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Drumming up team spirit with Amanojaku

Isaku Kageyama
Isaku Kageyama of Amanojaku

TOKYO (TR) – One hundred years of cross-cultural relations coming together in less than ten minutes. That is “Kizuna” (Bond), a song by Tokyo-based taiko drum group Amanojaku that was inspired by the first Japanese immigrants that moved to Brazil a century ago.

“The music symbolizes the bond between the first immigrants to Brazil and their descendants,” says the seven-member group’s burly founder, Yoichi Watanabe, who co-authored the piece. “It’s about the bond between Japan and Brazil, Japanese-Brazilian society and Brazilian society, and the bond between Japanese-Brazilians and their ancestors.”

This legacy was celebrated last month in Sao Paolo as Amanojaku led a congregation of 1,000 taiko drummers through this percussion piece.

Since 2004, the seven-member ensemble, whose name comes from a demonic creature in Japanese folklore, has made annual pilgrimages to Brazil, the South American nation with the largest overseas Japanese community in the world, to teach and promote the fundamentals of this traditional Japanese drumming art. But in addition to technique, the group attempts to impart a need to understand oneself upon the students in this international exchange.

“I try to teach them more than drumming skills,” says drummer Isaku Kageyama, a Japanese-American, of his overseas disciples, who are often teenagers of Japanese descent. “They need to learn discipline, teamwork, and understand hard work. They also need to learn their identity, who they are, and then they need to be comfortable with who they are.”

Before founding Amanojaku in 1986, Watanabe was the leader of an established professional taiko group in Tokyo called Sukeroku Daiko. “As I matured as a musician,” Watanabe explains, “I developed a strong desire to pursue my own musical projects. I needed to develop my apprentices into musicians that could interpret and play the music I envisioned, and the best way to do so was by founding Amanojaku.”

The sound of the troupe ranges between that of a thundering herd of horses — when single drummers pound overhead drums with thick wood sticks in rapid succession — to the subtle beats of a much softer percussion orchestra.

Such drumming techniques can be difficult to transfer to another culture, says Kageyama, who adds that one of the fundamental means of understanding a traditional form of music is to be able to “sing the rhythms” accurately – a challenge when your students might have a different form of pronunciation.

“If you cannot play the rhythms accurately in your head,” says Kageyama, “you are not going to play them accurately on the drum.”

Taiko traces its roots back to the fifth century, when it was probably brought to Japan from Korea and China. Through the centuries it was often performed during religious ceremonies and festivals. Since the conclusion of World War II, modern taiko has been used as a means of celebrating Japan’s traditional arts.

Next month Amanojaku will again recognize Japan’s Brazilian ties by taking the stage in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward for two shows that will include the Japan premiere of “Kizuna.”

For Watanabe, he has no plans to stop there. “I’ve had the honor of teaching taiko in a number of different nations as a cultural ambassador, instructor, and composer,” the founder of Amanojaku says. “In Sao Paulo, I was pleasantly surprised to hear there are 300 taiko drummers in Argentina, and next week, a friend of mine from Venezuela who plays percussion will come to Japan to study taiko with me. Sometimes it feels like this is my calling.”

Note: Amanojaku will perform August 13th and 14th at the Nerima Bunka Center. Tel: 03-3993-3311.