Kaoru Watanabe: The Gradual Pull Of Heritage

Kaoru Watanabe: The Gradual Pull Of Heritage

Kaoru Watanabe’s album Néo, released in May, 2016, is the first recording of his original compositions. It’s also a musical document of where he’s been and who he is as an artist and an individual. It’s been nearly ten years since Watanabe returned from Japan, where he lived for a decade working and performing with the iconic taiko ensemble Kodo. Listening to Néo, one hears the sophisticated languages of contemporary chamber music and improvisation delivered through instruments that originated centuries ago. The album is in many ways the soundtrack of Watanabe’s musical life to date, informed by his studies of classical and jazz styles and traditional Japanese music and culture. The music on Néo, in other words, is uniquely his.

“I didn’t want to try to recreate anything that Kodo does — whether that’s in my own performance, in my compositions, or on any album that I make — otherwise I wouldn’t have left,” Watanabe says. “And Kodo has such a huge presence in the history of taiko drumming and a strong influence. And even though I was a member — or especially because I was a member of Kodo — I wanted to really create my own voice. So that’s one thing I was very conscious of. But I also had this very specifi c idea of what I thought could be done on the taiko, especially revolving around improvisation.”

Watanabe, whose parents are both from Japan, grew up in Missouri, where his father and mother played violin and harp, respectively, in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. His father tried to get him to play violin, Watanabe says, “but it didn’t stick at all.” After a few years, in middle school, he took up the fl ute and also had his fi rst exposure to taiko, traditional Japanese drums. “There was a man named Oguchi Daihachi, and he’s kind of responsible for creating this contemporary form of taiko drumming that is not associated with a traditional festival or theater or an older folk tradition. There’s the whole concept of having a group of drummers that you see a lot of these days. It’s a very new thing. It started in the 1950s. It’s confusing because a lot of pieces that people play might be derived from a festival piece, which would be considered old or traditional, but the whole notion of having a group of drummers performing — a taiko ensemble, in other words — is, again, from the 1950s. Up until then drums were always used to accompany theater, as part of a larger festival, a larger ceremony.”

Oguchi gave a one-week-long workshop in St. Louis when Watanabe was 11. “I grew up in St. Louis not speaking Japanese,” he says. “My parents are both from Japan but I didn’t speak Japanese. I didn’t really know much about the culture.” He saw a fl ier for a taiko-drumming class and fi gured “why not?” “After a week I had my fi rst performance.” Not surprisingly, Watanabe “had already been turned off of classical music by then, just because studying violin with my dad was such a traumatic experience,” he says with a heavy dose of laughter. “I wasn’t listening to Wagner or anything at 11.” The experience he had with Oguchi proved to be an important one. Even after Oguchi left St. Louis, Watanabe and several of the other workshop participants continued to get together and explore taiko drumming.

Simultaneously, he was studying fl ute with Janice Smith, the assistant principal flutist of the St. Louis Symphony. The summer between his junior and senior years of high school, Watanabe attended the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan and stayed to finish high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy, studying fl ute with Tyra Gilb. “When I went to the camp, that’s when I started to get serious about music,” he says. Still, at that point in his life, Watanabe says, “I think I just very naturally assumed that I would be playing in an orchestra.” He was learning how to play and not necessarily thinking about what his career might look like. While he’d been the best flute player at his public high school in St. Louis, he delighted in finding himself among equals at Interlochen, where he and his peers listened to music by composers ranging from Miles Davis to Stravinsky. He was, in a way, fitting in for the first time, and being inspired by those around him.

“It was really transformative,” he says, and it’s where his focus turned to jazz, to which a boyfriend of Smith’s back in St. Louis introduced him. While his knowledge of jazz as he completed high school was limited, Watanabe felt that New York City was the place for him to be and enrolled at the Manhattan School Of Music, where he studied classical fl ute with Harold Jones and jazz flute and saxophone with Steve Slagle. Ultimately, he found that he was studying as much with his schoolmates (including pianist and composer Jason Moran, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and drummer Eric Harland) as much as he was with his private teachers.

Watanabe spent the first three years of college learning the language of jazz and comparing himself to his peers, with whom he spent a lot of time “talking about and dealing with African American culture, and how the jazz music that we were playing is so connected to hip-hop and to R&B and to the blues and to ragtime. And the way a lot of my friends were approaching music really was coming from a place of heritage, personal heritage, personal narrative. And, in fact, I was curious if I had that somewhere else and what mine would be. And so that kind of question made me start thinking about Japan more.” And then, the summer before his senior year of college, he and his family took a trip to Japan to visit relatives.

“That was another kind of big, life changing moment in that I was in Japan for the first time in a long time,” he says. “It felt very foreign to me, to be in that country.” Being there had him thinking about identity and culture. In Nawa, he saw a performance of taiko drumming that brought back memories from middle school and high school. He hadn’t played taiko since high school and found himself inspired. “It was very auspicious,” he says. “It did touch a lot of things emotionally for me: heritage, the music, growing up in St. Louis playing taiko.”

Upon returning to New York, Watanabe joined Soh Daiko, which he describes as a very serious, high-level amateur group. “Joining them, I kind of for the first time was very serious about taiko drumming.” During that trip to Japan, he says, “a light had switched on, or a door had opened.

I hadn’t gone through the door yet, but it’s like this huge, different kind of world opened up to me. My mind was turning more and more toward Japan.”

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