Japan trip Part 2 - seeing concerts, kabuki, and friends


In the Japan trip Part 1 entry, I described the primary reason for my recent trip: Edo Bayashi intensive with Suzuki sensei. In addition to my lessons, there was a lot happening during my stay and I was able to attend some performances and see many friends.


The day after I arrived, I went to see Azusa Yamada's vibraphone trio in Tokyo. We first met almost 2 years ago through another Tokyo musician because I was looking for a vibraphone to rent for a Ginza performance with shakuhachi player Bruce Huebner. Azusa gave us a great rate to rent her Premier vibes for a two-week period, and two things remain in my memory about the instrument: it was one of the heaviest vibes I've ever played on, and there was a low E (which I couldn't get used to and had to cover up with a music stand bag for the gig). Her performance in the intimate space was very good and I especially appreciated all the original material in the program as well as the exciting playing of pianist Sachiko Nakajima.


The next day was the Wakayama Shachu performance at the Bettara Ichi Festival, which I described in Part 1. The day after that was a collaborative concert in Asakusa called Taiko Battle Live, featuring Makoto Yamamoto of Osuwa Daiko. I've known Makoto for several years, having visited him in Nagano as well as presenting Osuwa Daiko for concerts and workshops in Vancouver, BC. The program consisted of original music, solo performances, and some traditional music. It was also a fun surprise to see my very first taiko teacher Saburo sensei in the audience, as he had taught some classical repertoire to Makoto in preparation for this concert.


I enjoyed checking out Hitoshi Hamada perform at his CD release event in Shinjuku. I first met Hamada san in 2005 during a Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble concert tour. This vibraphone and saxophone duo played some very challenging original music and Hamada san sounded great as always. I was there with Bruce and Azusa so we took a group photo after the performance. It's not every day that three vibraphonists are in the same room together.


I was fortunate to see the famous Kabuki play Kanadehon Chushingura at Kokuritsu Gekijou (National Theater) in Tokyo. As part of the theater's 50th anniversary season, the play has been divided into three parts, and I saw the first third. The middle third runs in November and the final third runs in December. Because each part is approximately 6 hours long, the audience is treated to rarely-presented scenes which many kabuki fans have never seen or heard of. Everything was excellent: acting, music, staging, and bento. This was especially meaningful for me because I had been a geza musician (playing nohkan and shinobue) for Portland State University's presentation of Chushingura in February 2016. The video of that performance can be seen here: Chushingura blog entry.


It's always a great pleasure and inspiration to visit Ranjo san at his workshop in Chiba. He continues to answer my questions and share his wealth of knowledge every time I see him. In this photo, Ranjo san is wrapping one of my flutes to prevent a small crack from opening. I also met Fujita san on this recent visit, a great fue player from Akita Prefecture who demonstrated some of the music from his local festival on a Ranjo #4 hayashi fue. For more information about Ranjo san, check out this blog post: Ranjo blog entry.

 


Chichibu in Saitama is a special place. It's best known for the spectacular Yo Matsuri (annual night festival, Dec 2-3) and the music of Chichibu Yatai Bayashi. But there is also a very long history of Ji Kabuki (地歌舞伎, local kabuki) going back to the Edo period. This Hagitaira kabuki stage is at least 170 years old and continues to be used for theater and music. Apparently there are no carpenters in the area who are properly trained to make repairs on such an old building, so they have had to bring experts all the way from Kyushu. I attended the October 30, 2016 event where there were three kabuki presentations: elementary school, middle school, and finally the adult group. The performances were complete with live geza music as well as gidayu chant and shamisen, and the day was interspersed with performances of Chichibu Yatai Bayashi, Tsugaru Shamisen, and Chichibu Ondo. The overall presentation was remarkable, especially considering this very rural setting. Of course the youngest performers were the audience favorites, and the best moment for me was when the little girl finally got a turn on the odaiko, outplaying the previous versions by teenage boys and an adult. And all of the food and drinks I tried during the event were memorably delicious.


Another unique experience was visiting "the Switzerland club of Kanto" in Katashina village of Gunma Prefecture. These remarkable wooden horns are handmade by Kinsaku Hoshino using local cedar. I was told that the curved bottom portion is made out of a naturally shaped section of the branch that was bent by the weight of the heavy snow. Even the mouthpiece (similar to trumpet) is handmade. I was able to get a decent sound right away, so perhaps my music education degree finally came in handy many years later. Hoshino san offered to let me try the carving tool so I carefully took a turn.


Finally, I got to see an incredible concert at Suntory Hall in Tokyo of the incomparable Eitetsu Hayashi. This was a mostly solo performance with the exception of one piece composed by percussionist Midori Takada. They have a long history of working together and this was apparent in their cohesive sound. Eitetsu's concerts are fantastic every single time. Without fail, there are always things I've never seen before, and such consistent creativity and attention to detail is truly breathtaking. Concluding the program was a 20-minute solo odaiko performance, and this was the finest odaiko playing I've ever seen. Absolutely beautiful.

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

How my online lessons work

I have been teaching online lessons by Skype for several years now. While most of us are accustomed to learning from our teacher in the same physical space, current technology is good enough that real-time instruction through a screen is still very effective. I feel that the person we study with is more important than the format of the lesson. There may be teachers available locally but if they don't offer what you need, online lessons can be a great alternative. They also have their own advantages beyond the fact that the two sides can be anywhere in the world (with internet).

How does it work? First, you would send me an email describing what you're interested in covering. Then we set up a meeting time that works for both of us. My policy is that payment is made before the lesson takes place, and the online check out system (Stripe) on my website is secure and works well. There are no refunds but credits are issued for emergency cancellations and rescheduling with a minimum of 48 hour notice. Most of my online lessons have been through Skype so you would need to have an account as well as a screen with a camera (desktop computer, laptop, iPad, iPhone, etc). The slight delay doesn't allow us to play at the same time, but a lot can be accomplished through demonstration and explanation. To take advantage of the format, I send web links, PDFs, and audio files relevant to the topic. Students in the past have also uploaded videos (public, unlisted, or password-protected) of their practicing or performance to get my feedback. And it's possible to record the lesson using software such as Skype Call Recorder. Beginning students, advanced players, and all levels in between are welcomed in my studio.

What do I teach? Past lessons have covered drumset, taiko, percussion, shinobue, and composition. My workshops page shows specific topics I have offered, but I am always open to requests. Perhaps you are learning a new piece and need some guidance on how to work on it. Maybe you want to learn a new instrument such as the atarigane and are looking for basic technique. It could be that you want to write a piece but don't know how to structure your ideas. Or perhaps you want to become a stronger soloist and better improviser. One topic that is requested regularly relates to exercises for improving stick control and rhythmic accuracy. Your musicianship will progress forward if you have goals to work toward, a good practicing strategy, and thoughtful feedback from an outside perspective. If you are interested, I recommend trying one lesson to see if it fits your needs. I have included a short video here so that you can see what the lesson would be like. Please contact me with any questions or to schedule a lesson.

Edo Bayashi & Shishimai expert Kyosuke Suzuki sensei

Suzuki sensei has been one of my most important teachers over the past ten years.  My first opportunity to meet and work with him was during the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble 2005 tour and I remember being immediately struck by his deep commitment to the highest performance standard.  North American audiences may know him best as the brilliant shishimai performer with a lengthy and life-like repertoire of choreographed actions such as playing with a butterfly, licking its leg, eating a mikan (tangerine), searching for food, and interacting with the audience.  Although 'shishimai' is usually translated as 'lion dance,' Suzuki sensei has mentioned in workshops that the shishi (獅) is a mythological creature, not technically a lion.  He also contemplated that the word 'dance' may be closer to odori (踊り) than mai (舞) because of the subtle differences in implication.  This kind of detailed explanation is a great illustration of Suzuki sensei's dedication to the meaning of this traditional art form which helps us understand its context and perform it more appropriately.  Anyone who has studied with him would likely agree that he is a masterly instructor who is kind and patient while never compromising his expectation of the highest artistic integrity.

Edo Kotobuki Jishi at 2011 NATC concert

Edo Kotobuki Jishi at 2011 NATC concert

Suzuki sensei is also an exceptional musician on Japanese flutes (nohkan, shinobue), taiko, atarigane, and piano.  Based in Tokyo, he belongs to the acclaimed Wakayama Shachu, a performance troupe and school in the tradition of Edo Sato Kagura, recognized as an important intangible folk cultural asset by the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs.  It would be absolutely fantastic if someone was able to present the kagura performance by Wakayama Shachu in North America one day.  Seeing performances and studying these traditional Japanese music forms have been invaluable to my own musical development, and I'm always encouraging other taiko and fue players to research and engage in the rich history of these instruments.  One of my personal performance highlights was at the 2011 North American Taiko Conference evening concert where I appeared on stage with three of my teachers (Suzuki sensei, Saburo Mochizuki sensei, and Kenny Endo) for Edo Kotobuki Jishi.

Last summer, Yuta Kato (Asano Taiko US & Los Angeles Taiko Institute) and I worked to bring Suzuki sensei for a two-week teaching tour that included San Jose, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle.  For much of this trip, I accompanied and translated his workshops and private lessons, covering Edo Bayashi (festival music of old Tokyo) and Edo Kotobuki Jishi (shishimai of Edo).  I've also translated for Suzuki sensei on previous occasions, and the more I see his teaching, the deeper my appreciation for his approach becomes.  His pace of instruction is fast, yet meticulous.  His energy is usually greater than everyone else's combined as any workshop participant can attest to.  And the session is truly free of extraneousness.  His insistence on vocalizing music parts (kuchishoga) and his frequent demonstrations are my favorite parts of the workshop.

See videos and more info about Suzuki sensei here

I'm excited that Asano Taiko US in Torrence, CA is now selling the recommended fue, bachi, sheet music, and CDs for Edo Bayashi and Edo Kotobuki Jishi.  These materials are used by Wakayama Shachu and recommended by Suzuki sensei.  It's great that now anyone can order them from the Asano US online store. 

See the recommended materials here

Please contact me or Asano Taiko US for questions about the instruments and to receive updates for future opportunities to study with Suzuki sensei.  His workshops and lessons are always followed by enthusiasm and positive feedback, so the more people there are to join me as his fans, the more often we can invite him over to share his expertise with us.

Juxtaposing genres

In my recent research of traditional flute music in Japanese theater (such as Noh and Kabuki), I came across some interesting material by Yukihiro Isso, an extraordinary nohkan, shinobue, and recorder player.  These days it's becoming more and more common to see phrases like 'cross-cultural collaboration' to describe the juxtaposing of seemingly unrelated genres.  

Over the years I've been involved with many projects described this way.  Sometimes the collaboration is on a shallow level because there's no time to develop something.  Other times, and more rewarding, a deeper connection is made and something truly unique and inspiring emerges.  A lot depends on getting along with each other and having an open-minded approach to trying new things.

I wonder how audiences see a performance like these in the videos.  If they like it, why?  If they don't, why not?  To me, this works.  I like these pieces because the vision is clear and the adjustments made by the individual parts support the overall concept.  For example, careful thought went into how the nohkan would play in the 'correct key' sometimes, and other times would play independently from the other musical parts (as done in a traditional noh play).  It can be useful to break down and analyze the bits and pieces, but I found that these pieces provided an impact that glued me to the screen and then prompted me to find more of it.

If you have any thoughts to share, please comment below.

Eien