Interview with Ogawa Masa of YAMATO

interview - 04.10.2015 01:01

The founder, composer and creative leader of taiko ensemble YAMATO answers JaME's questions.

Bakuon - Legend of the Hearbeat was the title of taiko ensemble YAMATO's latest program. Shortly after the first big European leg of their tour, founder, composer and creative leader Ogawa Masa gave JaME an insight into life within the world famous troupe.

Since this is YAMATO’s first interview with JaME, could you please introduce yourselves to our readers?

Ogawa Masa: YAMATO is a troupe of Japanese-style drummers based in Asukamura, Nara Prefecture, which is known as the birthplace of Japanese culture. YAMATO was formed in 1993. We have held more than 3,000 shows in 53 different countries worldwide.

Your latest program is called Bakuon - Legend of the Heartbeat. What inspired this title?

Ogawa Masa: It is said that the sound of Japanese-style drum is similar to the beat of a heart. A heartbeat is full of energy and it keeps on beating as long as we live. Also, the heartbeat itself is a story continuing from an ancient past to the time beyond. YAMATO aspires to express such a timeless story through our drum performances.

Between 2013 and 2014, YAMATO celebrated its 20th anniversary. How do you feel the troupe has evolved over these two decades?

Ogawa Masa: Our performance at a local summer festival was the beginning of YAMATO. Although we intended to perform just for that particular occasion, we received so many invitations to have live performances in various places. Later, in 1998, we had the privilege to participate in the biggest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. That was five years after YAMATO was formed. Our performance at the festival became a turning point for us to expand our activities worldwide. Starting in 1999, we embarked on the world tour in which we performed in Europe, the Americas, and Asia. These days, we spend six to ten months abroad every year.

Ogawa-san, you're the founder, composer and creative leader of YAMATO. Tell us how a YAMATO show takes shape? How do you work out the music composition, the choreography, and the costume and stage designs?

Ogawa Masa: At first, I look for a keyword that can be a title of the show. Then, I develop an image of a story to be expressed onstage based on my chosen keyword; how a story should start and how it should end. I envision the rhythm of drums and physical moves of performers in crafting a story. One image leads to another. I combine various ideas in creating a story, such as words, beats of drums, rhythms, visual aspects, such as stage set as well as performers bodies lit by stage lights, and expansion of space.

When you're composing the music for YAMATO, where do you find inspiration?

Ogawa Masa: YAMATO intends to express human energy, and would like to create a stage in which we can exchange such energy with audiences. Therefore, my inspiration is people themselves. I feel energy from their lifestyles, moments in their lives, and their emotions. I find great energies existing in peoples' everyday lives. For example, a little child presents a flower to his mother. It is not an expensive, but rather an ordinary flower. Nevertheless, the flower makes his mother smile and fills her heart with warmth and benevolence. Such a simple act of kindness creates a powerful chain reaction of joy and gratitude from the boy to his mother, and even to people around them. I take inspiration from the ordinary lives of people, and I express such energies through the beats of Japanese drums and the physical moves of performers.

Your recent European performances have featured mostly new members. How does YAMATO recruit new members? Do any drummers from the original 1993 incarnation still perform with the troupe?

Ogawa Masa: Yes, we still have original members and they will perform in our show in Hamburg, Germany. We do not have a specific test for recruiting new members, as our basic stance is to welcome those who would like to join YAMATO. It is up to the individual whether they can adapt and keep up with life in the troupe. All members are responsible for creating YAMATO’s stage. Consequently, those who can both endure and enjoy living and practising together with other members will stay.

What kind of experiences will the younger members of the troupe be taking back home?

Ogawa Masa: The younger generation tends to think that they can do everything by themselves. Which is true. Such a belief is their strength, but it is simultaneously their weakness, both of which come from their youthfulness. For example, people find Japanese drums fascinating as they produce powerful sounds, but, on the contrary, they can be noisy and bothersome as well. Younger members tend to work hard because they love to play drums and also aspire to encourage people through their performances.

However, such motives alone do not lead younger members to the right place. I coach my juniors in hope of helping them to learn how to meet the expectations of others, and do what they should do so they can eventually become able to do what they want to do. I coach them to learn such things through communicating with others. There are many occasions during our practice and community life when our younger members need to change their own ways of thinking. What's important for them is to put themselves together again after their own values are smashed. I think going through such a learning process again and again makes them better and stronger as humans as well as performers.

Living, training and working together, what everyday compromises do YAMATO members face?

Ogawa Masa: Members of YAMATO develop communication skills through the troupe's community life, such as abilities to figure out sense of distance with others and to make it closer. We train and live together because we believe that Japanese drums are musical instruments that unite people together as one. Sounds of drums cannot be united simply by playing them according to rhythm and pace written on a musical score. It's difficult to unify members’ drum sounds as each of them has a different personality and style of play. Therefore, empathy is very important, as it enables you to feel others, their sounds and vibes as well as blend yourself with them rather than your ability to express yourself. Sometimes, you get in front of other members, and sometimes you get their backs in such mutuality. That is the heart of Japanese drumming, and also of YAMATO .

Community life is tough as you can imagine. You cannot use time and space as you like. You are always in and conscious of the presence of others. At first, our community life can be uncomfortable because today we are so used to live minding our own businesses while not interacting with others. You cannot act selfishly because members of YAMATO are neither your friends nor your family members. We share good and bad moments in such a unique communal life, which is actually the foundation of YAMATO’s show and, at the same time, is the very reason we can be together. We're able to overcome obstacles one after another because of our common purpose of creating a stage together, as well as the support we receive from audiences, through their cheers and smiles.

How many members does YAMATO have in total? How do you determine the line-up for shows and tours?

Ogawa Masa: We have twenty members in total. We made a new step after our 20th anniversary tour from 2013 to 2014. Young generations, including a nineteen-year-old member, will play the central role in the troupe from now on. Of course, veteran members will continue to give their best to support YAMATO’s performance. We decide a member line-up based on the right balance among different age groups.

In the past months, you’ve performed in your home country, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany. If you had to make a list of Top 5 performances, what would this list look like and why?

Ogawa Masa: 1. Our New Year performance in Nara prefecture is the first. This annual new year show in Nara is always special to YAMATO as it marks our homecoming as well as our new departure.
2. Then, there came Tour departing ceremony we had in Nara in April. We performed our new program for the first time and greeted our fans before we set off on a tour. We had many visitors from our local neighborhood.
3. Our show in Edinburgh, UK. Edinburgh is a very special place for us. We participated in the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe, and succeeded in selling out 23 shows. Thanks to the huge success we had at Edinburgh Fringe, we became able to realize our world tour.
4. Our performance on the popular German TV show "Fernsehgarten" broadcast on ZDF channel. We played two tunes and we had great responses from audiences.
5. Our show in Cologne, Germany. Cologne is the first city in Germany where we stayed for a long time for our shows. Although we'd already visited Cologne several times before, we always have a capacity crowd in every show! I am so grateful to our faithful fans and staff for their love and support!

When you are all playing the taikos together - be it in training or onstage - how difficult is it for you to keep to your own pace and rhythm, and not fall into the rhythm of another member?

Ogawa Masa: Preparations before the show are very important. We do the practice called “Kuchishouga”. During this practice, we utter rhythm by words before we actually play drums. Then, we use our hands in combination with the rhythm uttered during the following practice called “Te Awase”.

We carefully synchronize our rhythm, groove, timing, and breathing together, utilizing the mutuality we've developed together in our community life. Through such practices, we are now able to create unified sound when we actually play drums. Also, we empathize with mental and physical conditions of other members while we play music together onstage.

YAMATO shows involve many types of taiko drum. How many different types does the troupe use? Do certain members specialise in playing certain types and sizes?

Ogawa Masa: Broadly classifying, we use four different types of Japanese drum: “Miya Daiko”, “Hiradou Daiko”, “Okedou Daiko”, and “Shime Daiko”. Each type of Japanese drum has varied sizes and characteristics. Among the dozens of different types of drums, the “Oo Daiko (Miya Daiko)” is really exceptional because it is made of from the wood of large tree that is 400 years old. Only a chosen member can have the special role of playing this drum.

Besides taiko drums, your show in Germany also featured shamisen, koto, shakuhachi and chappa. As everyone changed positions for the last song, are all members of YAMATO multi-instrumentalists to some extent? Or are some members only able to play small drums and koto, for example?

Ogawa Masa: Indeed, we not only play Japanese drums, but also other Japanese musical instruments as well. Members play Japanese musical instruments according to their respective positions.

How does one become a professional taiko drummer? How young does training need to begin?

Ogawa Masa: You can always play Japanese drums. In YAMATO, we have some members who started practising Japanese drums in a local group from an early age. Meanwhile, we also have other members who had never played Japanese drums until they became adults. The best time to start practising drums would be when you become interested in it.

There are various ways to become a professional taiko drummer, depending on what kind of performer that person aspires to be. There is a way to become a solo taiko drummer, and there is also a way to become a member of Taiko drummer troupe. In our case, like I mentioned before, there is no test to become a member of YAMATO. The purpose of our musical activities is simply to live together and empower people with our drum performance.

Do you have message for JaME’s readers?

Ogawa Masa: Please come to our show and actually experience YAMATO spirit and Bakuon bursting out from the stage! We will send our energy to you from the stage! And I hope you do the same to us! Thank you!

JaME would like to thank YAMATO, Ogawa Masa and BB Promotion for making this interview possible.
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