Multi-instrumentalist, composer, and small-business owner (he runs a drumming studio in Brooklyn) Kaoru Watanabe is one of America’s most respected players of traditional Japanese instruments. Watanabe’s interests have proven remarkably fluid; you’re equally likely to find him working with taiko (drum) legend Kenny Endo, accompanying a jazz or contemporary classical ensemble, or showing up on the soundtrack of Wes Anderson’s new film, Isle of Dogs.
In advance of his April 8 performance at Joe’s Pub, What Should We Do?! music expert John Seroff spoke with Watanabe about splitting his musical focus, the song that was inspired by Eric Garner, and the unique way he keeps in drumming shape.
What Should We Do?!: Your work crosses a lot of genres: folk, jazz, classical, avant-garde, pop. What benefits do you find in leaning into these sort of cultural collisions as both a composer and musician?
Kaoru Watanabe: I specialize in instruments that are very specifically Japanese. I’m always cognizant of that when I choose to collaborate with artists from a different culture or genre of music, which is something I do quite often. In those collaborations, I have two guiding principles: My drums and flute must maintain a Japanese quality in their timbre and inflections, and the resulting work shouldn’t sound like a mashup. I’m aware that these two goals are somewhat at odds with each other; the first is about retaining a culturally specific and distinct flavor, while the second is an attempt to wholly blend in with the style of other players. Pulling that off requires a delicate understanding of how different dynamics, rhythms, and melodies work across various types of instruments and ensembles and striving to either match or counter the approach of the other musicians I’m working with. It’s all in service of trying to transcend culture and genre and just sound good and real.
WSWD: Few artists play both percussion and wind instruments in the same concert. Why have you chosen to split your musical focus?
Watanabe: It’s common for musicians to study both flute and drums, although I grant that for someone to specialize in both to the degree that I do is somewhat unusual. In Japan, the taiko drum and shinobue wooden flute combination are endemic to traditional music; you’ll hear it in festivals, classical theater traditions, dance accompaniment. Actually, you can find the combination of drum and flute in almost every country on the planet: across Africa, Asia, Europe…perhaps not Antarctica. At this point in my life, I can’t express all I want to on just the flute or just the taiko. They are both so much a part of my artistic voice that I couldn’t choose one…and luckily I don’t have to!
WSWD: Your instruments of choice are deeply linked to your ethnic heritage. Do you ever have to fight against presumptions of what your work means?
Watanabe: I fastidiously avoid clichés and stereotypes when presenting my music. The taiko is susceptible to over-exotification, with performers playing up the “ancient samurai ninja” angle, using flashy choreography and pseudo-ritualistic elements without knowing much about the real history of the music. American audiences have unfortunately come to expect this from taiko performances. I like to offer an alternative by creating music that has depth, nuance, and subtlety; compositions rooted in traditional music that are decidedly not traditional.
WSWD: Your drum work seems extremely strenuous. Do you train to build up strength and speed when you’re not onstage?
Watanabe: I do, although admittedly not as much as I did in my 20s! Part of the training regimen that I went through in order to join Kodō, one of the top Japanese taiko ensembles, included running six miles a day, followed by six to seven hours a day of strenuous drumming practice, including dancing and singing. One aspect of what I learned there that impacted my method of playing was to use my legs, spine, and back muscles to generate force and speed while drumming and avoiding tension in the hands and arms. Most of the strength training I do now focuses on lower body and core.
WSWD: What sort of clientele do you work with at your Taiko Center in Brooklyn, and what are they hoping to achieve?
Watanabe: Students learn equal parts music, dance, and Japanese culture while getting a good workout! Over the past year or so, I have entrusted the lion’s share of the teaching to my top disciple and musical partner, Fumi Tanakadate. I’m very proud of how she has developed as both a musician and a teacher. As for me, I focus the time and energy I devote to teaching with private students who either arrive with a great deal of training or who have attained a certain level of learning under Fumi. Not many U.S.-born artists have had the opportunity to study and work in the performing arts world of Japan to the degree that I have, so I feel a responsibility to pass on some of what I have learned to my advanced American students.
WSWD: Your composition “Iki” is a deeply affecting protest song. When I saw you and your ensemble play it last year, I was amazed at how intense and difficult that song was to perform. Can you talk a little about what goes into that song and why you wrote it?
Watanabe: As you are no doubt aware, in the summer of 2014, a man named Eric Garner was strangled to death by the police. His last words were, “I can’t breathe.” At that time I was a new father, contemplating the world I had brought my child into. Americans are dealing domestically with rampant, systemic racism and gun violence; globally, we contend with endless wars and the slow destruction of nature. It’s easy to feel stifled and suffocated. For “Iki”, performers recite “I can’t breathe” in a number of different languages—in Japanese, Iki ga dekinai—to the pulse of an uchiwa daiko, a fan drum traditionally used to accompany Buddhist chanting. The phrase is spoken incrementally louder as it is repeated over many minutes, without giving the performers time to pause for breath. Although the act of performing this piece can be genuinely painful, exhausting, and terrifying, the composition is ultimately meant as a meditation for peace and toward a better world.
Kaoru Watanabe’s Faves…in a NY Minute
Live music venue?
I’m so grateful to places that have allowed me to experiment and explore over the years, including Shapeshifter Lab, National Sawdust, Joe’s Pub, BRIC, Tenri Cultural Institute, and Asia Society.
Shop to buy a date-night outfit?
Restaurant for dinner with your parents?