Interview: Katsuji Asano of Asano Taiko US - 日本語 (translated by Julia Asano)

Katsuji Asano of Asano Taiko US

Katsuji Asano of Asano Taiko US

I am very excited to feature Katsuji in this interview, which was superbly translated by Julia. It has been a pleasure working with Asano Taiko US (ATUS) and the Los Angeles Taiko Institute (LATI) since they opened their fantastic facility in Torrance, California - offering workshops, co-coordinating Kyosuke Suzuki sensei's US workshop tours, and helping to make Edo Bayashi materials available on their online store. My first visit to ATUS was filled with a sense of awe at the scale and commitment to quality in every detail. The two main studios are equipped with everything a drummer could want: high-tech sound dampening in the walls, beautiful floors and mirrors, white boards, amplifiers, comfortable temperature, and of course the incredible number of amazing taiko sitting there ready to play.

Asano Taiko US

Asano Taiko US

Operating out of this facility is LATI, a one-of-a-kind taiko school offering an extensive array of classes taught by some of the most experienced and thoughtful teachers I know. I especially appreciate the balance of older and newer taiko forms originating from Japan as well as elsewhere. Because of its clear significance, ATUS has quickly become a hub of high-quality workshops, hosting a constant stream of musicians and educators offering an assortment of topics in various genres. 

Katsuji helped to fund my Edo Bayashi intensive in Tokyo in October 2016 where I was able to deepen my study of this festival music through one-on-one lessons with Suzuki sensei. I'm certain that his thoughtful responses in this interview provide insight into his vision of advancing the art form of taiko, and I'm happy to be involved in this symbiotic partnership. I also want to thank Julia for making this information available in English, capturing the essence of Katsuji's answers much better than I could have.


1. Can you describe the history of Asano Taiko and how Asano Taiko US (ATUS) was opened in Torrance, California?

Asano Taiko US in Torrance, California

Asano Taiko US in Torrance, California

私がアメリカの太鼓を初めてみたのはNATC2005年LA。この時「太鼓」が海外でこんなにも熱狂があるものかと衝撃をうけました。そして独自のコミュニティー、情報を共有するなど日本は無い形だった事に新鮮な気持ちと、このように発展してる太鼓界がとても面白く感じました。

Juliaとも出会い、アメリカの太鼓界にも少し関わったりする中、もしアメリカで太鼓屋の拠点があったらどうなのか?太鼓文化がもっともっと発展していくのでは?日本にも世界ににも良い影響が与えられるのでは?ビジネスになるのか?などたくさんの疑問から始まりました。太鼓文化の発展に関わる事ができたらどんなにやりがいのある事になるかと夢と希望が湧き、そして2011年のNATCの盛り上がりとお話を聞くなかででやろう!っと決め本格的に動きだしました。

場所の選定では西海岸、東海岸か。日系コミュニティー、太鼓チームが多い地区、日本との行き来、世界のハブ。

多方面の要素が踏まえLA近郊で決めました。LA近郊で治安問題を踏まえ探していくとまずは新しくてこれから発展していくアーバイン近郊が候補に入ってきましたが、交通の便、物件の良さがあったのでトーランスに決めました。

The first time I saw taiko being performed in America was at the 2005 North American Taiko Conference. I was surprised to see how popular taiko was and how different the U.S. taiko was from Japan. Taiko players in the U.S. are very open natured and willing to share their knowledge of taiko which was both surprising and interesting for me. 

After meeting Julia, I had opportunities to participate in many American taiko events and started to wonder, what if I started a business in the U.S.? Would the taiko community grow even more? Would Japan, or even on a larger scale, the world have any effect on this unforeseeable challenge I’m about to embark on? Can we make this a business? I started pondering many questions to myself. After attending the 2011 North American Taiko Conference and seeing the US taiko community again, I decided to take the first step and start the business.

My first debate was choosing the right location. Should I start the new business in the east coast or west coast? After researching which areas had the most taiko groups and a bigger Japanese community, I decided that Southern California is the place to be. I chose Torrance as the city due to its accessibility for commute and ideal properties. 

2. What is the Los Angeles Taiko Institute (LATI)?

Los Angeles Taiko Institute

Los Angeles Taiko Institute

http://taiko.la
LATI is a taiko institute housed in Asano Taiko U.S. located in Torrance, California. We opened in July 2013 (when Asano Taiko U.S. opened) and started with less than 20 students and now have over 200 students coming every week. We offer various types of classes for all levels and have 9 instructors who teach anywhere from 2 yr olds to students in their 70’s.

3. UnitOne, the ATUS taiko ensemble, consists of very experienced players. What is the artistic vision and mission for this group?

UnitOne at 2015 North American Taiko Conference

UnitOne at 2015 North American Taiko Conference

始めたきっかけ
How it started

日本の場合は島国、小民族で形成されていたので限られた音楽性(これは良い事であり、何百年と続いている伝統芸能などある)で次世代に繋がってきています。チームプレーに徹する事が日本の和太鼓の良さにもなっていると私は思っています。

Due to our country being an island nation, I believe that when it comes to musicality, the style of music becomes limited as they get passed on to the next generation (I would like to note that this is a good thing, as this is how traditional art have been continuously protected and honed over the generations). Because of its small ethnic group that Japan is based on, I believe it created strength in team play when it comes to expressing Japanese Taiko.

逆は独創がなかなか生まれにくい。持っているグルーブ感が限られている。アメリカでは色々な文化が入り混じり、様々なジャンルの音楽に触れ合う機会が多いです。そして人々の中にそういった日本にはない感性が多く入ってます。現在のアメリカの太鼓でよく見られるのは独創的な音楽性。一人一人の個性が非常に際立つ事。

However, the downside to this close-knit formation is that it becomes harder to create new and innovative music with originality. The groove feeling of the artists have become limited. But in America, various cultures and backgrounds intertwine, allowing many opportunities to interact with diverse genres of music. It from this melting pot where taiko in the U.S. have the sensibility that Japan has yet to experience. Taiko in America has its strength in originality, their ingenious musicality standing out in each and every player.

いと昔は日本と同じでチームとしての統一感があり、アメリカの太鼓文化も今まさに「変化」していっている状態だと思います。この日米のいいところを伸ばす事ができるチームが出来たらおもしろい!とおもいました。私が日本の良い所を取り入れながら、プレイヤー自身のもっているものを生かせればと。

Currently, I believe that taiko in both countries have the same sense of unity as a team which has always been unchanged, yet we are in a place where taiko culture is facing a shift before our very eyes and “transforming” into something new. Instinctively I felt that it would be amazing if we can develop a team that can incorporate the strengths from both countries!  My hope is to deliver the good components of Japanese taiko, and give life to the potentials in each taiko player here in the U.S.

また私のそばに素晴らしい太鼓プレイヤーがいる事が始めようと思った非常に大きなポイントです。基礎を大事だと思ってくれ、また自分自身を成長しようと思うプレイヤーがここには多くいます。そのような太鼓打ちを輩出していく事もこの会社の使命だと思っています。

Lastly, the major reason why I decided to start this company is because I am surrounded by amazing taiko players. Many of the players here put much respect in the foundation and philosophy of taiko, and take it upon themselves to incorporate it back into their lifestyle for their own growth. I believe it is our mission as a company to continue this cycle and produce more taiko players such as them, making a mark in the art and history of traditional Japanese music in America.

4. What are some of your observations regarding the North American taiko scene?

・コミュニティーを大事にしている
・太鼓楽しく打つ事を大事にしている(日本と違い表に出す)
・自分らしさを太鼓を使って自分なりに表現している
・ベテンランも学ぶ姿勢がある
・情報を共有している
・新しい道を探している

- They look after their community
- They value the ideal of enjoying taiko (compared to Japan, they openly express their emotions)
- Taiko is used as their way of expressing their individuality
- Even the seasoned veterans are in a humble stance to learn
- They share their knowledge and expertise
- They are always passionate and striving to broaden their horizon

5. In 2015, ATUS sponsored Kyosuke Suzuki sensei’s workshop tour of California, Oregon, and Washington. Can you talk about some other ways in which ATUS is contributing to advance the art form?

NATCへはここにある全楽器を持って行き貸し出しします。Taikoインビテーショナルへの楽器の貸出。日本からのゲストを呼んでWSを行ったり,交流と技術の習得を支援。

We lend all of our studio drums to TCA during the North American Taiko Conference, and also to Intercollegiate Taiko Invitationals. We invite artists from Japan to host various types of workshops to bridge American artists in hope that they can have more access to Japanese art forms. 

6. What products and services does ATUS offer in the Torrance facility as well as the online store?

Asano Taiko US in Torrance, California

Asano Taiko US in Torrance, California

浅野太鼓商品全般を販売しています。在庫が置いていない商品でも日本に在庫があれば1週間程で届くシステムができています。また販売に関して特注品(バチや衣装、その他の楽器、台など)も受け付けており、できるだけプレイヤーの要望に応えられるようにしています。祭り関係のお店とASANO TAIKO USが直接取引きがあるので太鼓に関わるものを大体提供できます。また太鼓の締め直しや革の張り替え。浅野の商品以外での修理も受けています、修理はASANO TAIKO USで行うので時間と費用が随分抑えられます。「太鼓の音を育てもらう」そうゆう風に楽器と一生付き合って行ってほしい願っています。Online shopも開設して全米、世界に向けて販売が可能になっています。

We sell Asano Taiko products here at Asano Taiko U.S. Products out of stock can be ordered from Japan and we will receive them in 1-2 weeks. We also accept customized orders mainly on costumes, bachi, taiko, and stands, hoping to cater to all the needs of the taiko player. Asano Taiko U.S. has direct contracts with many shops that carry festival goods, allowing us to be able to supply most items relating to taiko and we also offer reskinning and restretching service. We gladly accept repair orders even for non-Asano brand items, and since repairs are done on-site, time and cost can be reduced greatly. We have also established an online store so now customers throughout the world can place an order with us. 

7. Do you have any events coming up in the next several months?

4月バチBBQ
6月大江戸助六さんWS(予定)
7月ブリーチ祭り
8月NATC
12月発表会

April - Bachi BBQ (LATI event)
June - Oedo Sukeroku Taiko workshops
July - Bridge USA performance
August - North American Taiko Conference
December - annual recital

8. What are some long-term goals for ATUS and LATI?

より多くの人に「太鼓」に関わってもらう事。
Growth of the taiko community.

「和太鼓」という芸能の価値を高める事。
To branch out and root deep in hopes that “taiko” will become a higher valued art form.

太鼓プレイヤー全体のレベルアップ。
Improve skill levels of all taiko players.

日本では出来ない事をアメリカでやっちゃう(色々な意味で)。
Challenging many things that are possible only in the U.S.


Katsuji Asano of Asano Taiko US in Torrance, California

Katsuji Asano of Asano Taiko US in Torrance, California

Born in 1983 into the famous Asano Taiko drum-making family, Katsuji Asano quickly discovered a love for both business and the arts.  After graduating from Kanazawa Institute of Technology in 2006, Asano joined the Percussion Division of Yamaha Music Trading Corporation. 

In 2006, Asano returned to taiko (Japanese drums), and began work at Asano Taiko, Inc. in Ishikawa prefecture.  He learned both the craft of Japanese drum-making and the business side of marketing, working directly with taiko artists.  With hopes of spreading the art of taiko on an international scale, Katsuji Asano opened Asano Taiko U.S., Inc. in 2013, the first facility of its kind outside of Japan to offer an instrument store, on-site workshop, and taiko school staffed by professional taiko players.

Links
Asano Taiko US
Los Angeles Taiko Institute
UnitOne

How to improvise with nabe (Japanese hot pot)

delicious nabe ready to eat

delicious nabe ready to eat

One of the most comforting things to make when the weather turns cold is nabe ryouri (Japanese hotpot cooking). I think of nabe as the opposite and equally satisfying seasonal meal of cold somen in the middle of the summer's heat. In Japan, the common cooking method involves heating broth or water in a clay pot (called donabe) over a portable stove at the table. It wasn't until a few years ago that my fairly narrow concept of nabe was liberated by the book Japanese Hot Pots (Ono & Salat). While the traditional method is lots of fun, we don't necessarily need the special equipment in order to experience delicious nabe cooking. Learning how to improvise is just a matter of understanding the key points, and our reward is freedom to try whatever we want to.

Here are my guidelines:

1. The cooking vessel – a donabe is great, but any large pot or pan works just fine. I use an enameled cast iron pan, which has the advantage of retaining heat after it comes off the stove. A lid is needed.

2. The liquid – homemade dashi is what I use most, but any fish, vegetable, poultry, or meat stock will work. Even using granulated instant dashi or concentrated broth in jars (such as Better Than Bouillon brand) will make good nabe. The main thing to watch is the salt level, knowing that you can always add more later.

3. The ingredients – this is where we want an open and adventurous perspective. Vegetables, fish, tofu, meat, noodles, and anything else in the fridge can be considered. Some things require more time to cook: for example, I will place daikon on the bottom and start cooking before adding fresh greens like shungiku (chrysanthemum leaf) or delicate things like cod fillets. When everything is added to a dry pan before pouring the liquid in, your beautiful arrangement will stay intact during cooking.

4. The shime – meaning to "tie up," the shime is how nabe dining is concluded, with a starch such as rice, noodles, or mochi. After all of the ingredients have been simmered, the delicious broth is most valuable and a neutral flavor vehicle is used to enjoy the broth and make sure we are satisfied. I don't see any good reason to exclude other starches like bread, crackers, potato, pasta, flat breads, beans, or other whole grains.

As an example, here is how I typically do nabe.

ingredients for classic dashi

ingredients for classic dashi

First I soak some konbu in 4 cups of cold water (for better flavor extraction and fuller bodied broth) for 30 minutes to several hours depending on my schedule. Then I will shave the katsuobushi while the konbu water heats on the stove. As it comes to a boil, the konbu comes out and the katsuobushi goes in. I let it steep for 10-20 minutes off heat and then strain. To this dashi, I add 1/3 cup usukuchi shoyu and 1/3 cup mirin. These flavorings can be switched out with miso, salt, fish sauce, kimchi, spices, or anything to get the salt level into the appropriate range. 

ingredients in the pan before adding liquid

ingredients in the pan before adding liquid

Next, I start cutting and arranging ingredients into the dry pan. Here, I have daikon and dry harusame scattered on the bottom. In the middle is medium firm tofu cut into 2 - 3cm blocks, which is another excellent flavor vehicle when simmered in broth. Around the tofu are enoki and shimeji mushrooms (the more mushroom varieties, the better), hakusai, negi, gobo fish cake, and shungiku. Cutting diagonally helps increase surface area, allowing for better flavor transfer. Because the quality of these ingredients is directly related to how the broth tastes, I tend to be flexible, letting freshness and integrity dictate what goes in rather than what might be 'proper.' In my example, I have several areas covered: oniony negi, meaty mushroom, fish cake richness, and added dimension from roots and greens. The noodles and tofu soak up flavor and provide contrasting texture.

hanging out by the heat vent until the kotatsu is turned on

hanging out by the heat vent until the kotatsu is turned on

Once the ingredients are all arranged, I pour the liquid in, cover, and place over high heat. As it starts to bubble, lower the heat and let boil gently until the hardest ingredient is soft enough for your liking (in this case daikon). Then, simply place the whole pot in the center of the table with spoons and chopsticks nearby. The common way to finish is to boil pre-cooked rice in the broth, helping it to break down a bit and absorb flavor. But I usually just combine the rice and broth in a bowl and enjoy. Try both ways to see if the extra step is worth it.

Nabe is really fun, especially when we allow ourselves the freedom to improvise. Keeping in mind these few guidelines not only helps avoid failures, but also provides a structure in which we can exercises our individual creativity. A very experienced performer and teacher once told me that "improvisation is problem solving." That concept took a while for me to understand, but like many things stated simply, I think it makes a lot of sense. For nabe, the 'problems' could involve what's in the fridge, the limitation of the pan size, what kind of shime to use, the dietary preferences or restrictions of the eaters, and so on. Improvising on the solutions is the fun part, and you get a comfort food that is perfect for winter. I think of pizza as another fun theme to improvise on, but that will have to be covered in a future entry.

Ranjo, master Japanese bamboo flute maker, with Daniel and Kaoru


photo credit: Daniel Torres

photo credit: Daniel Torres

Ranjo flutes I'm currently using

Ranjo flutes I'm currently using

My first experience with a Ranjo shinobue (horizontal Japanese flute made from shino bamboo) was more than 10 years ago, when I bought a number 6 flute from Kaoru Watanabe. I started playing fue seriously upon moving to Honolulu in 2001 for graduate work at the University of Hawaii and to play taiko with Kenny Endo. Since that initial introduction, my fue collection has grown and I have had the opportunity to visit Ranjo san's workshop multiple times. Visiting him is always a wonderful experience, not only because I can play and handpick any flute in the shop, but especially because of the opportunity to see him work, ask questions, and experience his warm enthusiasm and complete dedication to his craft. My musicianship has grown largely due to Ranjo san's high-quality instruments and knowing him personally. Kaoru also continues to support me and provides constant inspiration. He introduced me to Daniel Torres last year because of our common interests, and I wanted to feature his thoughts and photographs on this blog. I asked both of them 5 questions.


Daniel Torres interview

photo credit: Daniel Torres

photo credit: Daniel Torres

When and where did you first meet Ranjo san?
I met Ranjo san for the first time on June 2013, thanks to Kaoru san, who was kind enough to make the necessary introductions. I spent a whole day photographing him at his workshop in Chiba. 

What makes his flutes special?
There are at least two things that make Ranjo san's flutes special. First, his hearing and sense of tuning is extremely accurate, and since the tuning of a fue is done by hand, he has the required skills to create very precise instruments. Second, his craftsmanship has been perfected over more than forty years of practice, so there is almost no compromise between form, aesthetics, and function. Ranjo san is quite ingenious when it comes to his crafting techniques and he is constantly improving upon his own designs. Kaoru can describe some of this better. 

How can someone order a Ranjo fue?
I believe Kaoru san is the only person that sells Ranjo fue in North America. In Tokyo, you can go to Mejiro (a well known shinobue and shakuhachi store located near the station of the same name) and place an order.

What advice do you have for fue students?
Practice every day. There is no substitute for dedication and discipline. It is going to take a long time, it is going to take a lifetime. Sometimes it will be frustrating, but every now and then you'll have moments when it will be clear that you are going somewhere. Get used to playing in public as early as possible. Look for a mentor that can correct your technique as often as possible.

How can people learn more about Ranjo san?
Through Kaoru, perhaps? That is a bit of a difficult question. People who play fue know Ranjo through his craft, but to get to know him personally, you'd need to have access to him. Ranjo san is an amazing person, extremely generous, humble, and easy going. Perhaps some day we could convince him of doing a talk about his own life as a fue maker?

Daniel Torres

Daniel Torres

About me: 
I'm a video game programmer, sake brewer, and occasional photographer. I've been studying fue for about three years so far, and played Taiko for about ten years as member of Kita no Taiko in Edmonton, Canada. My photography page can be reached at http://photography.dantorres.net, and my sake blog is http://sake.dantorres.net.


Kaoru Watanabe interview

photo credit: Daniel Torres

photo credit: Daniel Torres

When and where did you first meet Ranjo san?
I met Ranjo san the first time while I was on tour with Kodo in the early 2000. Either I visited his studio as a young member of kodo or perhaps he came to the concert hall where we were performing. 

What makes his flutes special?
The quality of material, the quality of craftsmanship are, first of all, superior to other flutes. He does certain things while making his fue that most others don't do - such as obsessing over the intonation of the overtone series and octaves. He has a curiosity and love of experimentation that propels him to improve upon his technique, even after nearly four decades of making fue. He once recreated a Polynesian nose flute I showed him but using aged bamboo and Japanese urushi. 

How can someone order a Ranjo fue?
Contact me if you don't speak Japanese or contact him directly by phone or letter. He is a very friendly person. Also, his wife and daughter both speak a bit of English as well. 

What advice do you have for fue students?
Listen to and try to imitate as many different styles of fue playing you can, even if you don't know what's going on. Listen to the music of noh, gagaku, kabuki, minyo, nagauta, various festival and folk musics, and shakuhachi music. This all of course is if you don't have access to someone who knows about traditional fue playing. Don't worry as much with the music of contemporary taiko groups in my opinion. It's difficult to make the shinobue sound like a Japanese instrument, as opposed to a vaguely "Asian" sounding instrument - so I strongly encourage people to study and listen to the traditional music (if that's what they're trying to do).

Kaoru Watanabe

Kaoru Watanabe

How can people learn more about Ranjo san?
Just like studying Japanese music in general, nothing can compare to going to the source. To visit his workspace is to see first hand what it means to strive for pure perfection. To see him make fue and ask him questions about the process is always incredibly inspirational to me. I've had lessons and worked with many of the great fue players around but I've learned from him as much as any of them. His generosity and support of my career cannot be overstated. I have vowed to continue to strive to improve my playing with the same fervor that he strives to improve his fue. 

Kaoru's website


2010 visit to Ranjo workshop

2010 visit to Ranjo workshop

2013 visit to Ranjo workshop, with Shoji, Maz, Yasuo

2013 visit to Ranjo workshop, with Shoji, Maz, Yasuo

See the performance of Chushingura on video

Portland State University has posted the video (in two parts) of the recent production of the kabuki play Kanadehon Chushingura (The Revenge of the 47 Loyal Samurai).  I was a geza musician in this eight-show run playing nohkan, shinobue, atarigane, and crow call.  This was a major production with a huge team of actors, musicians, make up and wardrobe crew as well as many other staff members.  Because of the rarity and scope of such a production, a lot of people established in the field of Japanese theater and literature came to town for the show.  It was great to see old friends and meet new ones. 

A very special guest was Donald Keene, the preeminent scholar, writer, historian, translator, and teacher of Japanese literature.  On March 7, he and his son Tsuruzawa Asazo presented a fascinating lecture/performance titled "A Journey through Sin, Redemption, Miracles and High Adventure: The Tale of the High Priest Kochi."  This bunraku puppetry play was originally published and staged in the 1680s, but was lost until a script was rediscovered in a British museum in 1968.  Keene's presentation included a documentary film showing the long and challenging process of remounting the play from this single script, along with Tsuruzawa's live virtuoso performance of an excerpt of the play on shamisen, chant, and song.  The story of Kochi was more mysterious and otherworldly than other Japanese plays I have seen even though it was based on a real person.

This was a very interesting project to be involved with.  Professor Larry Kominz did a wonderful job as director and gidayu chanter.  The show naturally got stronger as it progressed over the two-week run, and I enjoyed the way each performance was influenced by the energy of the various audiences.  I heard that this production was covered by more than 100 Japanese newspapers, and saw that there were several Japanese news outlets at the press conference after the final show on March 5.  I'm especially looking forward to seeing the video because my off-stage position during the performance didn't allow me to see the stage.  If you watch the video, please share any thoughts you have regarding the performance.