More and more the whole idea that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill seems to be bearing out. Last year I wrote about the astonishing excellence exhibited by Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith in the India Jazz Suite. (And I guess I did a good job because that entry is now part of their official promotional package.)
I had a similar experience this past weekend with a taiko drumming show we were presenting. Except this time, I really had not anticipated the quality of the performance and was completely taken aback by the experience.
Kenny Endo was the first non-Japanese national to be granted a natori, or master’s name and license in classical Japanese drumming. A visit that was intended to be about a year turned into a 10 year pursuit of master status. In about a month he will be having his 35th anniversary as a taiko performer.
He was performing a retrospective of his masterworks elsewhere in the state under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts’ American Masterpieces initiative. Since a lot of effort was going into bringing this event together, I was asked if we wanted to present it as well. We have been trying to arrange for Kenny to perform for awhile but could never find the right time. I was pleased then that we did have an opening for an event in which his infrequently seen works would be performed.
Kenny Endo is really a very influential person in the taiko in the U.S. and well regarded internationally. When I was searching YouTube for video of his work, I often came across people who were performing his compositions. What I didn’t know was much about the other people he was bringing with him. His NYC based bamboo flautist, Kaoru Watanabe, I had seen in many videos with him, but that was about it. The drummer he was bringing over from Japan, Kiyohiko Semba and his violinist wife were a complete mystery to me.
I guess I should have gotten a clue from the fact Kenny continually referred to Semba as if he were a partner in the show that he was something special.
Let me take a little detour to talk about the interesting symmetry between Endo and Semba. Endo grew up always interested in percussion and studied classical drumming and jazz-fusion traps before becoming enamored of taiko and ending up in Japan. Semba came from a family that founded a famous school of Japanese music. He started studying tsuzumi and taiko drumming at age three and made his kabuki stage debut at 10. In high school, he became entranced by bossa nova rhythms and began studying western drums. He noted in an interview that given his family’s strong traditions, he had to balance his practice of western music with familial respect and the study of classical Japanese music.
So we were doing this show with a Japanese-American playing taiko drums and a Japanese national playing a Western drum kit. As you might imagine, the show wasn’t entirely comprised traditional taiko compositions. There were percussion influences from all around the world including Brazilian and Hawaiian, woven in with classical and contemporary Japanese.
Let me tell you, Semba was incredible. You have this little quiet unassuming guy walking around and you have no clue what genius lurks beneath. I employ no hyperbole when I say a lot of rock and roll drummers are lucky he isn’t auditioning for rock bands because he would leave them in the dust. That might be embarrassing because Semba is probably in his late 60s or early 70s. For a time there I forgot I wasn’t watching a rock show because he was going full throttle so much of the time.
He also had an impish sense of humor. The second part of Endo’s “Symmetrical Soundscapes” has two drummers center stage improvising on a set of drums. There is video of it on YouTube—except they don’t include Semba and he brings an entirely new flavor to the work. Semba and Endo moved down to the set that had been wheeled out center stage and Semba suddenly reclines on the floor stage right and begins matching Endo’s patterns on a hand held drum. He gets up and moves center stage and they play on the set—but then Semba grabs the frame supporting the drums and starts moving around the stage forcing Endo to chase after him. They then engage in pulling and pushing the drum set toward and away from each other, spinning it back and forth, until Semba finally pushes it off stage.
Semba moves back across the stage bent over wearily tapping out some half hearted rhythms on the floor and you are thinking this guy must have worn himself out. Then he springs up on the drum riser and just starts going at it all over again.
And you realize all that playfulness wasn’t a lot of spectacle to spice up an uninteresting show or to divert attention from a lack of talent, but rather proof of Endo and Semba’s skill to go through an unrehearsed bit, (that didn’t happen in rehearsals), without missing a literal beat. As I said last year when I talked about the India Jazz Suites, it was an exhibition of joyful exuberance by two masters who took great pleasure in their mutual friendship.
There are a lot of people out there who are seeking the quick path to fame and many who make a lot of money at it. Endo and Semba may not be as financially successful, but the gulf between their ability and that of those who haven’t pursued mastery is quickly apparent.
With all this talk of the principals, I am not doing justice to the other performers like Semba’s wife, Kaori Takahashi, who is really a excellent violinist and shares a bit of her husband’s whimsical nature. And Kaoru Watanabe, who is a superb bamboo flautist himself. Watanabe actually set out on the long road to mastery and apprenticed with the drumming group Kodo, for the traditionally arduous apprentice experience so he is no slouch on the drums either. I spoke with him after the performance and he commented that he usually injects a bit of humor into his shows, but as with many things, Semba eclipses him.
It is really a pity that more venues didn’t get a chance to take advantage of this collaboration. But with that in mind, since the group has so recently practiced and Kenny said he hoped it wouldn’t be too many more years before he got to perform the works again, I am making a rare appeal for people to contact them and book the performance. You won’t be disappointed with the quality of the show, I assure you. If you are looking for some outreach/educational services, Kenny is really top notch at these things. He also has a lot of experience integrating other performance groups into his concerts (or himself into theirs, as the case may be.)