Sunday, June 28, 2009

Identity, self, me, art!

In the end of my last post, I talked about knowing one's self and realizing that the self is part of the instrument/art. I want to touch on that some more. Hang on, the ride gets bumpy.

In my case, it doesn't matter whether I'm practicing karate or taiko - I *am* the instrument; I am the art. Without me, there is no music, no taiko playing. Without me, there is no punching, no kicking. Yes, others can and will do those things, but I'm specifically talking about each person as an individual.

Taiko is Japanese.

People add often attachments to things because that's what they were taught or what they assumed to be so. For instance, if you ask someone if karate is Japanese, they will say "yes." But what does that mean? Does Japan "own" the art? It was created in Japan, developed in Japan, but it's spread and evolved worldwide. I could say it's a Japanese art form, but no one owns the art. It can't be put into a box and kept in a closet. This goes for any art form. No one can own a concept, I don't care what the lawyers might argue.

The same is true for taiko - created and developed in Japan, but the evolution of the art has a lot to do with where it's traveled. Taiko, introduced to North America, developed a much different flavor, both losing and adding elements from what it came over as. The journey was not one-way however, and in returning to Japan with the NA flavors, it again had impact and went through the same process as it did coming out here. It still goes on to this day.

My favorite example is Kodo, the god-kings of taiko. One thing Kodo became famous for were "crossovers". Playing a katsugi okedo (lighter roped drum slung across the shoulder horizontally at waist level), Kodo introduced the taiko audience to the left hand alternating between right and left drum head (while the right played every other note, stationary) very, very fast. Guess what? That came from seeing the Korean group, SamulNori, do the very same thing with their slung roped drums. *gasp* And now, crossovers are pretty darned common - maybe not easy, but a lot of people do them compared to before.

I try to respect people who cling to the idea that taiko has to be Japanese, but it's often hard to enter into a truly open debate about the issue with them. They *want* it to be Japanese. It makes it...more special to them? Maybe they want to be Japanese in some manner, and the link to Japan validates them more somehow. (See my previous post on that whole hoo-ha.) However, that makes a label more important than the art. I believe it is truly important to understand *where* your art came from, yes. Notice how no one ever says, "where your art is" or "where your art goes home and sleeps at night after a long day at work"? Ok, I'm being silly. Sue me.

Arts evolve, and evolution doesn't have to be a big step (like the Neo-Cubist movement or mixed martial arts). Unless a person was born to Japanese parents, in Japan, and plays taiko on Japanese drums, some people will consider it "not Japanese taiko". If a person doesn't care what others think, and thinks, "well, I am playing Japanese taiko", I just hope they've asked themselves, "why is that important to me?"

The beauty about taiko (and taiko is not unique in this) is that taiko can be whatever you want it to be, as long as you realize it's going to be potentially different to everyone else. To a group in Japan, to a group in the UK, to a group in Brazil, taiko will be different things. Once you say, "but taiko should be..." then you're already four words into being wrong. :)

The taiko is special/sacred.

It struck me funny when I came to realize this is so not true. Any musician worth their salt will take care of their instrument (barring smashing a guitar at a rock concert!) I've met some taiko players who think the taiko is the only instrument that has a soul, a spirit, but that comes from not knowing other musical traditions! I could go into the myriad of other instruments, let alone drums, that have a spiritual/sacred component in other cultures, but I'm not going to.

The taiko is a drum. It doesn't do anything unless it's played. Some people believe that the taiko, being made of natural elements (wood, hide, metal) retains a natural spirit, and in playing the taiko well, that spirit can be brought out. I can respect that belief, and my own group espouses that belief, but still - it's just a DRUM! It's usually an expensive drum, mind you, and setting your coffee on it shows a lack of common sense.

Here's the interesting thing, sort of the "missing link". If the taiko needs the player to make the spirit (or even just the sound) to emerge, then the PLAYER is another part of the instrument. So if the player is just as important, why is the player never considered sacred or special?

Ok, sure, I'm sure there are some who do take that into consideration, but those are very rare cases. My point is, there are taiko players who smoke, who are jerks, etc. does that effect the taiko when they are playing it? To keep the taiko "special" in that case would mean putting it in a glass case and never playing it, lest someone somehow "soil" it, right? Well that's just silly. I can only name four people that I've personally heard talk about the importance of the player in taiko. Really, no one ever seems to think about it amongst the talk about the taiko this and the taiko that. Don't forget about the player! practical terms, please?

So in more practical terms, when thinking of the player as part of the instrument, I've heard over and over again how the "true" self comes out when one plays taiko. And that, I agree with to a large part. People that aren't certain of themselves broadcast that to the audience. People who are generally ill-tempered or low in the humor department often look like the "dead zone" on stage amongst the rest. Those who may not have a lot of skill or experience, but are having a blast usually make the audience take notice. Socially awkward people often move in awkward ways. Getting the point? Taiko players are the taiko, the art of it anyways.

This isn't exclusive to taiko, or even music. It's an inward eye that isn't always easy to keep open; we see the flaws as well as the strengths in ourselves and sometimes choosing to see nothing is easier than honest inner dialogue.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Identity, self, me.

Who am I?

I do a lot of thinking about "what is taiko?", and it's enjoyable on a philosophical level. I've had a number of discussions about how identity in taiko shapes both the art as well as the performer. So I want to do some typing and see what I come up with, with no real destination in mind...

1.) I'm White.
What does even mean? If you pull a white crayon out, I'm much more pink than that. But no one ever calls me "pink". And what if I was tan, would I be "umber" or "beige"? No, I'd still be "white". It's a pretty useless descriptor if it's describing the color of my skin even if my skin isn't that color, right?

2.) I'm Caucasian.

Ok, this one is more scientific, but still pretty useless. I'm one of the predominantly light-skinned humanoids. Sure.

3.) I'm (North) American.

What does that even mean? At the very least, it means I'm a native of the Americas. Am I Mexican? Canadian? United States...ian? What if I was born in Fakenameistan and moved here when I was two years old? Which place holds my nationality? I can pretty much choose whichever one suits me at the time someone asks me...

4.) I'm one-quarter each Russian, Scottish, German, and Irish.

Well that's neat! I must like vodka, kilts, bratwurst, and potatoes, right? I'm not serious...although I do like bratwurst. This is my heritage, my family history, but it only defines who I am on paper. It might explain some genetic traits, but like horoscopes, it's easy to pick-and-choose what sounds convenient.

5.) I'm a Japanophile/Sinophile.

I've studied the Japanese language for about a total of two years, I've practiced karate for about 10 years total, and taiko for 16. This combination often has placed me in the "Japanophile" category by those who find comfort in labeling others. There are other elements to this; I enjoy some anime, enjoy videogames, and now have a Japanese-Canadian girlfriend. Damning, isn't it?

The definition of the word "Japanophile" is one who loves Japan, its people, and/or its culture. But the word suggests the lack of love for one's own country, people, and/or culture. I've never been called an Americanophile, nor have I ever heard a native Japanese person be called a Japanophile - there are people like that, but the labels sound weird on them.

I'm a culturophile. I love music, food, art, and language from around the world - not so much people, but that's the introvert in me. :)

When I was studying the Brazillian martial art Capoeira, no one called me a Brazilophile, even though I was studying the movement of the art, the music and songs in Portugese, and learning the language somewhat. When I studied Tae Kwon Do, no one called me a Koreophile. Taking Western music theory classes never branded me as a Anglophile, either.

If I wasn't practicing karate, I would be doing another martial art. If I wasn't practicing taiko, I'd be doing another musical form. If I had the time, I would study a dozen other languages. But it happened that several of my interests had one country of origin.

6.) I want to be Japanese.

Ha! I actually like being who I am. I admire parts of the Japanese culture like I do parts of my "own" culture, but I don't want to adopt it necessarily. I kind of like being myself and not letting one culture or another define me.

My musical background is strongly rooted in 80's British techno-pop and Nine Inch Nails. My visual style tends to favor a Fauvist approach. I appreciate Heavy Metal but own little of it. I looove Thai food. The African asalato toy fascinates me. I've gone through a Barmitzvah and several years of Hebrew school. I avoid sunlight and the outdoors in general. I'm a Scorpio and Water Ox, but believe in none of that.

Now, with that tiny spread of data, what do you see me wanting to be? There's no pattern, no thread, is there? Exactly. It's much easier to label and define me the less you know about me. I'm unique, just like everyone else. I sure do have some words that may fit me, but the people that know me the least seem to be the ones who are the most sure they have me pegged.

***Okay, so...who cares?***
Probably not many people! Part of this post is to put myself out there, even if it's not comfortable for others to confront. I've heard people labeling me who are so off-base it makes them look silly.

But these questions about who I am can bring conflict in others - I know people who play taiko and have questioned what "right" they have to play a "Japanese" art when they're not Japanese. What *is* Japanese? Is it a culture? Is it a nationality? Both? Neither?

Without the player, the taiko is simply a drum on a stand. So without knowing who you are as a player, how can you truly understand the instrument? I'll probably do another post on that in the near-future.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I'm tall.

The picture here is of Sun Mingming, the newest height-happy basketball player for the media to enjoy. The dude is 7'9", three inches taller than Yao Ming!

The picture is sort of what it's like for me playing kumidaiko (ensemble druming)...

After concerts, when the group heads to the lobby to finish the encore/greet the audience, I inevitably get at least one comment on my height, usually more. Granted, tall taiko players are still pretty uncommon, especially those with the flexibility to get low in stance.

Over the years I've realized that shorter players don't realize what it's like to have "limbs of length". There are moves that shorter players can do quicker and even when speed is matched up, the shorter player will look faster. Unfair, I say!

Another disadvantage is the visual contour of a song. In a song with five drums in a line, odds are I'm in spot 1, 3, or 5. When I was newer, it was on either end (1 or 5) but those spots are mainly for the newer members. Now I'm almost always in the middle or in the back row (support, percussion, etc.) I also tend to block more of what's behind me, which can sometimes be a staging issue.

I'll never look like the other performers, either. If a song or section calls for a uniform look, the contour will have a "bump" in it. I'm really lucky that I can play quickly and move decently well, otherwise I might have an even harder time fitting into a song.

When teaching, it can be really hard to teach someone with a different body type than your own. Sometimes I found that the people teaching me didn't have a real concept of what my body was doing, which meant some things didn't work and I had to figure out how to make other things work on my own. It's not anyone's fault, it's just how it is. I had no one to match up to; no one could translate things for my build.

Lastly, and it took me a while to realize, but I also needed longer bachi (drumsticks) because the "appropriate" length is elbow to middle finger. The standard length didn't cut it, but I was using it for years! However, for "community" bachi, those we use for other drums, I don't get a different length than anyone else. Someone 4'11" is going to be using the same small-drum bachi as me, which, given the huge height difference, is insane! You wouldn't go up to bat with a chopstick, would you?

It's not all bad, mind you. I can reach a lot farther when it comes to multiple drums; I just have to make it look like it's hard work. ;) I have more options with my wingspan than a lot of people even with just one drum - I can move farther out and still reach. I also have the option of getting higher when I want/need to, for drums or stands that are taller.

I'm really not complaining, honest. Just illustrating what it's like for a person of height. And I wouldn't want to change a thing.