Art Lee/ Wadaiko Tokara
by Jacob Derksen
Japan has numerous traditional art forms that have survived into the 21st century. Some have remained if not static then at least very true to their original form. Others have developed in a more dynamic fashion and one of those is wadaiko, or Japanese drums. While the drums themselves have been used in traditional Japanese music for centuries – including in gagaku, the 1400 year old imperial court music that is recognized as the oldest classical music in the world – taiko, as the performance art is often referred to, has a relatively short history.
Taiko, or more appropriately kumi-daiko – ensemble drumming – has its roots in the post-war era. A jazz drummer from Hirano Village in Nagano prefecture, Oguchi Daihachi, is credited with developing kumi-daiko in 1951. A drum score for old festival drumming had been found and, with help from an elderly gentleman in the village and drawing inspiration from his jazz background, Oguchi was able to transform a rather staid festival drum pattern into what would become the basis of a new performance art.
Fast forward to the present, one of the late Oguchi-sensei’s students, Art Lee, performed in Vancouver on January 25, 2013. Art Lee is the founder and artistic director of Wadaiko Tokara, a highly skilled taiko group based in Iida City, Nagano. This free concert was jointly sponsored by the Consulate-General of Japan in Vancouver and the Japan Foundation and marked the very first concert in Wadaiko Tokara’s two year Kazakoshi World Tour, which celebrates Art Lee’s 20 years as a wadaiko artist this year and Wadaiko Tokara’s ten year anniversary in 2014.
Swedish by birth, African-American by heritage, Art Lee first began his training in 1993 under the direction of Tiffany Tamaribuchi, founder of Sacramento Taiko Dan. Under Tamaribuchi’s skilled tutelage in relatively short order Lee was a featured performer and teacher with Sacramento Taiko Dan and would go on to join the highly renowned Za Ondekoza for their Japan and US tours. Lee began his career as a solo artist after moving to Japan in 1998 and in late 2001 became the first person to be granted an unsponsored artists visa by the government of Japan to teach and perform taiko in Japan. Lee’s accomplishments as a professional taiko artist are extensive and also include becoming the first non-Japanese to win first place in the prestigious Tokyo International Wadaiko Contest in the solo o-daiko section and being a performing member of Oguchi Daihachi’s Osuwa Daiko. Given that Canada’s first taiko group was founded in Vancouver, BC, and given that Art Lee has taught and performed here on a number of occasions over the course of the past decade, it’s appropriate that he kick off his Kazakoshi World Tour here as well.
The audience was treated to a superlative performance that included a number of original numbers composed by Art Lee and several pieces that would fall under the heading of “traditional.” For example the opening song, Silk Road, tells the story of the mythical journey of the drum from the African continent and its evolution as it ventures to Japan via India, China and Korea; Tenchi Shimei, (The Gods of Heaven and Earth) another original, was inspired by the late Oguchi Daihachi. Within the Shinto religion that informed Oguchi-sensei’s life, there is the idea that within all things in the universe, both the animate and the inanimate, there is a god or sacred power. Miyake Daiko and Chichibu Yatai Bayashi, on the other hand, are more traditional festival pieces but, as arranged by Lee, they retain their essence while at the same time exhibiting the dynamic innovation that is Lee’s trademark.
Throughout the concert the audience is also treated to interactive components. As the concert unfolds we learn that Wadaiko Tokara derives its name from the Japanese “touku kara” which literally means “from afar.” As noted above, Lee is Swedish born, of African-American heritage and a long-time resident of Japan; he is not the only member of the group who is “from afar” though. Yukari Ichise, the senior member of the group with seven years under her belt, is from Japan but studied English in Britain long enough not only to master the language but to leave her with a very distinctive if gentle British accent. Dean Havixbeck, a full member of Wadaiko Tokara since June 2010, was born in Greece but raised in Winnipeg. The newest member, Takafumi Onozawa, moved from his home in historic Matsumoto City to apprentice with Lee in Iida City and has since gone on to tour with the group throughout Japan and overseas. This concert marks Onozawa’s first overseas performance as a full member of the group.
The Kazakoshi tour is named for the mountain wind that sweeps across the top of Mount Fuetsu in the Inadani region where Wadaiko Tokara makes their home. After their superlative performance it’s a fair bet that I’m not the only one who hopes that they will sweep through Vancouver again before the end of their two year tour.
In addition to helping organize several Vancouver-based workshops with Art Lee over the past six years, Jacob Derksen has been to Japan to study with Lee four times since 2005.