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Questions for a Starving Artist: Art Lee

Art Lee made history on November 14th 2001, when he became the first person ever to receive an artist visa to work as a professional taiko (Japanese drumming) player in Japan. It was the crowning achievement of a career that had already taken him from Sacramento to Carnegie Hall – where he played with Za Ondekoza, one of the most famous taiko ensembles in the world. He is the founder and artistic director of Tokara, and also regularly performs both as a solo artist and with pioneering taiko outfit Osuwa Daiko, not to mention African and Korean drumming groups. His formidable skill as a solo performer was recognized in 2005, when he became the first non-Japanese to win the Solo Odaiko section of the Tokyo International Taiko Contest.

I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but why taiko?
The short answer: watch a good professional taiko concert and you’ll instantly know the reason.

And the long answer?
During my first year at culinary arts school, I found a flyer for a traditional Japanese music concert in Sacramento, about an hour’s drive from where I lived. So I went, and was blown away by my first sight of taiko. You see, it isn’t like most other forms of percussion, where your hands are doing most of the work. In taiko, percussion is mixed equally with martial arts and dance, making it necessary to move your whole body. Not only that, but you’re using drumsticks that are three to ten times as big and heavy as western ones to bang a drum that’s larger than a car. A group of people are hitting in unison, creating a sound like thunder rumbling through the whole theater… that is what an audience sees (and hears) in a taiko show. When I first saw it for myself, I was in awe with tears welling up in my eyes. There are no words to describe that moment, which was the deciding factor in my future career path (although I didn’t know it then).

You were the first person in the world to snag an artist visa as a professional taiko player. How did you manage that?
Practice, crazy hard work and a whole lot of risk! Add to that a stack of newspaper clips, CDs and all kinds of other stuff that I had to send in to prove that I was who I was claiming to be. At the beginning, the immigration officer asked straight out: “We have many professional taiko players, why do we need someone from another country?” But after seeing everything that I had and the dedication I’d given, I received permission within 20 days of my application. On reflection, I guess another thing that clinched it was the fact that I’d taken leave of university to join up with one of the world’s most well-known groups [Za Ondekoza]… when I’d never even been on an airplane before.

Was it hard to get accepted by the Japanese taiko community, or did they warmly welcome you as soon as they realized you’d got chops?
See, now that’s where it gets interesting. You’d be amazed how warmly the taiko community in Japan has welcomed me. It’s so great to be around people who just treat me like, “I play taiko, you play taiko? Let’s play taiko together” – both amateur and professionals alike.
It is quite different in other countries. While there are many players and groups who are open to anyone, there are also quite a few who feel taiko is only for people of Japanese descent, or that are only for women. These groups might feel as though they’re promoting Japanese culture or women’s status, but in reality they’re just creating a path of segregation within the world of taiko. Harsh words, maybe, but having delved so deep into the taiko world in Japan, I’ve found that anyone who’s taken the time to study wadaiko with patience and humility – and without trying to take shortcuts – can be almost universally accepted.

Taiko seems to have a considerably stronger following overseas than other forms of traditional Japanese music. Why do you think this is?
There are a few reasons for that. Firstly, taiko as a performance art is relatively new when compared to other traditional Japanese music, which means that the taiko boom is still rising toward its peak. In comparison to other traditional Japanese music, which tends to be rigidly conservative, the performance art of taiko is constantly being recreated. Groups are always trying to find new ways of exploring beyond the visible limits of what the current perception of taiko is – and through that exploration, creating new styles.
The current boom will probably last a lot longer because of aspects of taiko itself, too. At its most primitive, it’s a type of music where, as a performer, you can let loose with big bubba drumsticks and hit a huge drum as hard as you like without worrying about breaking it or feeling embarrassed. More than that, however, there’s a deeply rooted spiritual aspect: the idea that the taiko drums themselves are instruments with which to speak to and have communication with the gods and ancestors. This type of belief is distinct from western religions, so it doesn’t conflict with Christianity and so forth; it’s widely accepted even in most western cultures. Also, unlike many other traditional arts in Japan where women have been – and still are – unable to participate, the doors of the modern taiko are wide open to women. Many, of course, have responded by becoming some of the greatest taiko performers to date.

I once heard the leader of a Japanese taiko group say, "I’m not a musician, I’m a taiko player." Do you think there’s a difference? If so, which camp do you fall into?
Aha… that’s a good question. Yes, there is a difference. Taiko players can be roughly divided into three groups. First, there are the people who play taiko in amateur groups, or often with a certain area’s Taiko Hozonkai (Taiko Preservation Society), which would have a style of drumming unique to that area. Then there are the ones who consider themselves musicians rather than taiko players. Many times, you’ll find that these people were western percussionists before starting taiko. Also, more often than not they’ll mix jazz kit drumming, guitar and other types of western music with taiko.
Then there are the people who straddle these two extremes: the ones who started taiko the traditional way and then learned other types of music afterwards. People in this category will usually live on both sides, performing and teaching taiko in its traditional form as well as collaborating with other types of music and instruments. This is the category that I fall into. While I belong to a few taiko groups – some very traditional and some more modern – I also have collaborations with pianists, Indian dance, African Drumming, classic rock bands and so on.

Taiko looks like bloody hard work. How do you keep it up?
It really is – especially the type of taiko that I do. I have to train constantly, both mentally and physically, to maintain the level of a professional taiko player in Japan. Your average professional taiko player in training practices three to six hours and runs up to 10 km a day.

I won’t give up the day job just yet, then. Do taiko players tend to have shorter careers than other musicians? Jazz drummers, for instance, often manage to keep going into their 70s or 80s, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a taiko-playing ojisan.

Grandmaster Daihachi Oguchi. He’s renowned for creating taiko as a performing art over 50 years ago. He’s 83 now and still plays fast and hard. There are quite a few older taiko players, mostly in their 40s and 50s. While younger people have speed and strength, they often lack that subtle touch which makes taiko a truly beautiful art – something the older, more experienced pro taiko players have. Add to that the exercise that inevitably comes with the job, and a lot of players’ careers easily last well into their golden years.

What’s the most important quality for someone looking to make it as a taiko player?
Utmost humility and crazy determination. That’s two, but without either one it’s impossible. A person has to be humble enough to let go of all pride and realize that there are so many tiny details that distinguish a good taiko player from a great one. Too many people in other countries think that it’s enough just to come to Japan to learn taiko for a couple of years and then return to their country and start teaching. It actually takes at least three years for a person who learns very quickly just to get the basic foundations of taiko. From there, at least another three to go well beyond. But you need a minimum of ten years to really understand the taiko and many of its aspects. That doesn’t mean it is impossible, but to really make it, it takes crazy determination.

What was your lowest moment, and what kept you going?

Some of my lowest moments have happened within the last three years. Maybe the lowest was finding out I had an incurable liver disease… it’s never far from my mind. My wife, taiko and my stubborn determination keep me going.

What has inspired you recently?
A movie called Men of Honor. Different story, same struggle.

What do you listen to on your days off?
I love samulnori [Korean drumming], gamelan, U2, Ibrahim Ferrer, Rachmaninoff and Guns N’ Roses.

Financially stable or sexually satisfied, which one would you choose?
Now, you know sexual satisfaction doesn’t come without some kinda financial stability!

If you found ¥10,000 on the street, what would you do with it?

Probably the same thing I’d do if I found ¥1000… let’s see what happens.

Art Lee is playing a solo concert at Iida Cultural Hall (Bunka Kaikan) in Iida, Nagano prefecture on Saturday 30th June. For more details, and information about forthcoming concerts and workshops, go to his