Taiko drummer bringing tradition bang up to date
BY SOPHIE KNIGHT STAFF WRITER
Isaku Kageyama (Photo by Naokazu Oinuma)
To many, the rumble of the taiko drum is the sound of traditional Japan. Yet to up-and-coming taiko player Isaku Kageyama, the instrument can do much more.
"Playing taiko at a matsuri (festival) is part of tradition," says Kageyama. "But taiko on stage, and what I'm doing, is not traditional."
It's only been 50 years since the taiko first moved from the streets to the concert hall. According to Kageyama, who's just released his first album, "Ik," the genre is struggling to find its own identity as it teeters between tradition and new directions.
"If you play taiko like a drum set, what are you going to play?" he says, referring to those using a row of drums rather than the traditional two. "You don't need all those drums if you're going to play a traditional piece. But if you create something new, what are you going to sound like? Latin? Jazz? Rock?"
Although Kageyama at times incorporates other styles into his drumming and has played with African percussionists and jazz musicians, he finds wholesale imitations of other genres a little perturbing.
"It's like fusion food," he explains. "It can be interesting, but sometimes you just want to keep your ramen and your spaghetti separate."
Unlike many of his peers, Kageyama uses just two drums, and tries to stay "authentic" by retaining traditional taiko beats. This doesn't mean that he's stuck in the past. On the contrary, he's eager to broaden the genre's horizons.
"There haven't been any taiko artists who have created something that makes you want to watch taiko," he says. "Everybody's poking holes, but no one's really been able to move forward."
Although too bashful to admit it, Kageyama might just be the perfect candidate to do that. He is bilingual, and the son of a Japanese mother and a third-generation Japanese-American father, which makes him "Nikkei," or someone born abroad of Japanese descent. He was born in San Francisco, attended an international school in Japan and has lived in Detroit. He's also about to move to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music, in the hope that exposure to new influences might further his skills.
It will be his first time in 15 years back on American soil, although he has made five trips to Brazil to teach taiko to Nikkei children. His workshops there were met with great enthusiasm.
"Playing taiko well in Brazil is as sexy as doing capoeira or dancing the samba," says Kageyama.
Beyond music, taiko also has a deep social significance for the Nikkei who immigrated to Brazil just over 100 years ago, as it provides a context to explore their Japanese identity.
Kageyama notes that although second-generation Japanese-Brazilians now in their 70s and 80s care deeply about preserving Japanese culture, the third and fourth generations have no idea what Japan is like. However, they relish the chance to play taiko.
"The kids are really eager to learn. Even when it's lunchtime, they won't stop playing!" says Kageyama.
In Japan, taiko is played at festivals that strengthen relations between tight-knit local communities, but in Brazil, the drum brings people from across the country together.
"The unifying bond is that they're all Nikkei, it doesn't matter whether they're from Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo," Kageyama says.
He is also eager to encourage the same friendliness between Japan's exclusive taiko clans. As a member of the group Amanojaku, he caused ripples by collaborating with Yuu Ishizuka, a member of rival group Oedo Sukeroku Taiko.
Kageyama's refreshingly undogmatic attitude and desire to cross boundaries might be a product of his international background, which left him feeling "neither fully Japanese or fully American."
He evidently has a strong connection to both. Having pledged part of the proceeds from his first album to survivors of theMarch 11 earthquake and tsunami, he's heading to the United States to soak up inspiration.
Will the experience establish him as a representative of modern taiko?
Kageyama smiles, then says, "I don't know--you're not cool if you try to be cool, right?"
(See www.isakukageyama.com for more details).