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Fubuki Daiko

Interview by Jillian Mitchell // March 02 2009
Fubuki Daiko

Taiko literally means 'large drum.' We call ourselves Fubuki Daiko. If you break down the four characters (kanji--Japanese alphabet based on Chinese characters) used for Fubuki Daiko, they literally mean “blowing snow big drum” or “blizzard drum.”

Respect, humility, patience, acceptance, fearlessness, joy, creativity, tradition, group spirit, and the giving up of the ego: all integrated elements of taiko (Japanese) drumming. Originating in Japan, taiko drumming has taken North America by storm, offering a popular and creative alternative for today’s drummer. Taiko drumming—which translates in English to “big (fat) drum”—is more than just a performance art form, but rather a form of adherence, and for Hiroshi Koshiyama and his partner Naomi Guilbert, co-founders of Manitoba’s flourishing Fubuki Daiko, it is a way of life. This month, The Black Page welcomes you to our East meets West issue. Isn’t this an incredible world we live in?

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Japanese drumming has been described as more than just a performance art form but as a way of life. Do you agree with this statement?

For us, it has become a full-time profession. My partner and I rehearse three times a week, teach twice a week and travel about a third of the year, teaching or performing in cities and towns across North America. My approach to taiko-- the way I interact with the drum, with my fellow drummers and with the audience-- also informs my approach to life in a more general sense: much in the same way many martial arts practitioners feel their martial arts practice is inseparable from the rest of their lives. Respect, humility, patience, acceptance, fearlessness, joy, the giving up of the ego, creativity, tradition, group spirit/energy are all things I learn from taiko (particularly in a Dojo setting), which impacts my life in a broader sense.

On your website, Fubuki Daiko is described as a “hint of jazz and funk fused with modern and ancient elements to create a truly eclectic experience that is part martial arts athleticism part dance and all rhythm.” What a unique combination. Tell me a little about how this eclectic fusion of the “new” and the “old” came about.

We trained with our teacher, Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka for about four years in San Francisco. He brought taiko to North America 40 years ago. He trained in the martial arts and wanted to incorporate a lot of martial arts philosophy into the drumming. In this way he was very ‘old school’ traditional. But the fact that he left Japan for the U.S. after the war made him very much a maverick spirit. When he started his group in San Francisco, he incorporated his own style and spirit into the traditional taiko art form. We wanted to continue performing his style of drumming but infuse our own musical influences. We draw from our personal “database” of rhythms we grew up with as North Americans. Naomi and I enjoy listening to jazz and funk, Bruce grew up listening to rock and enjoys all kinds of world music rhythms. When we create our own pieces you can hear hints (not always intentional) from these influences. We also strive to add a lot of choreography so that people are not only dazzled by the music but by the movement.

In my research, I have uncovered another type of the Japanese art form, Taiko drumming. How closely related are Taiko and Fubuki Daiko, and what is involved in each practise?

They are one and the same. Taiko drumming is what we do. Taiko literally means “large drum.” We call ourselves Fubuki Daiko. If you break down the four characters (kanji--Japanese alphabet based on Chinese characters) used for “Fubuki Daiko,” they literally mean “blowing snow big drum,” or “blizzard drum.” Many taiko groups take their names from geographical references. And since we are based in Winnipeg, MB, a reference to the weather here was an obvious choice when it came down to picking a name for the group. The reason we call ourselves Fubuki Daiko (as opposed to Taiko) is due to Japanese pronunciation. It is similar to the difference between saying a apple and an apple. The rules are not hard and fast, however. Some Japanese refer to us as Fubuki Taiko. The characters for “Taiko” literally mean big (fat) drum.

Are there more forms of Japanese drumming? Which ones most accurately portray the traditional style?

Japanese drums used to be an important part of Japanese culture. The most traditional style of Japanese drumming is called “Hogaku,” which was used in the classical theatre. The drums used to include an instrument called a “tsuzumi,” which is the only Japanese drum struck with the hand and possibly the only drum hit from the bottom. It is often accompanied by a small drum tied with a rope called the “shime,” which we also use for our performances.

Can you explain a little bit of the history behind Japanese drumming?

Taiko has been around for several centuries. It probably made its way to Japan via China and Korea. It was primarily used in festivals, imperial court orchestras, in theatres, on battle fields, and in rice fields. It was often used to communicate with other villages (the size of the city often depended on how far one could hear the largest drum from the center of the city). As Japan modernized during the late 19th century, taiko drumming wasn’t deemed to be as important and was soon relegated to being used only in temples and during festivals. After the Second World War, Japan needed to regain its identity. A former jazz drummer named Daihachi Oguchi found some taiko in his hometown of Nagano and tried incorporating his jazz drumming style with many people drumming together as a group. This type of drumming is called “kumi daiko,” and it soon became the popular style of drumming. In the mid sixties, taiko experienced a renaissance-- particularly with the formation of groups such as Ondekoza, Sukeroku Taiko, and Kodo. Now most cities and towns across Japan have community taiko groups. With the popularity of taiko in North America increasing, many cities support taiko groups in the United States (over 150) and in Canada (around 20).

How closely linked to the traditional practice is Fubuki Daiko?

We try to incorporate the traditional spirit of taiko drumming into our pieces. We also perform a traditional Japanese lion dance that is handed down from generation to generation and which is about 200 years old.

Hiroshi, you were formally trained by Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka, the founder of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo and the father of North American taiko drumming. What was the training process like?

Our teacher was very tough and “old school.” We would often get yelled at--occasionally hit--and we were expected to always be physically and mentally present. In our four years of drumming, our teacher said maybe 3 or 4 things specifically pertaining to improving our skills. Other than that, we were expected to constantly observe our “sensei” (teacher) and senior members (“sempai”) when they practiced and performed. We did not specifically rehearse for performances. We’d often find out what we were to be performing in the dressing room just prior to the show, or in the van ride on the way over. Our teacher had a very “throw them into the swimming pool” approach to teaching. We would always have to be on our toes and make sure that our teacher (and our seniors, or “sempai”) were not carrying anything. We would have to carry their bags and their drums, make sure that they were served food before us, sat down before us, entered a room before us. We’d have to pour their water and tea.

How did you get involved with Japanese drumming? What inspired you to take part?

I grew up in San Francisco and saw a lot of taiko drumming during the Cherry Blossom Festival. I was fascinated by the music and movement. When I went to Japan in 1989 to teach English, I joined a taiko group. I joined the San Francisco Taiko Dojo when I returned to San Francisco and have been drumming ever since.

You are the only Canadian formally trained in the art of the Japanese Lion Dance (a student of Nosuke Akiyama). Could you give our readers a description of the Lion dancing, and how it might relate to the work you are doing now?

The style of lion dancing we do is very traditional. It’s different from the Chinese Lion dance, though the origin of the Japanese lion dance is Chinese. In Japan the lion head is made of a solid piece of wood whereas the Chinese head is made of paper mache. The Japanese lion dance is mostly performed by one person whereas the Chinese lion dance is usually performed by two people or maybe more.

Mr. Akiyama would always tell me that in order to perform the lion dance you should observe your pet. We have a cat and I used to have a dog, so I always try to put in catlike moves in the dance. In the middle of the dance, the lion goes out into the audience and bites people. If you get bitten by the lion, you get good luck for the rest of the year.

We continue to perform the lion dance and it has become a crowd favorite. The current version we perform is from the Wakayama school and was taught to us by Kenny Endo, a taiko drummer based in Hawaii. He is the only foreigner (he’s American-born) to have received a “natori” or traditional Japanese stage name.

Together you and your partner, Naomi Guilbert, formed Fubuki Daiko in Winnipeg, MB. How did the community respond to your quest and what was involved in developing your solo practice?

I think our group was fully embraced from the very beginning. Ever since our first performance at the West End Cultural Centre, we have been performing at the Forks, the Fringe Festival, Folk Festival, Children’s Festival and at schools all across Manitoba. I think that because the drum is the basic heartbeat of people it has a universal appeal. We have support from the Manitoba Arts Council to help us tour throughout Manitoba as well as to teach at rural schools. We have fans that follow us and keep tabs on where we are performing next. We have quite a few students that take classes, and we’ve trained many more. It’s been an overall positive experience being in Winnipeg. Because the cost of living here is low compared to San Francisco or Toronto, we are able to do this as a full-time profession and not have a “real job.”

What can one expect at a Fubuki Daiko performance?

People can expect a highly riveting, energetic display of music and movement. It is exciting to watch, but you can also feel the music go through you. The closer you are to the stage, the more you feel.

What kind of repertoire do you perform with Fubuki Daiko? What instruments are used?

Most of our repertoire are original compositions written by myself, Naomi, and Bruce Robertson. The music varies from highly energetic, frenetic pieces to soft melodic quiet interludes. We use a variety of taiko drums (large and small), bamboo flutes, some western instruments like the rototom, cymbals and granite blocks, and other world music instruments such as the agogo bell.

What type of costume does Fubuki Daiko drummer wear during a performance?

We wear two types of costumes. One is very traditional. It is similar to an outfit worn by Japanese carpenters. It is a way for us to commemorate the efforts of the carpenters who originally made the taiko. Features of the costume include an apron (donburi) that has various pockets to put your tools (drum sticks) in, pants (momohiki) that are tied on rather than buttoned or zipped, shoes (tabi) that look like Teeanage Ninja Mutant Turtle shoes, wristbands which used to protect the carpenter from getting cuts when lifting a stack of bricks, and a headband (hachi maki) which is traditionally worn when doing a difficult task like carpentry, making sushi, drumming, or studying for final exams.

The other type of costume we wear looks more formal and is based on traditional kimono and samurai outfits. Ours were designed and made by Anthony Noa and Jillian Doty, the former artistic director and wardrobe mistress at the Northern Plains Ballet in Bismarck, North Dakota, when we collaborated with the company in 2003.

Does most Japanese drumming involve a group effort or can it also be a solo experience?

In Japan, the focus is on the group. There’s a saying that the “nail that sticks out is hammered down.” In Japan, a lot of the compositions are group-based, with little emphasis on the drum solo. Our teacher was a maverick and enjoyed having people do solos. It’s what set his group apart from the other Japanese groups. He would still have people drumming uniformly, but on occasion he would include a solo. We have grown to enjoy doing solos and encourage our students to work on them. Not a lot of groups do ad lib solos, even in North America. They are often intimidated by the attention to themselves. It is rare to be a solo taiko artist in Japan (or North America). The most famous would be Eitetsu Hayashi-- one of the founding members of Ondekoza.

I have heard Japanese drumming can be quite the physical workout. What can one expect at a taiko training session?

It can be like running a marathon with your arms rather than your legs. People can get very sweaty after a rehearsal or class. We also do a lot of warm up exercises before practice (i.e. push ups and sit ups and stretches)

Can anyone practice Japanese drumming?

We say that anyone who has a heartbeat can practice taiko. It takes a few months to learn but a lifetime to master. Our teacher would still refer to us as “crawling babies.” We offer workshops about twice a year and try to start a new class of beginners once every two years. Taking a workshop is a prerequisite for taking classes.




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About the Author
Jillian Mitchell

As a professional vocalist (and self-professed grammar nerd), Jill brings a fresh perspective to The Black Page. In addition to earning a B.A. in music, creative writing and English, Jill has also studied vocals with Philadelphia-based vocal coach Owen Brown, known for his work with Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion, and Wyclef Jean. Jill makes up the other half of world soul group The Mitchells, alongside Black Page creator, Sean Mitchell.



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