By Rashaad Jorden (Yamagata-ken, 2008-10) for JQ magazine. A former head of the JETAA Philadelphia Sub-Chapter, Rashaad currently studies responsible tourism management at Leeds Metropolitan University. For more on his life in the UK and enthusiasm for taiko drumming, visit his blog at www.gettingpounded.wordpress.com.
Marco Lienhard has been involved in Japanese music for more than 30 years, first as a member of Ondekoza and then as the artistic director of Taikoza. When building his reputation as a professional taiko player in Japan, Lienhard also mastered the shakuhachi, eventually peforming at four major shakuhachi festivals around the world. He is also the founder of shakuhachi and koto group the East Winds Ensemble.
Lienhard has also released several albums, and his music can he heard on the score of the Nintendo Wii games Red Steel and Red Steel 2. His music has also appeared on ESPN, the History Channel and PBS. In this exclusive interview, Marco discusses his efforts to expand taiko’s global audience, the biggest influences in his career, and his personal highlights among 6,000 performances (and counting).
Where are you originally from and what sparked your interest in Japan and its traditional music?
I originally came from Switzerland, the French part. I went to Japan when I was 18 on some exchange program. I was very interested to go to Japan, but did not know much about it. Once there, I discovered the shakuhachi and the taiko. I had been studying the flute, but that sound of the shakuhachi just was amazing and I decided to study the instrument and master it. The first time I heard it was when I saw Ondekoza. There was taiko, too, and that was just so exciting to see. I did not know that I could play taiko too, but the flute seemed more approachable at the time.
I joined Ondekoza a few months later thinking I would stay just a few months, but it turned into 18 years.
For me, the sound of the shakuhachi was what drew me into it, though I fell in love with the traditional art forms as well. I enjoyed the theater as well as the music. I would go see two to three plays a month, noh or kabuki.
What drew you to taiko in the first place and to become a performer? What are the most important lessons it has taught you?
When I went to Japan, I had been studying piano and flute for many years. To become a performer was just a natural progression from studying with Ondekoza and becoming a member of the group. One thing led to another—studying with them and getting into the whole practice and running aspect of the group.
Marathon running was part of the training, and before long I was running marathons. I joined in August but by November they had me run a full marathon. My first performance was in January for the Imamiya Ebisu Festival on Dotonburi Street in Namba, Osaka. Once I started performing, I got the bug and just wanted to get better at it and study the shakuhachi as well. I was the only one who studied the shakuhachi so I was put on stage very quickly. Taiko has taught me a lot. It is sort of a college or university if not more—a life lesson.
Mr. [Tagayasu] Den, who was the founder of Ondekoza, [influenced] what taiko is now. He was a great influence in the development of modern taiko, though he never really played taiko. He was the brain and the force behind the group. He would lecture us on everything. He would turn a book into lessons for us to learn and apply to stage or performing or taiko. His vision as a director also influenced me on staging of a show
You were a professional taiko player in Japan. How does one become a professional taiko player?
While I was in Japan, I joined Ondekoza and as a member of Ondekoza I studied and later performed professionally with Ondekoza, traveling around the world to perform. At the time, Ondekoza and taiko groups were still not that popular and they did not yet have an apprenticeship system. As a member, you learned the repertoire and practiced with the regular members until you were at their level and were performing among them. It took me about four months before I had my debut on shakuhachi, and taiko drummer Den, the director of Ondekoza, is the person who would decide who was playing and what instrument.
You mastered the shakuhachi under Katsuya Yokohama. What has he meant to your taiko career?
Katsuya Yokoyama had been closely linked to Ondekoza before I joined. He had come to teach the shakuhachi to some of the old members. His vision was more universal and open; he wanted to bring the shakuhachi to the world. Later on, he started an International Shakuhachi festival and also a school. He helped me understand some aspects of the Japanese culture. He taught me to open up to calligraphy and other art forms to help with my study of the instrument.
Other than possibly Katsuya Yokohama, who might be the most influential person in your music career? Why?
Mr. Den, the director of Ondekoza, was also one the strong influences of my music career. A few other shakuhachi performers and teachers helped me with my music career. Some teachers performed as guests with Ondekoza in the earlier years and gave me a chance to learn from them on stage. It was similar to a master class done live. One of Yokoyama’s best students, Teruo Furuya, was also one of my teachers for many years and he helped me get into more details in dokyoku, or meditation music.
How have you been received as a foreigner in Japan, performing a prominent form of Japanese music?
I have been pretty well accepted in Japan. There was no difference with a Japanese player within Ondekoza. Mr. Den was very open to the effect. Katsuya Yokoyama invited me to the first shakuhachi festival and it seemed that my performance left a lasting impression on the shakuhachi world. I released a CD that became a best seller based on that performance and also on a review that appeared in a Japanese music magazine.
In 1995, you founded the group Taikoza in New York. Could you explain how it formed?
After moving to New York with my now partner, I would go back and forth between Japan and New York and tour with Ondekoza until 1998. While in New York, I started my group and started to teach taiko and started with a smaller ensemble, with only two or three people. Taiko grew later on as more students became better and able to perform with me. At first I had ex-members of Ondekoza perform with me for different performances I would get in New York or out of town.
You have performed in more than 6,000 concerts. Is there a performance that stands out as being your most memorable one?
There are a few. With Ondekoza, one of the great shows we did was performing for 20,000 people for the anniversary of the city of Berlin at the old airport of Tempelhof with fireworks. One of the highlights was the few times we performed at Carnegie Hall.
With Taikoza one memorable show [happened] in Minsk, Belarus in their soccer stadium. The stage was set in the middle of the stadium and audiences were all around us—the stage was 360 degrees. We did a two-hour show, and at the end we had fireworks and a laser show added. We walked onto the stage and had to walk to the center with people screaming and cheering—it felt like a rock and roll show! This was our second show in Minsk.
Your music is on the score of the Nintendo Wii games Red Steel and Red Steel 2. How did you land that opportunity?
A person who was in charge of the music of the game approached me and they wanted to add Japanese music as the game was set in Japan. The company that created the game is a French company and a composer in the New York area had done several projects for them. He then contacted me to include taiko, shakuhachi and fue in the score. We recorded some of our songs that were included as part of the soundtrack. When the second game came along, they wanted to add again the element of Japan with the flutes and drums.
You have enjoyed a very distinguished music career. What else would you like to accomplish?
Well, I would love to see taiko and especially shakuhachi become even more known around the world.
I have been traveling a lot to try to bring both to more remote areas of the world and help different people get more acknowledged. I have in the past years travelled and taught in Brazil, Argentina, Russia, New Zealand, and Australia. I would love to be able to get some inner city kids more involved in taiko, but space and also material instruments is always a difficult part of the equation, especially in the city.
I always seem to discover new things and different aspects of the music when teaching people from different backgrounds. When trying to explain some of the music, some things seems to come back to mind that were deep inside myself and that I seem to recover when explaining things and trying to put into words. I would also like to have Taikoza become something of a school and have it be carried on in the future.
I am trying to also put my experience in a book and I think people can learn from my experiences. A lot of people in Taiko as well in shakuhachi often ask me about people that I learned with such as Tagayasu Den and Katsuya Yokoyama. Another goal is to develop taiko in a direction that I think will keep it alive.
Somehow in the last ten years, in Japan and in the States the tendency is to turn taiko into drum set-style of drumming. I think the richness in Taiko is linked to its past and essence and simply using taiko drums to play drum set-style is not pushing it to its limits and its best. I feel Taiko has lost a little bit of its interest when the movement element is taken out of it. So I hope to be able to help bring taiko back to its origins and encourage this style even more.
For more on Marco and Taikoza, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/taikoza.org.