An interview with Riley Lee in April 2001, largely about TaikOz, Australia’s taiko group co-founded by Riley Lee and Ian Cleworth in 1996. TaikOz was soon to perform for the first time in Japan.
I believe it will be a great honour for TaikOz to open the Kobe Festival in Japan, and that TaikOz are the first non-Japanese group to do such a thing. Is this true?
Though TaikOz won’t be opening the taiko festival in Kobe, it will be performing in the single main event, a taiko concert in Kobe’s largest performing arts space. What makes this such an honour is that the concert will also feature the world’s top taiko soloist Eitetsu Hayashi, and the world’s number one taiko group, Kodo. Besides this main concert, we will be participating in a huge outdoor taiko concert featuring 1000 taiko players from the surrounding district of Kobe. I’ve never heard a thousand taiko being played together before !
I have heard that participating in Taiko requires a great deal of physical training. What can you tell us about this?
Everyone on stage looks very fit and strong. What kind of training is required, and is the physical aspect a large one? Yes, playing taiko well demands a great deal of strength, stamina, flexibility, and coordination. The physical demands are much higher than almost any other form of music making. As with anything as physical as this, one has to train regularly, not only by playing on the taiko, but also by doing lots of stretching and strengthening exercise as is found in such practices, for example, as hatha yoga and pilates, and other forms of physical activity such as swimming and jogging.
Have the group trained musically entirely in Australia?
Ian Cleworth, with a little help from me, founded TaikOz in 1996 or 1997. We continue to be co-artistic directors of the group. Both Ian and I learned to play taiko in Japan. Ian’s teacher is the well known Amano Sen, while I lived and performed with the original Kodo (then called Ondekoza – Demon Drummers). I’ve lived and studied in Japan for over eight years all together, first going there in 1970. Up until this year, when we will be studying with Mr. Hayashi for a couple of weeks, all of the other members of TaikOz have learned their taiko skills almost entirely from Ian, again with a little help from me.
Has the tradition of Taiko always been theatrical and dramatic? Are these essential elements?
Rather than theatrical and dramatic, I would say that the taiko tradition is a visual one. In Japanese, the expression is to go “watch taiko”, never to go and “hear” or “listen to taiko”. The movements of one’s entire body are an essential part of playing taiko. The quality of one’s movements determine the quality of sound. Interestingly, the most beautiful and interesting movements are also the ones that create the best sound. They are also the most efficient.
Does the group perform traditional pieces, originals or improvisations?
In my opinion, one of the strengths of TaikOz is its ability to perform both traditional routines and contemporary pieces composed by members of the group as well as by other compositions. Almost all taiko playing, both traditional and contemporary, involves some degree of improvisation as well as a great deal of learning by heart. What never happens in taiko performing is reading from notation. That would be like dancing while reading the steps in a book!
I believe you have been involved with taiko since the 70’s, and you have been involved with important figures of taiko.
As mentioned above, I lived, slept, and breathed taiko for nearly four years from 1973 while a member of the original Kodo. I was the only non-Japanese in the original group. We all lived together in an abandoned school building on Sado Island. Our lives were ruled utterly by our artistic dictator, a singular man named Den.
What are the instruments used in the performance?
TaikOz uses various sizes and shapes of drums from small shimedaiko approximately the size of a snare drum to the odaiko. Our odaiko is the largest drum in Australia, weighing over 300 kgs with skins over a metre in diameter. We also use various metal instruments such as large and small gongs and cymbals. Finally, a number of bamboo flutes are used to accompany the drums.
As a shakuhachi master how does your status/expertise reflect upon the group?
My status as a shakuhachi player really has little to do with the taiko. I suppose TaikOz performances are enhanced by the shakuhachi interludes that I’m able to contribute, but really taiko doesn’t need shakuhachi. The small bamboo side flutes called yokobue are more integral to taiko playing than shakuhachi. In TaikOz performances, have the pleasure of blowing like crazy on these shrill flutes while the drums are booming away. But one doesn’t have to be a master yokobue player to do that. This is a good thing, because I am not a master yokobue player!
Briefly, what is the Japanese tradition of the master/student relationship? Is it considered a spiritual/mystical practice?
Briefly, the teacher/student relationship in Japan is traditionally like that of parent/child. Such relationships are much more demanding on both sides. Much more responsibility is incurred compared to a typical music teacher / music student relationship that we are more familiar with here in Australia. How spiritual or mystical such relationships become depends entirely upon the individual teacher and student. Each relationship is different. Most teacher/student relationships in Japan, in my experience over the past thirty years, are no more or less spiritual or mystical than such relationships anywhere else in the world.
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