The Beat Ahead

The Beat Ahead

A new collaboration seeks to drum up the future of taiko


Originally published on on October 2009

Courtesy of Yuu Ishizuka

Courtesy of Yuu Ishizuka

Courtesy of Isaku Kageyama

Courtesy of Isaku Kageyama

A new generation of taiko drummers is breaking out of the small world of traditional ensembles and plunging straight into the musical ferment of the 21st century. Isaku Kageyama, 27, and Yuu Ishizuka, 31, two young taiko icons who each have 20 years of experience, are among those making this sometimes risky journey.

Although both performers started drumming at a young age, their backgrounds could hardly be more different. Kageyama (right) was born in the US to a Japanese-American father and a Japanese mother and went to international school in Japan. Wanting to add some wa elements to their son’s education, his parents introduced him to taiko.

Ishizuka was born in Japan to a well-known musician of nagauta, the traditional musical accompaniment to kabuki theater. His father would practice at home, and Japanese instruments like the shamisen and drums were always around. Ishizuka picked up nagauta first before learning taiko in middle school.

Both drummers matured as members of well-known, internationally active ensembles: Kageyama with Amanojaku and Ishizuka with Oedo Sukeroku Taiko. And even though they are rooted in traditional (sometimes called “authentic”) taiko, they’ve also explored a wide range of collaborations that place the ancient instrument in a modern context. Kageyama has played with African percussionists, electronic guitarists and jazz musicians, while Ishizuka has performed with his rock band Azn Steez, among others.

In “The Beat Ahead,” their upcoming collaboration at Crocodile live house in Shibuya, the duo aim to make an impact not just on the taiko scene, but on the larger music world as well.

“There have been taiko collaborations before, but not to an extent where taiko and taiko drummers are referred to as musicians or artists,” Kageyama tells Metropolis. “We are still first and foremost seen as cultural or geographic icons. I want to change that by showing that taiko can be beautiful ‘music.’”

Yet he readily admits that that’s easier said than drummed.

“Until recently, collaborations between taiko and other instruments were not long-term projects,” Kageyama continues. “Musicians gathered for only a short time, which does not really give enough room to truly explore the possibilities… In most of these collaborations, any taiko drummer would suffice. In music, however, it is important to have an individual musician rather than just ‘any guitar player.’ Taiko drummers until now have either been taiko drummers interested in playing ‘authentic’ taiko or percussionists interested in playing music, but not both.”

Ishizuka agrees, emphasizing the experimental nature of the project.

“When people say ‘collaboration’ they typically mean two distinct and independent cultures coming together for a short while, and that is not what I am doing,” he says. “I am experimenting to find the best combination of instruments. The audience will decide if they like it or not, and it has always been the audience that nurtures and builds new genres of music.”

While collaborations between taiko drummers and musicians of other genres have long since ceased to be revolutionary, a collaboration of two professional drummers from different taiko clans has remained taboo. Asked whether breaking this rule comes easily, Ishizuka laughs.

“If you think that what you are doing is good, then you should challenge any taboos. What is more difficult, though, is envisioning what you are going to build after you tear down the existing structure.”

“The Beat Ahead”
Isaku Kageyama of taiko ensemble Amanojaku collaborates with Yuu Ishizuka. Oct 22, 7:30pm, ¥3,000 (adv)/ ¥3,500 (door). Crocodile, Shibuya. Tel: 03-3499-5205.