2011 North American Taiko Conference

This year, over 800 taiko players from all over the United States, Canada, Japan, South America and the United Kingdom enjoyed over 48 workshops, two concerts, various jam sessions, lectures and panel discussions that took place on the campus of Stanford University.  Due to the great diversity of activities, I imagine that most participants at this year’s conference had a wide variety of experiences.  What follows is my personal account of what took place that weekend.


Thursday, August 18th

I arrived at Stanford to register, check in and rehearse with Kenny Endo and his ensemble.  In the evening, the Mountainview Buddhist Temple hosted the opening reception.  Besides allowing us to use their space, they prepared a delicious dinner, provided an opening taiko performance and stayed late afterwards cleaning up and their hard work and generous spirit set the tone for the conference.  Following the tradition of previous NATC opening receptions, after dinner there was a taiko jam session, loosely organized by years of performing experience.  The first group of players were people who had been playing less than five years.  Following that was people with 5 to 10 years of experience and so forth until the final jam featured veterans with over 30 years of experience.  I had a great time playing (in the 25+ years group) with many old friends.  While there were quite a few great performances that evening, the three guest instructors from Japan, Saburo Mochizuki (one of the founding members of Sukeroku Daiko), Kyosuke Suzuki (one of the foremost Shishimai dancers and not to mention my first shinobue teacher) and Yoko Fujimoto (singer from Kodo and very close friend) joining the North American taiko veterans added a special relevance to the event, showing how the international taiko community is so deeply interconnected.  A whole hearted thank you to the wonderful folks of Mountainview Buddhist Temple who made the evening possible.


Friday, August 19th  

In the morning, there was an opening session for all participants which featured speeches by many key individuals in the North American taiko community, a performance by Stanford Taiko, a presentation on the history of taiko by Soh Daiko’s Alan Okada and a riveting demonstration by twenty some shishimai dancers who participated in a weekend intensive taught by the aforementioned Kyosuke Suzuki.  I took place in a panel discussion on the pros and cons of how the internet has affected taiko drumming.

The first round of three workshop sessions was on Friday afternoon, and for mine, I taught on the finer points of Kodo’s version of Yatai Bayashi.  I was very pleased by how advanced many of the players were with this piece and to see how open and eager they were in trying new things.  Other workshops included everything from basic taiko techniques to movement choreography, composing, chappa, atarigane, odaiko, ji patterns, introduction to hougaku hayashi and more, taught by many excellent instructors.  I believe most workshops at any given time had around 20 people or so.

The evening’s main event was an outdoor concert called “Taiko Ten” which featured ten different groups, each performing works that they had either written or arranged specifically for taiko conference.  There was a wide range of acts- children and adult performers in both professional and amateur groups, representing cities from all over the US, Canada and the UK.  A personal highlight was the final group, some of the brightest mid-career taiko players (not quite veterans, but people who have been around a bit- like me I suppose?) doing a thrilling “Midare Uchi” competition, each trying to play with most flair, power and grace.  After the concert, those with energy left after the concert gathered in dorm rooms, the bar or stayed outside chatting late into the night.


Saturday August 20th

Morning and afternoon were filled with more workshop sessions.  I taught an advanced fue workshop in which we went over breathing, fingering, tone production, dynamics, vibrato, phrasing, stage presence and other elements related to playing the fue.  I had people play pieces for me and I helped them in their approach to the performance of it.  Again, the enthusiasm to learn was inspiring to me as a teacher.  Afterwards, I had to rush over to the theater for a quick soundcheck and rehearsal for the evening “Taiko Jam” concert.  The concert was a ticketed event open to the public and featured three established groups: Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble, San Francisco Taiko Dojo and Soh Daiko and two relatively young groups: Inochi Taiko and Mirai Taiko.  I performed as a guest with both Kenny Endo’s group and San Francisco Taiko Dojo.  Also performing in Kenny’s group was Suzuki Kyosuke, whom I first met at the first Taiko Conference in 1997, right around the time I decided I wanted to pursue studying and performing taiko and fue full time.  When I asked him the best way to study fue, he matter-of-factly replied “you have to go to Japan”.  I consequently did exactly that and spent many transformative years there.  Performing a short duet with Suzuki sensei in 2011, a duet that opened the Taiko Jam concert, held special significance for me, marking 14 years since I first met him.  Another highlight of the concert for me was hearing Saburo sensei perform.  He is able to generate the most amazing sound out of both his tsuzumi and his voice.

After the concert, people broke off into various groups, some starting jam sessions, most just people talking and laughing.  I spoke with Suzuki sensei and a few others until around 4 in the morning drinking wine, beer and vodka while he told us many stories about what it was like in the early days of Oedo Sukeroku Daiko, how he became a hougaku musician and the many trials and tribulations getting to where he is today.  While I think the workshops and concerts were all wonderful, for me spending time with some great teachers and old friends was where the true value of the conference was.  I’ve found over my many years studying music, it’s those times informally eating and drinking with great artists that one really learns some of the more profound lessons in life.


Sunday August 21st

I somehow managed to crawl out of bed and attend the morning closing session where certain people were recognized for their contributions to not just the conference but to taiko as it is being practiced all over North America.  Yuta Kato received a well deserved a lengthy standing ovation for the incredible amount of dedication, energy, thought, feeling and sheer number of hours he spent to make sure that no detail was left unconsidered.  Yuta and his staff and the many NATC volunteers worked tirelessly to deal with the multifarious issues of housing, parking, food, scheduling – and not to mention the logistical nightmare of having to move literally hundreds of taiko and stands to the various workshop and concert venues.  All of these issues were handled with aplomb and in such a way that most of the 800 participants didn’t notice all the frantic behind-the-scenes-activity taking place.   Yuta and his crew allowed the conference to be fun, educational, safe and absolutely conducive to the sharing between taiko players that has and will continue to propel taiko playing forward.

PH: Matthew Tom-Welverton
PH: Matthew Tom-Welverton

natc_2011_group_photo_by_matt_tom-wolvertonPH: Matthew Tom-Wolverton

This article was written on: September 29th, 2011

Original language of this article: English

Author: Kaoru Watanabe

Nationality: United States


Kaoru Watanabe is a practitioner of various Japanese transverse bamboo flutes, the taiko drum as well as Western flute whose music can be best described as an ever shifting blend of the folk and classical traditions of Japan with contemporary improvisational and experimental music. Kaoru has performed with and collaborated with Jason Moran, So Percussion, Adam Rudolph, Kenny Endo, Stefon Harris, Satoshi Takeishi, Marvin Sewell, Kiyohiko Semba, Tamango, Ned Rothenberg, Alicia Hall Moran, Tatsuya Nakatani, TaikOz, Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, Imani Uzuri, calligrapher Kakinuma Koji, visual artist Simone Leigh and many others.

Kaoru was born in St. Louis, MO to symphony musician parents.  In 1997, after graduating from the Manhattan School of Music with a BFA in jazz flute and saxophone performance and performing with New York’s Soh Daiko, Kaoru moved to Japan and joined the internationally renowned taiko drum ensemble Kodo.  Based in Sado Island in the Niigata prefecture, Kaoru toured across the globe with Kodo, performing the taiko, traditional Japanese folk dance and song, and especially the various fue (bamboo flute) such as the noh kan, ryuteki and shinobue. From 2005 to 2007, Kaoru served as one of Kodo’s artistic directors, focussing on their world music festival Earth Celebration.  During this festival, he directed shows that combined music, dance, and visual arts and that featured such luminaries as Zakir Hussain, Giovanni Hildalgo, Carlos Nunez, jazz pianist Yosuke Yamashita and casts comprised of West African stilt dancers, tap and contemporary dancers, traditional Japanese folk dance, live calligraphy, break dance and capoeira.  Working closely with legendary Kabuki actor Bando Tamasaburo, has had a profound effect on his artistic growth.

In late 2006 Kaoru left Kodo and returned to NY to teach and continue performing fue, western flute and taiko in a variety of musical and artistic settings.  Recent projects have taken him across the US, Canada, Japan, Mongolia, France, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Trinidad, Barbados, Honduras, Argentina, Australia, and Puerto Rico and have been funded by Japan Foundation, Trust For Mutual Understanding and Asian Cultural Council.

Kaoru has performed his compositions at such prestigious venues as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum, Kabukiza, Minamiza, Blue Note NYC and has performed in all 47 prefectures in Japan.

Kaoru is an instructor for kaDON, an online taiko and fue resource presented by Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten. Kaoru has taught courses at Princeton University, Wesleyan University and Colby College and teaches at his studio in Brooklyn.

Teatro del globo

Super deluxe

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