Interview: Abe Lagrimas, Jr. talks music, working with taiko players, and his new album

Abe Lagrimas, Jr. (photo by Greg Hatton)

Abe Lagrimas, Jr. (photo by Greg Hatton)

I recently had a fun conversation with Abe Lagrimas, Jr., a Los Angeles-based musician, composer, educator, and author. Abe and I have been working for the past several years as members of On Ensemble and it's always a pleasure to share the stage together. He is an outstanding musician who plays drums, vibraphone, and ukulele, and consistently adds color and spark to elevate the music. Audiences love his technical flair, yet as a bandmate I truly appreciate Abe's fine-tuned ear and his flexibility to instantly adapt to any situation. He makes any band sound better and it's no surprise to learn that he is very much in high demand. In addition to On Ensemble, Abe and I have worked extensively with the preeminent taiko artist Kenny Endo. It's always interesting for me to chat with musicians with similar points of view, and as a jazz musician, Abe had some very insightful observations about working with taiko players. It would be wonderful if everyone shared such an open and forward-thinking mindset about art, culture, and everyday life. This conversation also contains more humorous bits than usual, reflecting Abe's easygoing personality.

The interview features music from Abe's fantastic new self-titled album. The excerpted tracks are: Alternate Route, Sunday Dance, Nu'uanu Mist, End Of The Road, and Tanimoto. The album features a great group of musicians playing Abe's jazz-leaning original compositions, expressing a nice balance of varying feels, tempos, and moods. The links for the CD and digital download are below, and I highly recommend you check them out. Abe's website is also worth visiting to learn about upcoming shows, find his previous albums, and sign up for his newsletter. 


Abe Lagrimas, Jr. is a musician, composer, educator, and author who plays the drums, vibraphone, ukulele, and studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. In 2012, he competed in the highly prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition and has worked with many artists such as Eric Marienthal, Eric Reed, Kamasi Washington, Dontae Winslow, Barbara Morrison, Michelle Coltrane, Jake Shimabukuro, Kenny Endo, and continues to be an in-demand session musician in Los Angeles. 

As a solo ukulele artist, Abe is a Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award recipient and has released multiple albums in the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Abe has been featured at ukulele festivals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Palm Springs, Reno, Chicago, New York, and Hawaii. His international performances include Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Great Britain, and toured extensively throughout China having performed in twelve cities. 

Abe is also an educator and has authored the first ever ukulele curriculum for instrumental music programs in schools titled “Ukulele Ensemble, Beginning Ukulele - Level 1”published by Consonus Music Institute. His latest book "Jazz Ukulele: Comping, Soloing, Chord Melodies" (Berklee Press & Hal Leonard) is available in stores worldwide and on Amazon.

Interview: Kenny Endo talks Edo Bayashi and Wakayama Shachu

Photo credit: Toyo Miyatake Studio

Photo credit: Toyo Miyatake Studio

Recently I had the pleasure of talking with Kenny Endo about Edo Bayashi and Wakayama Shachu. Kenny needs no introduction among taiko players, as he is one of the most important artists and teachers in the development of the North American taiko scene. I could have asked him about so many different topics, but this interview was focused on Kenny's experiences while living in Japan and his insights into the growing interest in Edo Bayashi (traditional festival music of Tokyo) and Kotobuki Jishi (traditional lion dance of Tokyo) outside of Japan. 

I had known Kenny as a kid growing up near Tokyo in Saitama. He was studying hogaku hayashi (classical Japanese music, such as noh and kabuki) with Saburo Mochizuki, and I was part of a youth taiko ensemble taught by Saburo sensei. In the interview, we talk about one memorable performance at the Maruki Bijutsukan (museum of internationally acclaimed artists Iri and Toshi Maruki) where my youth group shared the stage with Sukeroku Daiko's Saburo sensei, his wife, Kenny, and Yukihiro Miyauchi in a presentation of Edo Bayashi and other pieces. Many years later, I moved to Honolulu to study with Kenny and perform as a member of his ensemble. When I mention to someone that I also got a master of music degree from the University of Hawaii on the side, it sounds like a funny joke but it's true. Kenny was my reason for being there, and I was lucky that the UH music program had a no-thesis degree option where I could present a one-hour recital instead.

It was especially interesting to hear Kenny's stories about Wakayama sensei, Maru sensei, Suzuki sensei, and the early days of introducing this music to North America. Whether you are into Edo Bayashi or not, hearing Kenny's thoughts about taiko, traditional music, and learning perpetually is invaluable. Our conversation was on a specific and narrow topic so some readers may want to do some additional research to fill in the contextual holes. A good place to start would be my content relating to Suzuki sensei at the links below. Kenny kindly provided some of his music to be included in the interview. The tracks are Forest Festival, Spirit of Rice, and Symmetrical Soundscapes, which are on his albums Jugoya, Hibiki, and Eternal Energy. We chose these excerpts because they highlight the influence of Edo Bayashi on Kenny's compositions. I have always noticed a distinct and unique quality in all of Kenny's albums. It's hard to describe in words, but I hear a combination of an exceptional concept of sound and an artistic vision expressed purely from the inner self.


Photo credit: Kenji Yamazaki

Photo credit: Kenji Yamazaki

About Kenny

Photo credit: Shuzo Uemoto

Photo credit: Shuzo Uemoto

One of the leading personas in contemporary percussion and rhythm, KENNY ENDO is at the vanguard of the taiko genre, continuing to carve new territory in this Japanese style of drumming.  A performer, composer, and teacher of taiko, he has received numerous awards and accolades, including very special recognition in Japan—he was the first foreigner to be honored with a “natori,” a stage name, in Japanese classical drumming. Kenny Endo was a featured artist on the PBS special “Spirit of Taiko” in 2005.  He has performed for such musicians as the late Michael Jackson and Prince, opened for The Who, performed a duet with singer Bobby McFerrin, and is featured on the soundtracks for Kayo Hatta’s film “Picture Bride”, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, and worked on James Cameron’s “Avatar”.  He has had a day named for him in by the Mayor of Honolulu “Kenny Endo Day”, and was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts for American Masterpieces. He has released 10 CDs of original music. Kenny is a consummate artist, blending Japanese taiko with rhythms influenced by his jazz background and by collaborations with artists from around the world.  Kenny's taiko are provided courtesy of Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten. 

www.kennyendo.com

Interview: Kiyoshi Nagata talks Daihachi Oguchi, Kodo, and the taiko artist life

Kiyoshi Nagata

Kiyoshi Nagata

I had a fun time talking with Kiyoshi Nagata, the founder and leader of Nagata Shachu based in Toronto. We first met in Vancouver at the 2008 Regional Taiko Gathering, and I remember how his workshops and concert performance were all great. In this conversation, I learned a lot about Kiyoshi's interesting background which included training from Osuwa Daiko's Daihachi Oguchi as well as Kodo's apprenticeship program. Nagata Shachu, his professional taiko ensemble, keeps a busy schedule with tours, recordings, and an impressive array of artistic collaborations. One of the most interesting aspects of Kiyoshi's group is the large number original compositions they have created and performed. His website lists this repertoire along with many other informative resources so I would encourage everyone to check it out at the link below. Another topic Kiyoshi discussed in depth was his teaching philosophy. I wanted to hear his perspective because he has taught taiko classes for credit at the University of Toronto and public classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Kiyoshi kindly sent me his newest CD/DVD set called Toronto Taiko Tales, and I have included some music from the album in the interview. I enjoyed it for the original compositions as well as the quality of the audio recording. The pieces are Hana, Enya Totto, Taichi no Sakebi, Tokiwa, Zare Shamisen, and Araumi. His youtube channel is full of concert footage so you can get a glimpse into the work of Nagata Shachu.


Kiyoshi Nagata

Kiyoshi Nagata

Kiyoshi Nagata, founder and artistic director of Nagata Shachu, has been performing in a career that spans 35 years. His principal studies were with Daihachi Oguchi (as artistic director and performer of the Toronto-based, Suwa Daiko from 1982 to 1992) and with Kodo (as an apprentice from 1993 to 1994). With the assistance of a Chalmers Performing Arts Training Grant in 1999, Kiyoshi studied classical percussion with Paul Houle at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

Since 1998 Kiyoshi has taught a credit course in taiko at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. From 2003 to 2011, he established a public taiko course at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. For eight years, he instructed two community groups, Isshin Daiko in Toronto and Do-Kon Daiko in Burlington, which he helped establish in 1995. Kiyoshi is also regularly invited by universities and taiko groups to conduct workshops and present lectures.

In 1994, Kiyoshi founded the cross-cultural percussion ensemble, Humdrum, whose debut Toronto performance was ranked fourth in Now Magazine’s “Top Ten Concerts of 1995”. He has composed and performed taiko music for dance, theatre, film and radio and continues to collaborate with artists from all genres of music including traditional Japanese instrumentalists.

Interview: Iris Shiraishi talks Midwest taiko, composing, teaching, and learning from Suzuki sensei

Iris Shiraishi of ensemble-MA

Iris Shiraishi of ensemble-MA

Recently I had a wonderful conversation with Iris Shiraishi of ensemble-MA. Iris kindly organized my Minneapolis workshops during my February Midwest teaching tour. It was a visit I was eagerly anticipating because of the opportunity to conduct a masterclass for Iris’s Edo Bayashi class. We have known each other for many years, and I feel like the rapport comes from our parallel experiences - the coalescence of Hawaii culture, music school, learning from Kenny Endo, and our ongoing study of Edo Bayashi and Edo Kotobuki Jishi with Kyosuke Suzuki sensei of Wakayama Shachu. In the interview, Iris talks about her musical start in Hawaii, earning degrees in composition and music therapy, and discovering taiko with Rick Shiomi and Mu Daiko. She also describes her own group concept with ensemble-MA, the transition of Mu Daiko under the new organization TaikoArts Midwest, and working with older adults through her outreach program TaikoAlive.

Iris provided two of her compositions for me to intersperse into the conversation: Soaring and In My Dreams. There are more videos of her original work on the ensemble-MA website so I would recommend checking them out. I also included a link to Iris’s feature in the PBS art series MN Original as well as the Mu Daiko 20th Anniversary concert and festival.


Iris Shiraishi of ensemble-MA

Iris Shiraishi of ensemble-MA

Iris Shiraishi is a musician and taiko player, a teacher, music therapist and arts administrator. She has degrees in composition (BM, MA), arts administration (MFA) and music therapy (PhD) from the Universities of Hawai'i, Iowa and Minnesota, and has been studying and performing taiko since 1997. A founding member of Mu Daiko under the direction of Rick Shiomi, she left a thriving music therapy practice to pursue a full-time career as a performer, composer, residency artist/instructor and administrator for Mu Daiko in 2002, eventually becoming its Artistic Director in 2010. She has received grants to study with Kenny Endo and Suzuki Kyosuke and in addition counts PJ Hirabayashi and Chieko Kojima as her most influential role models and teachers. Iris left Mu Daiko and formed ensemble-MA in 2014, a group of taiko players and musicians which is dedicated to learning the music of Edo Bayashi and original, taiko-based work. She has composed and premiered over 20 compositions for both e-MA and Mu Daiko and has taught literally thousands of taiko enthusiasts ages 3-103. 

Links
ensemble-MA website
MN Original featuring Iris Shiraishi (PBS arts series)
Minnesota Taiko Festival

Interview: Jason Matsumoto talks taiko, his film project, collaboration, and the new CD

Last month Jason Matsumoto sat down with me to talk about his group Ho Etsu Taiko, recent projects, and upcoming events. The first time we worked together was in September 2015 when Ho Etsu invited On Ensemble to play a joint concert in Chicago. I enjoyed the collaboration and was immediately impressed with their organization, performance level, and new taiko compositions. Months after that show, Jason decided to release a CD of the live concert recording, and we talk about this in the interview.

We also talked in depth about Jason's current project as executive producer, a film called The Orange Story. This short film is about the internment of Japanese Americans and was created for students and educators with the goal of providing an entry point in discussing issues of race and discrimination. You can find out more about it through the links below.

Jason sent me two tracks from the new CD: Traveler (performed by Ho Etsu) and Parallax (performed by Ho Etsu and On Ensemble). I have added excerpts of this music in the interview. Please check out the links below to find out more about the release date and how to get your own copy.


Ho Etsu
www.hoetsu.org learn about our music, our mission and our history; newsletter sign up for CD news
www.facebook.com/hoetsutaiko follow us!

The Orange Story
www.theorangestory.wordpress.com learn more about the project
http://joom.ag/DKvQ "Hidden Histories" is a curated screening package that includes The Orange Story, this is the lookbook!
www.facebook.com/theorangestory follow us for related news stories and project updates
Chicago film premiere event December 2, 2016

Full Spectrum Features
www.fullspectrumfeatures.com

Jason Matsumoto is a fourth-generation Japanese American from Chicago.  He earned a business degree from the University of Washington in Seattle and spent one year in Japan as a study-abroad student attending Sophia University in Tokyo. By day, he is a director of pricing for financial derivative products at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. By passion, Matsumoto is the director and composer for Ho Etsu Taiko, a Chicago-based ensemble centered around Japanese drumming. Most recently, he has assumed the role of co-Producer for The Orange Story, a film project funded by the National Parks Service that aims to provide digital educational content about civil liberties as told through the lens of Japanese American incarceration during WWII. Matsumoto serves as Vice President of the Board of Full Spectrum Features, a Chicago-based 501(c)(3) production company committed to increasing diversity in the media arts and utilizing the power of cinema to educate the public about important social and cultural issues.