Fubuki Daiko: going for broke under the northern lights
When Winnipeg’s Fubuki Daiko celebrated its twentieth anniversary last year, it marked a major milestone as one of North America’s few professional taiko groups. Formed in 1995, Fubuki can trace its origins to the San Francisco Taiko Dojo (SFTD) and Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka, the man credited with bringing the Japanese art of taiko to North America. Company founders Hiroshi Koshiyama and Naomi Guilbert met while working with Tanaka and followed their hearts north to Naomi’s native Winnipeg, where they set down roots – gathering other drummers around them, and starting a rigorous training and touring regimen. Making a rare trip to the west coast this summer, the group will be leading two workshops at the upcoming Regional Taiko Gathering and the attendant Taiko at the Rio concert on August 21.
Hiroshi Naomi is originally from Winnipeg and wanted to be with her family. We weren’t initially planning to form our own group, but we wanted to continue drumming after leaving the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. The cost of living in San Francisco was increasing (although it was still before the first bubble burst), and there was no universal health care. We knew that if we wanted to drum on our own down there, we would have to hold several other ‘real’ jobs in order for that to happen. Out of respect to Tanaka sensei, we would have been obliged to stay with SFTD if we were still living in the Bay Area. We would not have been able to do our own thing in his ‘territory’ and still maintain a good relationship with him. In retrospect I think leaving the Bay Area was the right decision. We really enjoy writing and performing our own music. We still return to SF annually to see Tanaka sensei and to attend practice sessions with him.
I know from first-hand experience that it’s a challenge making a living as any kind of musician, let alone as a taiko drummer – what has it been like for the two of you as professional taiko players?
Hiroshi We feel very lucky to be able to do what we do as a full time profession. Living in Winnipeg has really helped. Not only is the cost of living extremely a ordable, we also have access to good provincial funding. We’ve been teaching taiko at schools across the province through the Manitoba Arts Council’s Artists in the Schools program, which is subsidized by the provincial government. We are allowed 15 weeks of work every year doing this and it pays much better than touring and performing. We’re also lucky that the two of us get along so well. We’ve been around each other 24/7 for over 20 years and still enjoy each others’ company. I always joke that we’ve probably been married the equivalent of 40 years in terms of the time spent together for an average couple.
35 years ago there were no taiko groups in Canada, now they are spread out across the country. How do you see your group’s contribution to the evolution of taiko in Canada?
Hiroshi/Naomi We’ve exposed many people to the art form in Central Canada, particularly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, through our touring and teaching. Many kids in Manitoba initially had contact with us at school, and have since grown up and had kids of their own, who they’ve brought to our shows. In this way, we’ve built our own local audience. We want to continue Sensei’s dream of making taiko as common as sushi. We are very gratified to see so many groups popping up across the country. We now see ourselves as mentors for newer groups and enjoy offering workshops to taiko groups in cities where we perform.
What sets your group apart, do you think?
Hiroshi/Naomi We try to keep the spirit and “Go for Broke” attitude that Sensei instilled in us when we trained with him. At the same time, we incorporate own our personal musical tastes into our compositions. We also tend to integrate a fair bit of humour into our banter with our audiences – something that never happened at SFTD.
Do you remember the first taiko performance you saw? What struck you most about it? When did you know you were going to pursue it yourself?
Hiroshi I grew up seeing the San Francisco Taiko Dojo perform at the Cherry Blossom festival. I was always amazed by the movement and rhythms but never thought I’d ever join the group. After living in Japan for a year and playing taiko with a local group, I decided to join SFTD for the physical exercise. I never thought that I would actually be doing this as a living until I moved up to Canada with Naomi.
Naomi I first saw taiko when Katari Taiko performed in Winnipeg at Folklorama (a local cultural festival). Up to that point in time my exposure to “Japanese things for girls” had been uninspiring (i.e. dressing up in a kimono, flower arranging). As a tomboyish teenage girl, I had concluded that that part of my genetic heritage (I am part Japanese, part French Canadian) was not worth exploring. But KT had a lot of women performers and seeing them drum blew my mind. I decided then that I would find a way to try taiko someday. My other inspiration was a performance by Ondekoza. Again, a woman drummer was featured and she was so intense and so joyful when she played that it made me feel joyful just watching her. I came to the conclusion that as human beings, we should all feel like that as often as possible. And I decided that helping bring others to that state of joy by example may be just as useful and important work as slogging away at bringing about social and political change by more conventional means. And way more fun and fulfilling.
Although you’re based in Manitoba, you’ve travelled widely. Do you see regional differences in how groups approach taiko?
Naomi With the exception of KT, with its collective approach (and our group with it’s more hierarchical approach), most groups seem similar in structure. Regardless of whether there is a formal board or leadership structure, the more outgoing people tend to make the decisions. And yet at the same time, the art form seems to attract a lot of introverts and ‘nerds’ – we consider ourselves to be in the latter category. Somehow people make it work for the most part. None of the groups we’ve had contact with emphasize basic training to the extent we experienced in SF. Even we are guilty of not spending enough time on the basics with our own students. Since we have not been very involved in the larger taiko community per se, we don’t have a huge amount of knowledge re: the workings of other groups. Our contact has been limited mainly to groups with ties to SFTD – specifically Mu Daiko, and Oto-wa Taiko. We have also been mentors to Kaminari Wan in Thunder Bay. But since their core members regularly go to SF for Cherry Blossom and are familiar with SFTD, that indirect connection may have led to them initially choosing us as their mentors.
What has been your group’s most memorable gig or project?
Hiroshi My favourite gig was the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia. It was in the evening and we were performing on the main stage and it was incredible to see the massive crowd and the effect of the fog and lights with banners flying all over the place. It felt mystical. Almost as if we were preparing for battle. Our other memorable tour would be performing at the Drum Fest in Poland. We had never toured outside of North America and it was fun to be in a foreign country and to incorporate some Polish into our show.
Naomi In addition to the gigs Hiroshi mentioned, I would also add our many collaborations with Mu Daiko, as well as a collaboration with the Northern Plains Ballet Company (now defunct) where we essentially provided all the music for a full length ballet while performing live on stage with the dancers. It was extremely challenging to drum for dancers and also interesting to witness a ballet being choreographed from scratch.
You learned taiko at the feet of Grandmaster Tanaka. What is the most important lesson you learned?
Hiroshi/Naomi How to commit your entire spirit and energy into performing and practicing taiko while at the same time losing your ego. We are still working on this. Tanaka Sensei still calls us “crawling babies.” We agree with his assessment.
Fubuki is attending the Regional Taiko Gathering in Vancouver next month, a rare sighting on the west coast. You’ll be leading two workshops – one on soloing and one on taiko composition. What is your approach to taiko composition? Do you have a certain approach that works for you?
Naomi I tend to do it all in my head. If a line of music gets forgotten in the process, then I consider that it was probably a line that was not worth keeping. I also focus on the visual/movement component. For me the rhythmic component is often secondary.
Hiroshi I start o with some sort of rhythm in my head that eventually evolves into a musical piece. I develop the movements later.
How does your group operate? As a collective? A benign dictatorship? How do you spread out the responsibilities and tasks among the group members?
Hiroshi/Naomi We primarily work as a benign co-dictatorship. We also maintain a sempai-kohai order among our students. As a benign dictator- ship, we find it difficult to delegate the responsibilities since we aren’t able to afford to pay others a “living wage” to do the bookkeeping, equipment maintenance, booking, and grant writing. We do try to spread out our teaching responsibilities among our other performers and senior students. We did not go the non-profit route because we didn’t want to deal with a board. As the two co-founders who basically make all the decisions (and who are around each other all the time), one major benefit to our structure is that our decision making process is very efficient.
This question comes from a former professional taiko player: you play a lot of school shows, what’s the weirdest question you’ve been asked by a student?
Hiroshi How much money do you make?
Touring is hard on the body – not to mention all the practice and rehearsals – how long do you see yourself keeping up the pace?
Hiroshi/Naomi Probably not that much longer, particularly at our current pace. It’s nice to be busy and touring but it can be a bit overwhelming. When we are at home (and even when we’re on the road), we spend a significant amount of time on ‘body maintenance’ – e.g. swimming, step aerobics, tai chi, pilates, massage, chiropractic, acupuncture, among other things.
In another interview you talk about taiko being more suited to a younger body. Surely there are ways you can adapt your style so that it’s less physically demanding – what do you think?
Naomi Sensei’s style is initially easier to integrate with a younger body. And in fact starting out with his style may actually be a liability from a physical standpoint (since it’s harder to change habits later on). But adaptations can be made to maintain the power and minimize the wear and tear. In an ideal world, a person would start out drumming this way from the beginning (pow- erfully and efficiently). But sometimes age and injury are necessary precursors to understanding efficiency. It’s easy to waste energy when you have a younger body that works.
How do you see the group evolving as you head towards your twenty-fifth anniversary? Do you have any plans beyond the present?
Hiroshi We’re starting to look at our “exit strategy” since we feel that our bodies won’t be able to handle the rigours of constant touring (not the performing so much as the long hours driving and all the lifting and loading). Having said that, we will still continue teaching through the Artists in the Schools program. We may also possibly look into other performance options – maybe working as a duo on a cruise line?