Taiko in the UK
The idea of taiko in the UK might surprise a lot of people. In most places where taiko has taken root outside Japan, it has been through the efforts of those with Japanese heritage. There are many stories of people reconnecting with their roots and expressing their cultural identity through taiko in both North and South America. In the UK, however, there is next to no Anglo-Japanese population to speak of, no cultural base from which taiko might grow. So the first thing to understand about taiko in the UK is that what most people love here about it is the pure experience of taiko drumming. Particularly among the young, it’s a “taiko” thing, not a “Japanese” thing.
Kagemusha Taiko was founded in 1998. At that time, there were probably fewer than 10 people in the UK who had had any formal taiko training. Of those, most had learned with groups in Japan, often when they had been teaching English there. I was different because I had trained in the West, not the East; I had learned with San Jose Taiko in California. Prior to that, I had played drum kit in all sorts of different bands, but the experience with San Jose Taiko changed my life. I gave up my job with Hewlett-Packard and returned to my native UK having decided that my personal mission would be to help get taiko established in this country.
In 1998, there really wasn’t very much taiko here. Neil Mackie and Miyuki Williams with their group Mugenkyo were raising awareness by touring relentlessly, Joji Hirota was giving taiko performances as part of his impressive percussion portfolio, there was a student group in a Japanese college, but that was just about all there was. I founded Kagemusha Taiko as a not-for-profit arts-education company in Exeter, in the south-west of the country, spent all my savings on a small number of drums and made a start. I began by teaching young people from age 9 as an investment in the future, and adults because I needed adults immediately in order to be able to perform.
Helping Taiko Grow
Getting people excited about taiko was easy. Readers of this magazine already know how people just seem to love this amazing performance art form. Getting other groups started was harder, however. Initially, I taught lots of groups, in different schools and youth clubs, as well as building up Kagemusha Taiko and Kagemusha Junior Taiko. However, I couldn’t be everywhere all the time and when I left a group that I had been teaching, they would inevitably have to stop. This was clearly not an effective investment of my time and energy.
Teacher training would be the way forward – helping other people to start their own groups. The practical taiko experience I had built up combined with my previous professional experience as a High School teacher, helped me to start training teachers. Besides running courses and workshops specifically for people who wanted to start teaching taiko, I wrote a book “Teaching Taiko: Principles and Practice” supported by 4 training DVDs made with the help of members of Kagemusha Junior Taiko. To this, I later added “Jonathan Kirby’s Taiko Drumming Book” because a UK publisher had decided that a shorter book was required – one that would help an elementary or high school teacher get a group started and have them in a position to perfom within about 10 weeks.
To my initial embarrassment, people started ordering these books from all over the world. My intention had been to write something just for UK-based school teachers, but it turned out that there were a lot of people who were keen to get their hands on English-language learning / teaching materials, and so the books have found their way to Canada, USA, Australia, a range of European countries and even to Japan. Maybe YouTube and other online resources will make these books redundant at some point, but if my very humble offering is still helping people in some way to get their taiko off the ground, then I am glad.
Courses, workshops, books and dvds were all very well, but the best lesson comes from the inspiration of seeing taiko groups perform. Show someone a taiko drum and a pair of bachi and they probably won’t be very excited. But show them a performance and that will give them an idea of what they can work towards and achieve themselves. For teachers, it can show what young people are capable of doing. That’s why, from very early days, I was focused on getting people to perform. Performance is absolutely vital. Performances sow the seeds of future players and future groups.
This focus on performance got me into cultural trouble in the first school at which I taught. At this school, there was a Japanese father who was in England on a cultural exchange. He had been excited at the prospect of maybe working with me on developing the school taiko group, but when I told him that I would want this group of 9-11 year olds to perform to the rest of their school at the end of the term (just 10 weeks away), he was outraged. His view was that it would take at least 2 years to get them into shape for what would be a flawless presentation of a Japanese art form.
This seemed wrong to me on two counts. Firstly, in England the idea of sharing a project in school is not only normal, it’s regarded as good practice. Work in progress is fine – it doesn’t have to be “perfect”. Secondly, the young children involved were excited about playing taiko and wanted their friends (and parents) to see and hear what all that excitement was about. There was also my personal need to have them perform in order to promote taiko, but I have always put the needs of children ahead of my own in this sort of situation because I would never want to be thought of as abusing them for marketing purposes. Sadly, this led to a falling-out with the gentleman concerned. He was extremely angry with me and we did not work together after all. Happily, this situation did not last forever – 3 years later, my junior group was playing at a Matsuri in Hyde Park, organized by the Embassy of Japan in the UK and attended by more than 200,000 people over the weekend. Coincidentally, performing on the same stage immediately after my juniors was a theatre group led by the very same Japanese man with whom I had fallen out. This time, however, he was delighted to be associated with them and even told the audience that he had helped get the group started. This was perfectly true. It’s also true that he was amused to hear that I had named a song after him, out of respect for his initial contribution, so all was well in the end.
The moral of this story, for me, was that performance was indeed important, and that this taiko adventure might be along a rocky road. Integrity and persistence would pay off in the end, perhaps.
Regional Taiko Festival
In 2002, I produced a concert given exclusively by young groups from across the south-west. Over a 12 month period, I had worked with a total of 12 groups in different schools and youth clubs, each for a period of 6 weeks. At the end, we were able to gather them all together at an Arts Centre for a show. They loved performing, and they loved seeing other youth groups perform. Their only experience of taiko before this show was the 6-week stint they had had with me. They were excited to see different groups playing different pieces. Being excited by those other groups they could better understand why people loved what they were doing too. Separate little islands of taiko no more, they all connected with each other.
The concert was a huge success, so at the end of another project in 2004 during which I had helped schoolteachers start 12 youth groups of their own over an 18 month period, we had another, larger youth taiko concert. Grand Master Daihachi Oguchi was present at this event. He had come to the UK to perform 3 joint concerts with Kagemusha Taiko. As he watched the show he said to me “I like the spirit of celebration – it’s not a competition.” Later the same day, many of the young performers were back in the theatre to watch Osuwa Daiko and Kagemusha Taiko. This was a foretaste of what the UK Taiko Festival would look like – a youth concert followed by a professional concert, surrounded by other taiko events.
1st UK Taiko Festival
Towards the end of 2004, I decided the time was right to try to bring people together in a National Taiko Festival. There were lots of little taiko bubbles around the country, created by dedicated, pioneering taiko leaders or by teachers in elementary and junior high schools. It seemed right to create a forum in which people could come and share their particular style of taiko and to enjoy the performances of others. It was a big risk booking the theatres, but people came, and once we’d all seen how great it was to get together, it was certain to happen again. We didn’t cover the cost of planning and organizing the whole event, but that cost was “only” our time, and although we didn’t quite manage to break even on the rest, we learned a lot about how to run future Festivals. Perhaps most importantly, we had broken the ice. A group of pioneers around the UK had started their own groups or projects, and for some of them, coming together might have represented something of a threat – would their group be as good as the others (whatever “good” might mean), would their teaching or group leadership be judged harshly against that of others? Would it simply be worth the effort? Happily, it was, but partly to address some of these questions I thought we should formalise the basis on which we were running the UK Taiko Festival.
UK Taiko Festival Principles
I think it’s important to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, to have clarity of purpose and sound principles behind it. Before the 2nd UK Taiko Festival, we drafted the following:
The UK Taiko Festival has its foundation in several guiding principles:
- To encourage the growth of taiko in the UK
- To provide a performance platform for UK-based taiko groups of all ages but with a strong focus on youth
- To provide inspiration for new players by the participation of professional and/or international taiko artists
- To be a showcase event for emerging young UK talent
- To encourage excellence in a culture of celebration, not competition
- To encourage inclusion by giving groups of all abilities the opportunity to participate, including those with special needs.
In this context the Festival strives to achieve a balance between development and excellence:
- Teachers have a focus for their work throughout the year
- Groups have the possibility of a nationally recognised performance opportunity
- Teachers and players have the chance to inspire and be inspired by other groups
- The wider community is offered the opportunity to engage with taiko at all levels as participants and audience members and to thus experience the powerful and transforming nature of this art form.
These have remained true for every year, and as we approach the celebration of 10th UK Taiko Festival, I am delighted that they all still apply.
2nd – 9th UK Taiko Festivals
By the time of the 3rd UK Taiko Festival, all the major players in the country had taken part, either by performing or teaching workshops or both. This was a very significant result. Initially, to be perfectly honest, there had been some skepticism about my intentions in certain quarters, with some people thinking either that I was somehow seeking to take control of taiko in the UK or that I was looking to make lots of money out of it. Neither could have been further from the truth! Firstly, I believe that taiko is a creative art form and there is therefore a lot to be said for it being out of control. Secondly, I had swapped a management career with Hewlett-Packard in order to pursue my love of taiko. If I had been motivated by money, that would not have been a decision I would have made. Whoever got involved with taiko to get rich?!
The real test would come over time. What would people make of the opportunity created by the UK Taiko Festival? And let’s be clear, that opportunity is created not only by me and by the members of Kagemusha Taiko who give so much of their time and energy to it, but by others in the UK (and beyond) who make their own investment of time and effort in it, not least in travelling and spending time away from home. I’ve always been humbled by the commitment these people have shown in travelling sometimes great distances in order to be part of the event.
In the early years, we developed a model that owed a lot to our experience of the National Festival of Music for Youth, run by a charity called Music for Youth. The regular participation of Kagemusha Junior Taiko in this national music festival, (which I think really helped put taiko on the map for a lot of people in primary and secondary education), helped us understand how to deal with the logistics of multiple youth groups in a single large event.
Essentially, what evolved was a “National Youth Taiko Concert” at which groups from schools around the UK would come and perform for about 10-15 minutes each. Some groups might have been established for a year or two, but others might have been going for only a few months. It never mattered because the concert was emphatically billed as a celebration. There has never been a hint of competition. The result has been a hugely supportive and encouraging atmosphere. Everyone remembers what it was like to be a beginner, and no-one is too proud to cheer on a group of beginners who are doing their best. If you search YouTube for the Finale of the July 2006 National Youth Taiko Concert, you’ll see what I mean about the positive atmosphere and the sense of everyone joining in.
Indeed, everyone can join in. Over the years, we have had performances from children from various special schools, including one in Japan. All are welcome.
The difficulty with the Youth Taiko Concerts has always been finding an audience. Putting the words “youth” or “junior” on a poster is not wise if you want to attract a paying public, and we need a paying public in order to cover the costs of the theatre. Visiting groups have therefore been supported by the loyal friends and families of local groups who have provided the audience for them.
The irony is that the youth groups can quite often give the adult groups a serious run for their money when it comes to providing top quality entertainment. And as the youth groups have got older, that has become increasingly true – a group of 18 year olds who’ve been playing for 8 years may well have the edge over a group of 40 year olds who’ve been playing for 10. Not that it’s a competition! This is simply a reflection on the irony that people generally avoid “youth” concerts when, in this case, they would actually be in for an inspirational treat.
In the early years, adult groups at the UK Taiko Festival were all given a similar platform. At the 1st UK Taiko Festival, Joji Hirota and his group headlined one night, with Kagemusha Taiko in support. On another night, Kagemusha Taiko headlined with Taiko Meantime in support, and then both Taiko Meantime and the Tamashii School of Taiko had matinee shows to themselves. With the exception of Mugenkyo, who were unavailable due to touring commitments, this was the sum total of adult groups in the UK at the time.
Since then, numbers have grown, and different groups have taken on different characteristics. Some have members who would prefer not to perform in public, and just want to practice on a weekly basis. Others are keen amateurs who love to play, some perform quite often, but only a tiny minority are capable of staging a full 90-minute theatre show. The need, therefore, was not so much for more theatre opportunities for these groups at the UK Taiko Festival, but for a more informal environment where people could play, celebrate their love of taiko together and perhaps engage with a public who had not seen taiko before.
From 1st UK Taiko Festival onwards, we have always provided opportunities for informal performances. Typically, these have been outdoors, under cover of a marquee, in a city centre shopping centre, and sometimes by the river, on Exeter Quay. Here, groups could play for 10-15 minutes and then run a short “have-a-go” for members of the public. It was a great way to get an audience for these groups. There might only be a handful of passers-by at the moment the drumming started, but within a minute or two there would be anything up to a couple of hundred people watching. It was also a great way to introduce people to taiko. Most of the people who bought theatre tickets already knew what they were going to see. The vast majority of shoppers who stopped had never seen anything like it before.
For 6th UK Taiko Festival, we decided to take this a step further and built a large, covered stage in a city centre park. Then, from 10am to 4pm, we allowed groups to take turns performing (having pre-booked their performance slot) with more or less no limits on what they would do. We repeated this arrangement for 7th UK Taiko Festival. It was great, especially as we’ve always been lucky with the weather, but it did make for a long day. So, for 8th UK Taiko Festival we changed the formula, unashamedly adopting the model used by the North American Taiko Conference in the form of Taiko Ten. We would have an outdoor stage, free to use and free for the public, but the number of groups would be limited to ten, and each would play for about ten minutes. This meant that we could say the show would last from 1:00pm to 3:30pm, so people could plan their day more easily. And if they saw a group they didn’t like so much, they only had to wait 10 minutes till the next one. The variety was great, and the quality was great too as this “Taiko Beats” show took on an international dimension with performances from Odaiko Sonora (Arizona, USA), Oedo Sukeroku-ryu Wadaiko MAKOTO (Paris, France) and Stanford Taiko (California, USA).
This model seems to work really well – it’s open to all groups, and the 10-minute time limit means they can all focus on producing a really exciting performance. We repeated it for 9th UK Taiko Festival, and are set to do so again.
Professional Taiko Groups
I never wanted to be a taiko promoter. I don’t really enjoy the stress of having to sell tickets, especially when there is usually a requirement to sell about 90% of a theatre in order to break even. Every time we book a major group to come and perform, we are placing a bet. Happily, so far, it’s been OK, and we have been rewarded with some outstanding international artists.
In 2010, for 6th UK Taiko Festival, I was able to realize a long-cherished dream to bring San Jose Taiko to the UK. They were a huge success, and we had a great party over several days. A year later, Taikoproject trod more or less the same path from California to south-west England, and again provided inspiration for a huge number of taiko players.
As a quick aside, it has to be acknowledged that taiko in the UK is definitely not as developed as it is in the USA or Japan. I’d like to think that some of the younger players are developing skills that will enable them to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with players from other countries, but while taiko groups in the UK may be great, have loads of fun, and be well worth watching, we don’t have the volume or depth of quality that others do. This is something that we seek to address with the UK Taiko Festival – exposing people to what is possible, in the form of the excellence of international taiko artists. It was therefore a genuinely exciting privilege to be able to host Amanojaku, from Tokyo, Japan, at 9th UK Taiko Festival.
This summer, we are trying something new. We will host the Festival on the campus of a former agricultural college in the heart of the Devon countryside. It happens to be where we have our Taiko Centre, but it isn’t for selfish reasons that we are hosting it here.
Firstly, we will be able to offer more workshops. The campus will enable us to have 4 workshops running at a time, making 16 in total over the weekend. Secondly, the accommodation on site will mean that people will have much more time to hang out and socialize with each other, something that will also be facilitated by the bar. There will also be a big stage in the main quad – some people have described the place as being a bit like Hogwarts, in the Harry Potter films – it should be a great setting for all the performances.
For some people, it may be a problem that it’s not in the centre of a beautiful old city, with lots of shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs close by. However, I’m hoping that for most taiko players it will provide a great environment for total immersion in taiko for a whole weekend.
You can find out more about this year’s event at: www.taikofestival.org.uk where we also have a short video explaining what is happening.
We look forward to the continued growth of taiko in this country. I’d like to see a taiko group in every town, and a taiko group in every school. This isn’t something that any person or group can achieve single-handedly, but taiko is such a great thing, enjoyed by so many people, that I’m sure we’ll get there in time.
Web pages links:
This article was written on: February 7th, 2014
Original language of this article: English
Author: Jonathan Kirby
– Founder and Artistic Director of Kagemusha Taiko (Since 1998. Exeter, England)
– Director of UK Taiko Festival (Since 2005)