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.”


He finally became serious about studying taiko and Japanese culture. “I think even before I graduated I had pretty much made up my mind that I would move to Japan after graduating.” And that’s just what he did in the fall of 1997. After spending six months in Tokyo, Watanabe auditioned successfully to be an apprentice with Kodo and in April 1998 moved to Sado Island to work with the ensemble, which was formed in 1981. The apprenticeship is a two-year program, he says, explaining that the commitment is six days a week, each day beginning with a sixmile run followed by breakfast and more training that includes dancing, singing, traditional theater and tea-ceremony studies, and, of course, drumming. Part of his apprenticeship also involved growing rice and vegetables.

Watanabe completed his two-year apprenticeship and spent another eight years touring the world with Kodo, which in part performs music based on Japanese ceremonial traditions. “They’ll do pieces that come from a festival piece,” Watanabe explains, though the ensemble doesn’t explicitly perform music the way it has been for centuries. A piece that originated hundreds of years ago as parade music played by drummers in an elaborate cart being pulled through the streets of Chichibu, in Saitama Prefecture, for instance, was adapted by Kodo for the stage. “What Kodo did was they took that out and displayed that and made it more physically impressive,” Watanabe says, explaining that Kodo will usually go through the process of visiting a particular Japanese locale and studying the tradition “and then arranging the piece and then asking permission from the locals if what we’re doing is okay.

“Kodo actually takes great pains to study and kind of create a relationship with the traditional practitioners,” he says. “When you study the original, you understand that there’s a lot of depth to it. There’s hundreds and hundreds of years of generations upon generations of people who’ve been practicing it and passing it on and trying to pass on not just the song but the meaning of it, the importance of it, and how it’s translating their history.” Kodo arranges the music and often makes it “more accessible.” Whereas a festival piece might be something that’s performed for four of five hours continuously, Kodo will arrange a seven- or eight-minute version, focusing, perhaps, on the most exciting part of the piece. The ensemble also performs music by its members and outside composers. While with Kodo, Watanabe became the director of the group’s annual world-music festival, Earth Celebration, which welcomes artists from other places and disciplines to collaborate with the taiko drummers on Sado Island. Those kinds of collaborations continued after he returned to New York City in the fall of 2007.

“I had no plan,” initially, Watanabe says. “After almost a decade living in Japan, I wanted to kind of reexplore my American roots. I was playing nothing but Japanese music for ten years. When Kodo’s on tour, it’s a very set program. There’s not a lot of room for improvisation, not a lot of room for freedom and exploration.” While he finds beauty in the refinement of the music Kodo performs and in Japanese music in general, he wanted to find ways to explore both approaches using taiko and the Japanese bamboo transverse flute (fue). Watanabe primarily plays the shinobue, the most common type of Japanese bamboo fl ute, though he does play other types, including the nohkan and ryuteki.

Since returning to New York, Watanabe has worked with a diverse collection of artists including Moran and his wife, vocalist Alicia Hall Moran, taiko master Kenny Endo, composer and percussionist Adam Rudolph, percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, vocalist Imani Uzuri, So Percussion, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road ensemble, and numerous others. “I was doing a lot of very experimental stuff, very free improvisational stuff, exploring different ensembles, different instrument combinations, working with other groups and creating my own groups. Slowly, very slowly, things started to take shape in terms of what I wanted to do.” It took several years. “In terms of feeling confident about where my own voice is, I think it took a long time to develop,” he says.

Néo, in a sense, marks an arrival of sorts. The first piece on the album, “Bloodlines,” for instance, follows an A-A-B form and features Watanabe on shinobue, accompanied by musicians playing taiko and a Japanese gong called the atarigane, and vocalizing. Unlike traditional Japanese music, “Bloodlines” includes a bar of 38, divided into four groups of seven and two groups of five. Asked what the music for the piece looks like, Watanabe says, “It looks like a jazz chart,” explaining, “we’re just going over the A form” in terms of improvised solos.

As much as the album explores complex rhythms and layers of sound, it examines culture, spirituality, and the human condition — all by way of traditional Japanese instruments. In “Iki,” “I can’t breathe,” the final words of Eric Garner, who was killed by New York police in July 2014, are spoken in several languages over the monotonous pulse of fan drums (uchiwa taiko). As the spoken parts get louder and louder, the piece takes on a hauntingly breathless quality. “Shinobu,” which is based on a 15-beat pattern, has its roots in a lullaby Watanabe improvised, vocally, for his newborn daughter. “Reverse” is a reimagination of a traditional piece from Miyake Island, south of Tokyo, which he got permission to use from the Tsumura family — the “most prominent bearers of the legacy.

“I think what I really wanted to do was take the Japanese instruments as far as they can go in terms of both staying within traditional or Japanese contexts but also outside of Japanese contexts. Like I can pick up a Japanese fl ute and jam out on the blues and it’ll sound pretty jazzy, it’ll sound pretty bluesy. But the thing with these Japanese flutes is there are bamboo flutes in India, there are bamboo flutes in Africa, there are bamboo flutes all over the world. So my goal for myself was to keep it sounding like a Japanese bamboo flute while playing in these other contexts.”

With Néo, he says, “I really tried to focus on Japanese drums, Japanese flutes, Japanese percussion. The next one, I think, will be more in the vein of kind of what I do more of, which is mixing it up a lot with other instruments.”

The basic concept of the album, he says, was to create a traditional sound, a collection of pieces that are reminiscent of Japanese festival and theater pieces that beneath a traditional aesthetic explore odd meters, polyrhythms, and improvisation. “I’m trying to capture the best of both worlds,” Watanabe says, “this feeling of connection, this feeling of the past” — of what the drums and flutes originally represent, in secular and sacred origins and contexts — and infusing New York and Brooklyn into that.

In addition to writing and performing his music and working with a diverse group of musicians, Watanabe spends time teaching at his Kaoru Watanabe Taiko Center in Brooklyn, New York, and online at kaDON.com, and lecturing at Princeton University. He’s also taught at Wesleyan University, Colby College, and Dickinson College. In May, Watanabe was looking forward to performances with Rudolph, the Silk Road Ensemble, and members of Kodo.

Watanabe’s primary interest is in exploring what makes divergent musical traditions unique and special. “There’s integrity to all the different music out there that I love and I don’t want to do just a cheap mashup,” he says, sincerely, asking, “Instead of diminishing the beauty and the qualities that make the different music so special, if possible, is there a way to kind of have them elevate each other?”