Formed in 1993 in Japan’s Nara Prefecture, YAMATO The Drummers of Japan have been storming the world without a break, giving over 2,500 performances in 51 countries. After 19 years since their last show in London’s West End, the group will be back in March to rock the audience’s socks off in the prestigious Sadler’s Wells. They will also tour around Europe from May on. It seems like 2017 will be a very busy year for the drummers! We look forward to their performance on March 17th in London.
We are delighted to say that we have managed to interview the artistic director and the founder of YAMATO, Masa Ogawa. Enjoy reading the interview!
You have been performing and playing the drums for over two decades now; how did it all start? Was there someone or something that influenced or inspired you to become drummers?
It was a coincidence that we started YAMATO. One day, my mother found one big Taiko drum in the storage of the old shrine in our village. Then she said to me “Do something with this Taiko drum for the festival of the shrine”. That’s the starting point of YAMATO. 2 weeks later, we did one small performance with our first Taiko song at the shrine festival. That experience was so special for all of us. We did not expect any reaction from the audience. But, we got a big applause and we could see the big smiles on the faces of our neighbours, friends and our family. We could feel that Taiko can give something to the people and to us. And then we decided to continue playing the Taiko drum.
There are many kinds of traditional drums in Japan; to those who don’t know much about them, what types of drums do you play?
We basically use 3 kinds of Taiko drums on stage. Miya-Daiko is the most popular kind of Taiko in Japan. The body is made of one whole tree, and not from separate pieces. The weight of the biggest Miya-Daiko we have on stage is 500kg! Okedo-Daiko Taiko is pretty different from Miya-Daiko. The body is made of pieces of wood combined together, like a wine barrel and the drum skin is tuned with a long rope; the sound is lighter than Miya-Daiko. It is not as heavy as Miya-Daiko, so sometimes we carry this Taiko and play it while moving around a lot! Shime-Daiko is the smallest kind of Taiko drum, it weighs around 15 kg. This one’s drum skin is also tightened with a rope, very tightly. Shime-Daiko has a high tone and a unique sound; its sound is very big. We use Shime-Daiko for our weight training as well!
After seeing a couple of your performances, I noticed that as drummers, you are truly one-of-a-kind. Not only are you incredible showmen, but you also explore the limitless possibilities of the drums. And after over 2,500 shows, you are still going strong. How do you manage to do that?
We appreciate your compliment. We are so happy if the audience can feel that YAMATO is something more than just drummers. Because we are not just showing our creations – like our songs or stage performances – to the audience; we want to share the energy, as people who keep trying to challenge themselves. Let’s try to explore the limitless possibilities of life.
Playing those huge drums requires strength and stamina; what’s your daily regime to stay fit and healthy while playing the drums?
Thanks for asking about our daily life and training. Everyday, we get up early in the morning and go for a run, all of us together, for about 10 km. Then, after breakfast, we usually do weight training. We are using Shime-daiko for the weight training and Bachi (drum sticks) for the shadow drumming. When we do shadow drumming, we imagine that there is a big Taiko standing in front of us, and then we swing Bachi with all our energy and spirit, as hard as possible. We can feel the sound of nature. We do a lot of basic training before lunch. And after lunch, we practice drumming until night.
You have toured all over the world, where you’ve met different people, cultures and customs. How do people perceive the Japanese traditional drums?
In every country and city, people’s reactions and perception are, of course, different. For example, we feel that almost all of our audiences at first think “Japanese tradition is something serious and hard to get close to”. There is a distance. We understand that kind of feeling. Then, we start our performance. Then, in the very next moment, all people begin to understand that they can simply enjoy the sound of the Taiko drum. There is no need for explanations. They can understand the energy of the Taiko drum. Because each person has a heartbeat; Taiko has the sound of heart that we recognize. People can understand each other, fast, by the sound of their beating hearts. We are trying to explore how we can approach people’s hearts and feelings through Taiko Drumming.
The name of your group is YAMATO – what does it mean in Japanese?
YAMATO actually means Japan. A long time ago, people in Japan called their own country the land of YAMATO. Nowadays, when people hear the word “YAMATO”, the word still reminds people of Japan with the traditional feel.
Have you always played drums with the same ensemble of people?
Sometimes we collaborate with other artists as well. Within YAMATO, there are 20 members at this moment. Sometimes, we divide into 2 teams with different members. Then, for example, 1 team stays in Japan and takes care of the performances and the tour in Japan. Another team goes on a tour abroad; YAMATO’s performance changes with different members and audiences.
Times Online (UK Press) once wrote “The Yamato show is a genuinely theatrical experience delivered with balletic grace and infectious humour”. How do you come up with ideas for each show and who is behind the creative process? And, production-wise, what sort of challenges do you face while making your show?
YAMATO is trying to explore the possibilities of Taiko drumming. The traditions of Japanese culture and also of Taiko drumming are both important to us, of course. There are many people and companies who try to protect the tradition in Japan. However, YAMATO has the mission to discover the possibilities of Japanese culture. This mission was not given to us by anyone else; it is just what we believe in. Then, there are no limits to our creation. We are trying out different influences. If we do not forget to respect the Japanese tradition, we can discover many possibilities in this process. But, it is not so easy … Sometimes, we get angry responses from traditional companies or people who have strict opinions about tradition. The conversation with that kind of people is also good for the creative process.
In addition to touring the world, what other activities do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
We love eating local food. The fun part of the world tour is always exploring the good local cuisines! Also, sometimes we do fishing. In Sweden, in the winter, we did fishing on ice. But there was no fish …
How do your shows seem to you? Do you think each performance is better than the last one, or is there a high mark somewhere along the way you would like to achieve?
The shows are always different, just like the days in our lives. Sometimes we have good days, sometimes not. However, it is not about the results of the show. Each show is created by Yamato members and the audience. The show of YAMATO is just a meeting point of people. It’s a festival of people. Taiko is at its centre. Many things happen. Every moment, the entire event, even if there are mistakes, all of it is full of love.
You will start your European tour, including the UK, soon. Are you thrilled to be back in Europe again?
In 2017, in the UK, we’ll have the world premiere of our new show ‘Chousensha – The Challengers’. After our preparation in Japan, we are fully recharged and have so much energy; we are ready to begin the new adventure. We hope that we can meet a lot of people in every city of the tour. Please come to the theaters and feel the power of YAMATO!
Written and Interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos courtesy of the photographer