culture or language. It’s what shapes you to be a certain person. It shapes you into your identity.
Taiko happens to be the way that I found my identity. It’s what shaped me but also helped me to find who I am. And now it’s the way for me to express who I am.
Carrying the torch towards the new era.
There’s a lot of stuff that I need to work on because taiko needs to go from the 20th century to the 21st century. A “taiko ensemble” where the main instrument is only taiko from beginning until end. So that is one of the things of what taiko has been for the past 40 or 50 years. And now you’re trying to see a little bit more of collaboration with taiko and other instruments.
Imagine that you collaborate with rock. A rock band is really good and taiko is really good. When you combine the two, sometimes one plus one equal one. You don’t have the situation that one plus one equal three, four or five. So in order to break through and to create almost a new genre of music, you have to have one plus one equal more than two.
And a lot of times, with taiko, you don’t have that. There are a lot of problems that taiko drummers like myself need to work on. And we need to work to overcome those problems.
Just being a good taiko drummer is not enough. It would be what you need to be successful in the 20th century. You need to be not only a good taiko drummer, but you need to be a good “musician”. It means you’re not only even playing with taiko drummers, but you’re also playing with top level musicians. And you have to meet all the expectations of being a good musician. There’s a lot of things that you need to be able to listen to and a lot of rules that I don’t apply on taiko. Rules that you are going to apply when you start to play with other musicians.
Hopefully I’ll be playing with the musicians that I’ve listened to so far, such as jazz, world music and rock. In the 21st century, it has to be “taiko music”. That’s going to come when taiko collaborates with other things. That’s one thing that I need to do in the next three or five years. Hopefully I will play with a lot more people.
My musical unit called “Hybrid Soul” is one step towards my goal. When I hear Japanese folk songs (民謡 min’yo), I hear John Coltrane or the sound of saxophone in the singer’s voice. Sometimes the beat of them feels kind of African or Afro-Cuban. When I play minyo songs in Hybrid Soul, I think like “This rhythm goes well with this song”.
From left: Pat Glynn (Bass), Isaku Kageyama (Taiko), Chris Young (Guitar)
I think if Japanese people have heard songs we play somewhere, it brings a kind of nostalgic feeling. And to people who are visiting Japan, it sounds like really Japanese. But they are more used to and easy to listen to. Our music is not truly Japanese but it’s not truly rock. It’s very half-and-half. But that is comfortable to the listeners, both young Japanese guys and foreigners. And hopefully Hybrid Soul is a gateway to foreigners who want to learn about Japan.
“Yagi Bushi” a traditional Japanese folk song
Vacillation between two countries.
When I hear somebody talking in a mixture of English and Japanese, to me, it’s kind of calming. Because it automatically means you share a lot of things with him/her. He/she maybe knows what it means to be a Japanese living overseas. There are good points to that culture and a bad parts to that culture but I’m a member of that culture.
If you’re a Japanese-American like myself, and you kind of force yourself into being either Japanese or American, then you would have all kinds of problems. Because you may be American in some aspects but you’re also Japanese in some aspects. If you think that you need to force yourself to be American, you feel kind of unnatural.
The same goes for being Japanese. When you try to force yourself into the framework of being Japanese, you don’t really fit in that. And you don’t really fit in the American framework either. You have to learn that you don’t need to fit in. You can say, “Forget the framework. I want to be on my own. I want to be myself”. I think a lot better trying to force yourself to be something that is your own.
I would say I feel more natural when I’m in Japan. These days people consider that cool to be the people returning to Japan from overseas. They are expected to speak English and to have control over both ways of thinking. So people expect them to be a little bit more flexible and proactive. They want you to have good parts of the foreigners and good parts of Japanese. So they say you’re on the elite track.
People are welcoming you, but it’s also possible for them to turn their back on you very quickly. So it’s got to be yourself no matter what they say.
To become a “cool” taiko player.
I travel a lot to teach taiko. In Brazil, many kids want to learn how to play taiko. That’s because of their culture. They share food or drink with anybody and hang out together. Whereas in Japan, it’s very segregated in the taiko group. I guess it’s maybe a part of culture.
In Brazil, if you have 700 teenagers hanging out in the same place, for three or four days, some kids are falling in love with each other. It’s going to be a kind of a human social drama.
When you play taiko, your girlfriend or boyfriend is maybe watching you. It’s something cool, something sexy. When you play taiko well, it’s like dancing well. It’s sexy. And you feel that energy among the kids. It’s like a motivator to practice and to become better. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
On the other hand, you don’t really have that as much in Japan. Kids don’t make friends with other kids in other groups. Even though some girls are in your group, they become just “taiko friends”. In Japan, its a lot more strictly organized. So there’s a lot of potential in Brazil.
But I’m not going to ignite Japanese kids’ fire. Japanese baseball kids say, “I want to be like Ichiro” “I want to be like Matsui” “I want to be like Matsuzaka” because they are sexy. They are cool. Kids may not think about women or they may not really think about money. But they want to be cool. That’s important.
To me, “cool” means playing good music with good musicians. But who is the taiko drummer that kids are going to look up to and they want to practice to be like that cool taiko drummer? …I don’t know. Also I don’t know if I will be. I don’t say I will be the cool player. It depends on how kids feel.
What is taiko to you?
It’s just a part of who I am.
Taiko is something to add structure to my life. It adds direction. It’s something that has helped me to find who I am or express who I am. It’s a channel for me to communicate with other people.
If I didn’t play taiko, I might not be alive, I might be in jail!
What is Tokyo to you?
Tokyo is home.
And it’s an interesting place for music, especially if you’re doing something Japanese. In my case, I play taiko. Tokyo is a good place to live, especially if you’re Japanese and playing Japanese things. Also it’s the center of information or business in Japan so…
If you’re trying to do stuff, Tokyo is a good place to be.
His website: http://www.isakukageyama.com/english/profile/
Isaku Kageyama’s page on Myspace: http://www.myspace.com/isakukageyama
Amanojaku’s website: http://english.amanojaku.info/
Hybrid Soul’s page on Myspace: http://www.myspace.com/hybridsouljapan
Tokyo Interview with Yuri Kageyama:http://www.myeyestokyo.com/aboutme/Interview/pg13.html