New Interview: Carrie Carter

We’re happy to release a new interview in our series! This time, we sat down with Carrie Carter of All Things Taiko. Carrie is one of the original members of Ohio’s premier taiko group, Icho Daiko, founded in 2004. She has also performed with Seattle Kokon Taiko, O • Daiko (大 • 鼓, Hong Kong), and Shippu Uchi Daiko (疾風打太鼓, Japan) with Ryo Shimamoto (嶋本 龍). A pioneer in the world of taiko blogging, Carrie is the creator of All Things Taiko (www.allthingstaiko.blogspot.com), an instructional resource for those interested in learning to play taiko. She received her MPhil. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Hong Kong for her research on the history and development of taiko as an art form.

During our discussion, we talked with Carrie about her performance background, her experience learning, playing, and teaching taiko in different places around the world, and her blogging activities. Visit the interview page to check it out!

Carrie Carter


Recorded August 5, 2017. 66 minute, 44.8 MB mp3 file.

Carrie Carter is one of the original members of Ohio’s premier taiko group, Icho Daiko, founded in 2004. She has also performed with Seattle Kokon Taiko, O • Daiko (大 • 鼓, Hong Kong), and Shippu Uchi Daiko (疾風打太鼓, Japan) with Ryo Shimamoto (嶋本 龍).

A pioneer in the world of taiko blogging, Carrie is the creator of All Things Taiko (www.allthingstaiko.blogspot.com), an instructional resource for those interested in learning to play taiko. She received her MPhil. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Hong Kong for her research on the history and development of taiko as an art form.

With a particular focus on body care and alignment, Carrie has instructed taiko ensembles in The United States, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Germany, and Morocco. She currently resides in Kobe, Japan.

During our discussion, we talked with Carrie about her performance background, her experience learning, playing, and teaching taiko in different places around the world, and her blogging activities.

Taiko in My First Year

What is your image of taiko in Japan? I am not going to write an academic paper today filled with dates, names, credits, etc. I am going to write an account of how the greater world of taiko was introduced to me in my first year or so of taiko in Japan, and how it shaped my greater view of taiko in this country. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of all the taiko in Japan, only the taiko that I was introduced to in my first year or so in Japan (Sometimes the taiko I saw in Japan during my first year wasn’t actually the first time I saw that taiko, so there will be some jumps in the timeline.) Since that first year, every year I am introduced to more and more groups, styles and philosophies, and my ideas are constantly being challenged and changed with each fellow taiko player I meet. I hope this can be eye opening for some, and encourage someone out there to come to Japan and experience everything that is taiko.

When I was about 14 years old I saw my first Kodo show live at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado and it totally blew my mind. I went Kodo crazy for a little while and I was convinced that all taiko in Japan must be like Kodo. I was sure that everyone lived in small villages farming, running half marathons every morning and eating communally in the middle of a picturesque Japanese countryside. All taiko players must be spiritual, healthy and live simply, right? The reality of things is very far from the myth. I later learned that Kodo was made up of members much like myself. They were people who valued tradition and were trying to create something to preserve and promote Japanese culture and arts to the world, so they studied different styles and arts beyond even taiko to become a living “tradition” of sorts. What they were doing wasn’t actually the root of the tradition, but they served as a bit of a smorgasbord of different taiko traditions drawn from around the country. Their famous arrangements of pieces like “Miyake” or “Yatai” were arrangements of traditional pieces from very different parts of Japan. It was a bit of a revolutionary thought to me at the time that Kodo wasn’t the pinnacle of taiko in Japan and that their ideas and style was not the only, or even the main thing out there.

My first interaction with taiko in Japan was with my current group Amanojaku, naturally. Amanojaku of Tokyo introduced to me a group of professionals making a living at taiko living in the largest metropolis in the world. They were city people by any definition in any book. Fashionable, business professionals, Perfectionist, music connoisseurs. They ate steak, drank beer and smoked cigarettes. They hated running. They were into all sorts of world music, technique, technique, technique and weight lifting. The first time I met them, they were talking about boxing and the strangest foods they ever ate while on tour. They didn’t look like they had been in a rice field in their entire life, and I can tell you with certainty now that they have no desire to. There was something very honest, and very real about the taiko that they played. I would later go on to learn that Amanojaku finds its roots in the bon daiko drumming traditions of shitamachi Tokyo with heavy influences from Edo Bayashi, and Kabuki theatre music. This is in the same line as all of the Sukeroku groups. Watanabe Sensei at one point even played with Sukeroku back in the 80`s (at the same time as Kenny Endo. They often practiced with each other.)

Over the years I have had the opportunity to meet many of the old Sukeroku members, and within those members have been so many different personalities and types it would be hard to classify them into one group. However, one thing that was made clear to me was that back in the day, one way to get popular was to be the best at bon daiko. I won`t say that it was entirely for this reason, but most of the older members of Sukeroku played taiko at least in part because they wanted to get the ladies. This is nothing like the image of the spiritual taiko player living communally I envisioned when I was 14.

Early on a series of workshops with Rokuninkai introduced me to Hachijo Daiko. They lived on an island, they looked like they worked outside, and one might think they fit into the Kodo-myth/image of taiko in Japan but you would be wrong to make that assumption. They were loud, boisterous and friendly. They neither ran, nor weight lifted. I don’t even think that they exercised. They loved drinking, and would often play totally wasted. When they played, their love of taiko was almost palpable. They didn’t care so much about technique, and they were very uncritical of each other’s playing, although the politics of Hachijo Daiko seemed to be very divided amongst the people living in Hachijo. They were not the same as the Tokyo Professional. Plain and simply they were taiko loving island people. My eyes opened up even further to an entire different take on what it meant to be a “professional” taiko player.

I have a good friend, Walter, who during a stint with the JET program was introduced to Kiriko Daiko, a taiko group coming from a festival tradition in Wajima on the Noto Hanto. The first time I saw it played, it was actually in Hawaii while he was “auditioning” for the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble (he was a shoe-in). The style was full of energy, power and was raw. The movement and rhythm were un-refined, and they were best that way. They had flavor and soul. I was a fan instantly. The first time I was introduced to Walter’s group, Kiriko Daiko, was when I attended his wedding in Kanazawa about an hour drive from Wajima. The team arrived at 10AM and immediately headed to the drink counter and started drinking. By the time the wedding party got started everyone was in high spirits. During the party Kiriko Daiko was set to do a performance for Walter and his wife and guests. While everyone was getting changed, one of the group leaders announced with a loud laugh and a gigantic smile, “I didn’t bring my bachi!” One of the other members slapped him on the back laughing, “What did you come here to do, stupid!” and he shouted in response, “I came here to drink!!!” I laughed out loud, but was honestly inside wondering if they were going to be okay. I obviously didn’t know anything because when show time started they went off. They went to town on that taiko! It was like we were having a festival right there on the wedding grounds. Very different from the taiko players in Tokyo, or from Hachijo, they were the festival, the taiko was to them inseparable from the festival. And they were awesome.

A short trip up the road, also in Wajima, is the home of the famous Gojinjo Daiko. During the summers they play free shows at the station, and my friend was kind enough to take me to see my first live Gojinjo Daiko show. Gojinjo Daiko is legendary. 500 years ago when the warlord Uesugi Kenshin was set to invade Nafune (a small town in Wajima) weaponless townspeople dressed up as demons, wearing seaweed in their hair, took the taiko to the beach and played so fiercely that Uesugi Kenshin and his men decided not to invade. The style has taken on legendary, and almost religious like status. The masks the players wear are passed down through the generations and said to carry the spirits of their former owners. The style is just that. It is the type of performance that would convince you that it was not men playing taiko. For the ten minutes of the show the stage is overrun with demons playing so intensely I`m not sure that I breathed the whole time. The players themselves are professional lacquerers, fishermen and farmers. But when they wore the masks they ceased being themselves and were possessed by something entirely different. They were definitely not the Tokyo Professional, they were not the Taiko-Loving Islanders, they were not the Festival-Loving Crazies, they were straight up demon-drummers. They played in such a way that I knew that if you didn’t have it in your blood, you would not be able to play like that. It was around this time that I started to realize that very little of good taiko is about perfect technique or sharp beautiful lines, it is something much more primal than that.

I used to live on the Seibu-Ikebukuro Line which was a straight shot out to Chichibu, home of a very famous festival called Yo-matsuri. So I went out to see the festival in December. The festival is now well known because groups like Ondekoza and Kodo made Chichibu Yatai Bayashi popular in the taiko world. Since I had only seen Kodo before I thought that Chichibu Yatai Bayashi is a piece where a row of taiko sits diagonally on the floor and the players, in only a fundoshi, use their ridiculously cut abs to support them at an impossible angle for the entire length of the piece in which they beat the taiko in an incredible feat of fitness, strength and endurance. I was surprised to find that the real Chichibu Yatai Bayashi was nothing like this. . . at all. The players were old and young alike. Everyone was fully dressed, and it was cold (remember this is December). There was not a fundoshi in sight. No one was leaning back at ridiculous angles, everyone was just sitting normally in front of the drum. The drum was stuffed inside the portable shrine, and you had to walk up close and peek inside if you actually wanted to see the people playing the drum. They sat on the floor because the ceiling was low. There was no room for them to play with big arm movements or lean back too far, because they would hit the wall. But the music was tight! The music had a really funky groove that I had never heard Kodo play before. It was fantastic! Later on I would have a chance to have a drink with some of the taiko players and would learn that they took the festival very seriously. They talked about the groove of different groups that played in different parts of the city and who was grooving the best at this year’s festival. They talked about feel and placement of notes. And they talked about how difficult it was keeping young people coming back to the city during the festival season. With this performance I started to feel how ingrained and inseparable taiko is from Japanese culture and community. Taiko was is so much more than an instrument to perform on a stage, and the taiko that was being performed on stage had a much deeper background than I could have ever imagined.

This actually takes me up through the major taiko that I saw in my first year in Japan. Since then this list has grown infinitesimally every year. Trips to Gion Matsuri, or Nebuta Matsuri, or Bon Odori in places outside of Tokyo colored the next year of my adventure, and it has never really stopped since then. It works like a web, one person introduces you to the next, and they introduce you to two more, and so on and so forth. After eight years I have come to the conclusion that no matter how long I am in Japan I will never learn everything and I will never be able to see all the taiko in the country. And that point is really the goal of this article. I just wanted to share that message. Don’t deprive yourself of all these amazing traditions, and all the great taiko in Japan by making any preconceptions about what taiko is or isn`t. The taiko world is so much deeper and wider than any one group, style or ideology. So don’t cut yourself short! Take the plunge and explore! If you don’t know where to start, any of the names I mentioned in the article would be great places to begin!

Introduction

I think many taiko players around the world must dream from time to time about what it might be like. Taking the big leap. Dropping everything, quitting your job, getting on a plane to Tokyo, hunting down a legendary taiko guru deep in a bamboo forest on a remote mountain, and wholeheartedly devoting yourself to mastering taiko; living, training, reshaping yourself in Japan.

There is something captivating, inspiring, even adventurous about the idea of learning taiko in Japan. Discovering the true origins of the art form, experiencing its traditions firsthand, maybe training in a communal setting like the members of Kodo or Ondekoza, or perhaps apprenticing with a master of a particular style…all in the midst of an exotic, vibrant, mysterious culture.

But…would you ever take the leap?

What is it actually like to study taiko in Japan? To live in Japan? Who actually drops everything to start a new life in a foreign country…for the sake of learning taiko? What about a career, or family and friends? What if you don’t know Japanese? Could you even find a taiko group there? One that would let a foreigner learn from them?

I used to have those questions, and I used to be inspired by that crazy dream, too. And for the last four years, I’ve been living it.

My taiko story started off like many players’ around the world. I was introduced to taiko in college back in the U.S., while studying (Western) music theory and composition and joined my school’s group, St. Olaf Taiko, as a charter member. After graduating, I moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota to start a job at a music software company, and as soon as I could, I enrolled in classes with Mu Daiko, a mainstay group in the Midwest region. After a year of apprenticing, I eventually became a member of the core performing group, all the while devoting more and more of my time and energy to learning, performing, and composing music for taiko.

Like many before me, it didn’t take long for me to realize that taiko had become much more than just a hobby for me, and that I was feeling a burning desire to “go deep,” as a wise taiko player once put it to me, into this world.

When I decided that I was ready to quit my job of two and a half years, leave my family and friends, and the wonderful taiko group I grew so much with, and move to Japan, I have to be clear it wasn’t only because of taiko. I had a passion for teaching that I wanted to explore through Teaching English as a Foreign Language (I’d studied it before coming), I had always wanted to live abroad, and I was ready for the change in my life. But without that dream of having the chance to study taiko in Japan, it wouldn’t have happened.

But coming is just the beginning. Seeking out groups and actually studying taiko here, in the midst of becoming a part of my local communities, trying to become a better teacher, struggling to learn Japanese, traveling all around Japan and Asia, and challenging myself in more ways than I ever thought I could, has made my time here exactly the kind of adventure I’d always dreamed about.

In my next two articles in this series I will share my experiences finding, learning with, and becoming a part of the groups I’ve been studying with here—I’ve studied with both a matsuri-bayashi group in rural Tochigi Prefecture as well as Kiyonari Tosha-sensei’s Nihon Taiko Dojo in Tokyo, both at the same time—as well as why discovering the context around taiko here has been just as important to me as playing drums. I hope reading about my experiences might be helpful to you if you too have been dreaming about what it might be like to learn taiko here in Japan.

Introduction

Hello, I’m Joe Small. I’m was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and play taiko drums. To write about my own taiko experience is a little embarrassing as I do not tend to write about myself, nor do I find myself a particularly adept writer. Moreover, there are countless people in the community far more thoughtful and skilled than I am in taiko – that’s not a diffuse compliment meant to make me look humble, but what my experiences have repeatedly indicated to me. So, I do not purport to be an expert – I’ve learned enough to know that I really don’t know much, and can only speak from my own experiences as well as what I’ve remembered or recorded.

Looking over what I’ve written below, I’d say that my personal history reads ‘wider’ than ‘deeper’ – I have not studied for a relatively long period of time; nor solely under one style, group, or teacher. I don’t see ‘accomplishments’, but the somewhat sporadic behavior of somebody with a lot of enthusiasm and curiosity – someone who clearly loves taiko and has tried to embrace all of it despite the truth of impossibility – there is no end to what one can learn or do in the art.

Performing my responsibility as a reflexive graduate student, I will acknowledge that I have enjoyed great privilege of body, gender, education, time, and funds to access so much opportunity – particularly as I’ve managed somehow to bounce back and forth between (and within) Japan and the United States several times. But, one benefit of this travel is a breadth of study has allowed me to maintain an open mind about the myriad ways in which people construct ‘taiko’ – as ‘tradition’, as ‘stemming from tradition(s)’, as ‘non-traditional’, as a transglobal art form, as something not yet encountered or considered yet, etc. While I cannot say ‘it’s all good’ –and that I have not found certain aspects or attitudes more agreeable than others (there’s certainly any number of issues and statements out there to make one’s eyebrows arch), my mentality for the art seems to align around those with a good deal of compassion (I should be circumspect as to whether or not I play or approach taiko in that manner), particularly based out of teachers/artists who have made a significant impact on my personal development and understanding of the art. My subsequent writing for this TCA blog will hopefully reflect that to some degree.

Anyway, my practice of taiko started in January 2002 as a first-year undergraduate at Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia, under the instruction of my dance professor. I had no prior knowledge of the art form, nor much of Japanese culture, yet, at the first class I instantly felt a joy in generating motion and striking the drum. Perhaps more so than the loud sound generated was the swift action of striking with an audible, tactile result – my body felt empowered. My teacher encouraged me to delve into taiko and explore the relationship of percussion and choreography, so during the summers of 2002 and 2003 I received my first formal instruction in taiko under Kenny and Chizuko Endo at the Taiko Center of the Pacific. They were extremely generous and welcoming to me, and after practice I would sit and observe rehearsals, mostly with my mouth hanging open in awe. During this time, TCP also gave me an introduction of the greater taiko community at events such as the 2002 Summer Taiko Institute in LA (again, taught by Kenny Endo), and the 2003 North American Taiko Conference in Sacramento. Returning to college, I set about making taiko pieces without thinking too deeply, and I ended up establishing and co-directing Swarthmore College Taiko along with a good friend who has now played with San Jose Taiko for some time.

A semester as an exchange student Tamagawa University in the Fall of 2003 followed, where I was able to study taiko and nihon buyo, performing as a member of the performing arts department’s taiko/dance ensemble (which for the past eleven years has toured the American northeast every April during Cherry Blossom Festival season; I’d encourage you to see a performance if you’re in the area at the right time). Returning to the USA, I continued duties as co-director of Swarthmore College Taiko and for the final project of my dance major, produced a concert featuring the work of the student group as well as my own original compositions. In the interim summers I acted as an administrative summer intern at San Jose Taiko. Following graduation I also held an summer artistic internship at Portland Taiko in Portland, Oregon (during a transitional period from leaders Ann Ishimaru and Zack Semke to Michelle Fujii) and received some instruction in both locations.

In the Fall of 2005, I moved to Osaka, Japan and embarked on a one-year Fulbright Fellowship based at the National Museum of Ethnology (Kokuritsu Miinzokugaku Hakubutsukan) under the advising of ethnomusicologist Prof. Yoshitaka Terada. I played at the Seigakukan Taiko Dojo under Asuka Minehide, leader of professional group Wadaiko Hiryu, while conducting observational and participatory research across the country for the purposes of examining cultural contexts and choreography in Japanese Taiko Drumming. These experiences allowed me to travel across the country for local/regional festivals, concert performance, and workshops – and brought me into contact with a number of groups and artists including but not limited to Amanojaku, Art Lee and Tokara, Batiholic, Eitetsu Hayashi and Fu-Un no Kai, Ikari Daiko, Kodo, Tokyo Dagekidan, Oedo Sukeroku Taiko, Wadaiko Hiryu, and Wadaiko Matsumura Gumi. It was fun, exciting, and a wonderful learning experience – but also similar to sitting and watching people eat a variety of delicious cakes. Simply, I realized I wanted to partake and the year had flown by quickly.

With that in mind, I considered the suggestion from a friend on Kodo’s staff and decided to apply for the Kodo apprenticeship in order to expand upon my understanding and experiences in Japanese performing arts and culture. From the spring of 2007 to the beginning of 2009 I lived on Sado Island as an apprentice. Although I did not advance to junior membership, I managed to survive and complete the program – a reward in itself. Returning to the United States, I did some instructing back at Swarthmore while receiving instruction myself from former Kodo member/artistic-director Kaoru Watanabe as well as former Za Ondekoza member Marco Lienhard, both of whom are based in NYC. I also toured as a member of Marco’s group, Taikoza.
From September 2010, I relocated to Los Angeles and entered the MFA dance program at UCLA’s World Arts and Cultures/Dance department to do choreographic experiments combining taiko and contemporary postmodern choreography and performance art (and did a little playing with the pick-up group Prota). Traveling to Tokyo and Yokohama for the summers of 2010 and 2011 for additional language study, I also received some instruction from Kiyonari Tosha at the Nihon Taiko Dojo, Mizuho Zako at Oedo Sukeroku Taiko, and Kaoly Asano at Tawoo Taiko Dojo, the school of professional group GOCOO. The latter summer also led to an opportunity to apprentice in Odawara under Eitetsu Hayashi – regarded as one of the foremost pioneers in both group-centric and solo contemporary taiko performance.

At the time of this writing, I have concluded a two-year apprenticeship (2012-2013) as an uchideshi (inner disciple) of Eitetsu-san (or as we call him, ‘Shisho’), where I toured and performed as a member of his professional ensemble, Fu-Un No Kai. I also took some shinobue lessons in Edo Bayashi from Master Suzuki Kyoksuke and also continued some Nihon Buyo lessons under my teacher Isaburoh Hanayagi. Having returned to UCLA to finish the latter half of my MFA degree (June 2015, fingers crossed), I’m currently working on-campus in various choreographic projects involving taiko, and am happy to be back in the taiko community. I still join in on Prota practice, teach workshops as well, and am looking forward to joining up with Eitetsu-Shisho and Fu-Un no Kai during their October 2014 tour in the United States.

Some of the things I might write about in future articles include experiences of performing, cultural (mis)understanding, studying taiko in Japan, issues surrounding the body and identity, as well as issues surrounding forms and arts involving taiko or its representation. I always welcome comments, questions and feedback, and ideally this should work as an outlet to engage in constructive dialogue with readers. Thank you!

Introduction

I sit here in my Yokohama apartment on a sunny April day looking out onto a cityscape that is at the moment bursting with the pink and white of sakura that just happen to be at full-bloom today. My 4 month year old son sits on my lap trying his best to stay upright while his dad plugs away at the keyboard on either side of his head. For every sentence I write, I have to play an equal amount of games of peek-a-boo just to keep him content sitting down. Laying at my feet right where I set it down last night is my green and black Toni Taiko bag. It’s the Odaiko bag (which is an awesome bag by the way.) As I think back to my journey of how exactly I ended up playing taiko professionally in Japan this seems to be about as good as a place to start as any. This bag has been to every corner of Japan; Oita, Ehime, Osaka, Kyoto, Gifu, Nagoya, Fukui, Shizuoka, Sendai, etc. It accompanied me to my first Amanojaku practice, and every one since then. It`s been to the top of Tokyo Skytree the night before we played the grand opening/tape cutting ceremony. It`s been on stage with me at the Japan National Theatre, and backstage with me at little known high schools in the Japanese countryside. It`s traveled overseas, and traveled in cars, trucks, vans, buses, airplanes and boats to get me there. If I go back further it has been to practically every hotel on the Waikiki strip. It has been to Maui, Kauai, Big Island and Lanai. It`s been backstage at the Blaisdall Theatre, and been on top of a bookshelf at a library in the middle of nowhere. If I go back ever further, this bag accompanied me every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday as I made the trip from my house to the Denver Buddhist Temples basement to practice with Denver Taiko. It has accompanied me during parades through the heart of Denver, and every summer`s Sakura Matsuri and Obon. It`s been there and done that, and yet it never really actually had to do anything but come along with me. In a lot of ways I feel that my journey has played out in much the same way. I`m here because of a long chain of chance encounters, and the kind heartedness of one-time strangers. Much like my bachi bag, I didn’t fight it, I just went along for the ride and never looked back.

It was in this way that fate has introduced me to some of the kindest, open-minded, hard-working people in the modern world (taiko people, of course.) They have made my trip happen at each and every turn in the road. It is because of them that I have gone from being a child growing up playing with Denver Taiko, to being a college student finding my place in the KETE/TCP family in Hawaii. It has been the kindness of others that has made my dream of playing taiko professionally in Japan a reality.
Especially in the past couple of years I find myself in the position of answering the question, “What advice would you give to people who want to pursue a possible career playing taiko in Japan?” I came to Japan job-less, visa-less, plan-less, homeless, and penniless and (due to the incredible kindness of my group, Amanojaku) I am still alive and doing well today. So while I might give advice like, “figure out your visa situation as quickly as you can, and here are your options…” or “find a place to live before you come to Japan using this website…” The truth is that if you really want to play taiko here you will come, and things will work out just fine.

I plan on writing more articles, and am hoping to share with you specific things and steps to take to start your own taiko journey. I hope you find these steps, tips, and stories useful, and would feel very happy and fulfilled knowing that in some small way maybe I helped someone get out the door, and started down the path.