November 6, 2011

The Windhook Interview—Kenny Endo

Kenny Endo photo Kenny Endo is at the top in American Taiko, and has influenced the art profoundly since his return from studies in Japan throughout the 1980s. He is the only non Japanese national to be awarded a Natori for his Taiko skills. In Kabuki theater, a Natori is literally a stage name, but functions as a license to teach in Japan. As we researched this interview, we were struck with the degree of respect and admiration the younger generations of Taiko drummers in America direct toward Kenny. He is as much teacher as performer and his influence is pervasive.

We caught up with Kenny back-stage at the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo the day before his concert there. The performance was a remarkable fusion of influences from around the globe—Kabuki, Tuvan throat singing, American Taiko, violin, flute, vibraphone, koto, and set drums, all in an astounding array of traditional and improvisational jazz renderings that left us grasping for words.

This interview was a reunion for Kenny and Peggy, who have known each other since their days at UC Santa Cruz and UCLA in the early 1970s. This interview is a study in how the events of a lifetime weave the tapestry of a unique creative perspective.

Peggy:  In his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything Sir Ken Robinson describes the element as "the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together. When people arrive at the element they feel most themselves, most inspired, and they achieve at their highest levels." And to me, it seems that with what you're doing you are really in your element.

Kenny:  Well, I don't know about that...(laughing)

Peggy:  Well, it looks like it to the rest of us! So we wanted to talk to you about how that has evolved, and your path to where you are now. One of my first questions is—when I first met you, you played drums. You always had bongos with you and you had set drums at your house. When did that start?

Kenny Endo photo Kenny:  I always loved drums. For example, when the parade would come near my house I would run out just to hear the drums go by. So I liked to feel that vibration. I used to mess around when I was three of four, and when I was nine, I started taking lessons. At my elementary school, luckily there was a music program, so I took drums, and in junior high I started playing drum set and got into the orchestra. I started playing rock music—so the drum set was my first main instrument, and I played that pretty much the whole time until I moved to Japan at the age of 27. I had started doing Taiko at the age of 21. I was living in San Francisco, studying Taiko with San Francisco Taiko Dojo, and also playing drums as a living, and I felt like I needed to choose either one or the other—I was going to move to New York to play jazz drums, or I needed to move to Japan and study Taiko. So I ended up going to Japan.

Peggy:  What made you choose Japan and Taiko?

Kenny:  There was a part of my culture that I wanted to learn about. For our generation of Japanese Americans there wasn't much opportunity to really learn about the culture. Even the language—My parents spoke Japanese when I was growing up, so I could understand it, but I didn't really speak it that well.

Peggy:  I didn't realize your dad was from Japan.

Kenny:  He was Issei, and my mom was Nisei. He died when I was seven, so he was out of the picture pretty early. So about choosing Japanese drums, I guess part of it was my cultural heritage, and part of it was the sound of the drum—you're not just hearing it with your ears, but it goes down into your body.

Peggy:  So I found these old pictures from when we went to Poston. [shows Kenny some old photos]

Kenny Endo photoKenny:  Oh wow! You were on that trip?

Peggy:  Yeah, I rode the bus with you and Johnny Mori. So had you started with Kinnara Taiko?

Kenny:  Yeah, this was like 1975 or 1976. I helped organize that trip, because I did that field study in Poston. In '73, which would have been my third year at Santa Cruz, I went to Poston and spent six months there, and after that six months I decided to take a break from school and work for a year in 1974, and after that one year of working I decided to go back to school and transfered to UCLA. I ended up finishing there.

Peggy:  I found this letter you sent from Parker [Arizona] too. [Presents a letter from Kenny]

Kenny:  Oh wow!

Peggy:  In fact, I was thinking, your mom was always so sweet. Did she ever worry about—when you went...

Kenny: Japan, or Arizona?

Peggy:  ...into music—if you could support yourself with your music.

Kenny:  Oh. At first she was worried, because she didn't think I could make a living at it.

Peggy:  Your brother Howard's a dentist?

Kenny Endo photo Kenny:  A dentist, yeah, and one of my sisters is a pharmacist. But I was the youngest, so I just did my own thing. Actually my brother was really into art, and we had this discussion one time, and he said, "I'm going to be a dentist, and I like doing my projects, my art and wood work. I'm going to just work four days a week, and then I want to have a long weekend to do that". And he actually did set up his business from the beginning to work four days a week. But I said, "Well, I love playing music—I'm just gonna do it. I don't want to worry about any other job. So we had a different philosophy. And of course, having a straight job is more stable. You know, it's more security. So it's definitely a tradeoff.

Michael:  How do you make that tradeoff work? A lot of people don't.

Peggy:  Married, two kids...

Kenny:  Yeah, when you talk about a creative life, there's a creativity that goes into the work, into the music, into the performance, into the composing. But then there's also the creative aspect of how you make this kind of creative work be able to support you. and that's probably a bigger challenge than the art side.

Michael:  I get the impression from what you have said, and from what I have read, that you have been able to do that all along.

Kenny:  Yeah, I guess I consider myself lucky. I don't consider myself materially rich by any standard, but I would never trade for anything else. There's times I feel like, especially when I'm packing up, and carrying drums, they're so heavy, and it involves so much to set up on stage—to load in, packing, driving, all this stuff—it's just a lot of work. And people don't realize—my feeling is the public shouldn't even have to be aware of that. So there's times where as an instrument I consider Taiko like heaven and hell. There are those fleeting moments on stage where this is the best instrument there is. There's nothing I'd rather be doing. And before and after, its like, "oh this is hell, man, I'm playing the flute starting tomorrow." So if one of my sons wanted to do it, I would encourage them, I would support them, but I would never force the question—to do this against their will.

Kenny Endo photo Michael:  Are they showing any signs of interest?

Kenny:  Well actually, they both played, and then the younger one stopped at around 14 or 15 when he got more into string instruments, and he actually got more into composing, and he's the one who's a business major, but he still does some really nice musical things. The older one, who is an art student, a designer, continues to play drums, both a drum set and Taiko, and plays Djembe. So he's continued with it. He played with a college group. RISD's right next to Brown University, so they're kind of like sister schools, and he was asked to join the Brown Taiko group, so he was with that group for the whole time.

Peggy:  And was Chizuko [Kenny's wife] playing with you, or was she working?

Kenny:  She started playing with San Francisco Taiko Dojo...

Peggy:  Is that where you met?

Kenny:  No, we met in LA at an Obon—at Senshin, because Kinnara Taiko, the first group that I was in was based there. She grew up there and she went to see a performance, and I was the only one she didn't know. And then when she moved to San Francisco, she started playing right before we moved to Japan. In Japan, she was playing and studying Taiko but also her main thing was carving Noh masks. Making Noh masks is a carving art and a painting art. It took about 10 months to a year to complete one mask. Even the professionals take about 6 to 8 months to make one mask. It's really a refined art form. And then since we've been in Hawai'i she's started playing again, because there were a couple of years when the kids were born that she didn't play. And then when we got to Hawai'i we started our school and our group, and she has continued to play since then.

Michael:  You were in Japan for 10 years?

Kenny:  Yes, 1980 to 1990.

Michael:  I think I read somewhere that you originally planned to be there for one year.

Kenny:  Yeah, I was kind of open. I was probably gonna stay one or two years. But the more you study, the more you realize how little you know. I gave a workshop to the Taiko group at the local Buddhist temple here last night, and I told them the longer you've been playing, the more you need to practice. I told them, "I need to practice more than all of you, because there's more things I've learned, there's more things I need to keep up with." And also, when you talk about people entering into a creative life after they've had a career, my philosophy is that it's never too late. And it's never too early. But you just have to put in the time and the effort.

Michael:  I'm intrigued with the improvisational aspect of what you do, and the collaboration with various other types of musicians...

Peggy:  We saw the Youtube video of your performance with Abhijit Banerjee at the Sacred Music Festival in LA.

What Is Taiko, You Ask?

Here are some links to video of Taiko drumming. It was tough to pick just a few. There are so many good Taiko dojos out there, and Youtube is loaded with wonderful videos of the art in action.

Traditional Taiko festival drumming:
Makawao Hongwanji Bon Dance (Hawai'i)
San Francisco Taiko Dojo
Ondekoza (Japan)
Kodo (Japan)

Kenny's collaborations and innovations:
Symmetrical Soundscapes (duet)
Symmetrical Soundscapes (trio)
Symmetrical Soundscapes (quintet)
Tarang with Kenny Endo
Kaoru Watanabe with Kenny Endo
Noel Okimoto, Dean Taba, Kenny Endo
Hiroshima, 2009. Royal Hawaiian Theater
Kenny Endo and Keola Beamer/The Contemporary Ensemble

Taiko, Tabla, Timbales

Kenny's website:

Michael:  That was quite remarkable. Actually, there are a lot of remarkable videos out there of your work—but anyway, it seems to me like both jazz and the classical exposure in Japan have...

Kenny:  Oh yeah! and actually all the people performing—tomorrow nights performance is like two groups coming together. So the On Ensemble is a group of—well, they're in their 30s, doing real creative work, all have spent time in Japan. Two of them studied for a long time with me in Japan, and I'm real proud of what they're doing. And then my ensemble, which is also younger people—the flute player, Kaoru Watanabe used to play with this group called Kodo, and he's a really amazing flute player, went to Manhattan School of Music, and actually knows jazz and can improvise. The one playing vibraphones now, Eien Hunter-Ishikawa, was actually born in Japan, grew up in Kawai and Michigan, and has a real interest in Taiko and drums, and now he's living in Vancouver, and I flew him down for this. And the violinist, Charlene Huang—this is the first time I've worked with her. We had met before, and I asked her to do this performance.

Peggy:  So how does that happen? Obviously some you know—you had seen her before? so you invited her?

Kenny:  Yeah, so basically we just had Monday and Tuesday to rehearse in LA and put this together. But the On Ensemble I've collaborated with before. They were a guest in my 35 year anniversary concert in LA last year, and then we did a joint performance at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts in '09. So I'm familiar with their work and also they're familiar with my work. So at Cerritos I did one half and they did one half and then we did one thing at the end. This time we're kind of mixing our pieces.

Michael:  At one level it almost seems like you never really had to make that decision between jazz and Taiko. I mean, yes you did, but...

Kenny:  Yeah, I call it my Taiko set, a set of three drums, the way I approach it is similar to a drum set. And it's obviously been a big influence on the younger generation too, because almost everyone in this group has a similar setup. But we're doing Taiko pieces as well, and one of my pieces called Symmetrical Soundscapes, which was originally a duet—we're going to do that with seven people to close the first half. It's going to be a special arrangement for seven.

Michael:  I've heard that piece. It's amazing!

Kenny Endo photo Kenny:  I'm one of those people. I'm never quite satisfied. I always think something could be better, but on the other hand, I never feel too good or too bad about something that's already past. Whether I totally blew it and should feel like hell, or I did an incredible performance and got a standing ovation, to me, to dwell on either is not healthy. You've just got to keep moving forward.

Michael:  I'd like to talk a little bit about family, and keeping the right balance. In some ways this is more stressful than for a visual artist who has their own studio space and most of the work happens there. For you it's literally all over the map.

Kenny:  Yeah, its really a challenge. I have to give a lot of credit to my wife, Chizuko, who was home with the boys when I was on the road, and helping raise the kids and keeping our school together because we have a school in Honolulu called the Taiko Center of the Pacific where we offer public classes. So when I'm at home I'm usually teaching and involved in that, but when I'm on the road, my wife and students keep both the performing group and the school going.

Peggy:  So you're on the road how much of the year?

Kenny:  Before it used to be half, but now it's more like three to four months of the year.

Peggy:  This is part of the Cal Poly Performing Arts series. How did you find them, or did they find you?

Kenny:  The On Ensemble has an agent, and I have an agent—they're two separate people, but when we did this project at Cerritos, On Ensemble's agent and my agent thought it was a good thing, so they pitched it—they have these arts presenters like Western Arts Alliance, where they bring presenters and agents and artists together, so they pitched it, and both San Luis Obispo, and next year in February, we're going to Texas A&M to present this show.

Michael:  So it sounds like a big piece of your promotion and marketing is through a booking agent.

Kenny:  Yeah, I just connected with her—I've known her for many years because she was the presenter at Maui Arts and Cultural Center, and she switched to become more on the agent side, so she knew I was looking for an agent.

Peggy:  Did you have an agent before?

Kenny:  I had one in the early '90s but it didn't really work out. And the industry's really changing. A lot of people are representing themselves these days. But if you have a good agent, they have access to more markets than you would as an artist.

Peggy:  So you were doing it yourself before?

Kenny:  Yeah, or just word of mouth.

Michael:  Well, it seems to have worked. For one thing, you have been able to keep it going, and another thing is, people know who you are.

Kenny:  People say, "Do you ever think about quitting?" and I say, "Every day." and then I think about what I would do, and then I say, "I guess I'm gonna play again." There's nothing I'd rather do, but also, I have no other life skills. I could be a gardener, maybe.

Peggy:  That was one of my questions—did you ever think about doing anything else? You started so young.

Kenny:  Yeah, the only thing I ever possibly considered was being a doctor. Or maybe a teacher. Or at one time I thought it would be pretty cool to be a forest ranger, because you could just live out in the—you know.

Peggy:  Weren't you a biology major at one time?

Kenny:  No, I was never a science major. I was social science. But I still feel like doctors—your dad was a doctor wasn't he?

Peggy:  He was a dentist.

Kenny:  I think music has healing aspects to it. Not only for the performers but for the audience members, so I think there's a definite connection there.

Peggy:  And you are a teacher.

Kenny:  Yeah.

Peggy:  So did that help support you all—doing the teaching?

Kenny:  Well yeah, definitely. When I'm on the road a lot of the Taiko groups—there are so many Taiko groups now—they have me come in and do workshops. Like this morning we went to a school and did a workshop. Tomorrow morning we're doing a school show, so that's a big part of it. And then in our school that we established in Honolulu, I wanted the classes to be public and I wanted them to start at the age of five. We were one of the first programs through the Kapiolani Community College that offered that. Usually continuing education is for adults. They made an exception. And we've had people as young as three or four in our classes too. Our oldest student was 83.

Peggy:  Wow, that keeps you young.

Kenny Endo photo Kenny:  I think it keeps you young on one hand, and it also makes you old fast on the other hand, because of the work involved. It's not only physically demanding, but it's also all these schedules and all these things going on.

Michael:  I'm not sure if that makes you old. It probably keeps you sharp.

Kenny:  It could be.

Peggy:  Yeah. The physical—you have to be so fit to do what you do. I told Michael one of my memories was of you dragging me around campus at UCLA to go running, and I don't do running.

Kenny:  I think I finished in 5 quarters. I just wanted to finish. I wanted to change my Major to music, but at that time, not only did they have a minimum credit, but they had a maximum credit, so if you started something, they didn't want you to keep changing your major. It was too late to change to music, so I picked political science because my credits could transfer the easiest, and I could take more music classes that way.

Peggy:  So did you take traditional music classes?

Kenny:  I took theory, I took a percussion class, I took Indonesian Gamelan, I took Indian music, African drumming. UCLA's ethnomusicology is amazing.

Michael:  We touched on this at the very beginning, but I want to be sure we exhaust whatever is in it. The time that you went to Arizona, you were working at a public health hospital.

Kenny:  I was working on a Native American Indian Reservtion called the Colorado River Indian Tribes, along the border between Arizona and Colorado. And it was about 80% Mojave, about 18% Chemehuevi, and a sprinkling of families from Hopi and Navajo. I actually got this placement through an organization called Save the Children Foundation, which is a charitable organization, but I was placed to work with a public health worker. So I was working with youth groups and alcoholism groups.

Michael:  Were you exposed much to the culture beyond the hospital and the job?

Kenny:  Oh yeah! It was an incredible experience. At that time the Viet Nam war was going on and we were all involved in the anti-war movement, and it was really frustrating being in Santa Cruz because everybody wanted to do something. We felt like we were so isolated from reality there. So being very naive, I wanted to do something. I wanted to help the Native Americans, but of course they ended up helping me. Because it was after that experience that I realized that I needed to get into my own culture, and really discover who I was.

Michael:  And this was right at the Poston Camp. What an amazing synthesis for you.

Kenny Endo photo Kenny:  Yeah! It was an amazing experience there. Because during the war, Poston became the third largest city in Arizona all of a sudden, after Phoenix and Tucson. And I heard a lot of stories from the Native Americans. You know, you hear about it from the US Government side or from the Japanese American side, but I'd never heard it from the Native American side. And they had exchanges, like there would be baseball games, they would exchange cigarettes and food.

Peggy:  I've seen photos of it now, but we didn't know about it back then.

Kenny:  And the Japanese were the first ones who started using irrigation. And for the first time they started seeing vegetables growing—they thought it was just a desert all this time. So after that, after World War II, and the Japanese left, they started leasing out their land and now it's one of the biggest agricultural areas.

Peggy:  Yeah, now it's where all the tomatos and everything come from.

Kenny:  That story is pretty amazing.

Peggy:  For some reason you knew that my mom was at Poston, because in your letter you said, "Tell your mama the old mess hall and gym and a bunch of buildings from Camp One still stand." Where were your parents?

Kenny:  They actually evacuated voluntarily because they didn't have kids. And they went to Idaho, but they were a burden to the relatives and they ended up in Utah.

Peggy:  In camp or not in camp?

Kenny:  Not in camp. My mom said it was actually worse outside of camp than in camp in some ways.

Peggy:  Oh, probably, because people probably weren't very nice to them.

Peggy:  So you were at Kinarra Taiko for how long?

Kenny:  I was with them '75, '76, and then after I graduated from UCLA I moved up to the city with Tanaka-san in San Francisco.

Peggy:  And you played jazz at night?

Kenny:  When I lived in San Francisco? Yeah, I played in a club six nights a week.

Michael:  So that was your "day job".

Kenny:  9PM to 2AM.

Peggy:  Who did you play with?

Kenny:  It was one of the clubs in J-town, and it was actually with this really great piano player, and we would have to play to these Japanese people and they would come up and sing Karaoke, and we were the live music in between, and we would play jazz. It was really funny. So that was my first job after graduating from college. I don't think I ever had any other job. I did teach English in Japan and a few other things.

Peggy:  So when you studied in Japan, how were you able to afford that?

Kenny:  I did get a small JACL scholarship. And then part of it was teaching English when I first got there, and then later I became a professional Taiko player. I was part of a group, so I was getting paid. so that was from 1982 on. It was a struggle then, and it's a struggle now. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it.

Michael:  So what's next? What's ahead of you?

Kenny:  There's still a lot of people I'd like to collaborate with. Not just musicians—theater people, people in film, and dance. A lot of the collaborations I've been doing are really interesting. There's one coming up next year called "Taiko, Tabla, and Timbales", combining myself and Abhijit Banerjee who is the leader of that percussion group—he actually brought me to Calcutta two years ago to perform with his group—and the third person is John Santos, he's the leader of a group called The John Santos Sextet. He's a Latin percussionist from the Bay Area, really top notch. So the three of us are gonna collaborate, and write new work for each other as well as perform solo and duets and as a threesome.

Kenny Endo photo Peggy:  How do you know Santos?

Kenny:  I actually met him through Akira Tana, a jazz drummer. And Akira put this group together for the Stanford Jazz Workshop. It was his quintet but he also had Ndugu Chancler, John Santos, and myself as his guests. So you get a kind of a percussion quartet. So I always kept in touch with John, and when I had this idea of combining these three things, he was one of the first people I wanted to work with.

Peggy:  So you're performing, you're teaching, you've got family, and travel—when do you find time to compose?

Kenny:  It is hard to find time to do that. Sometimes you've just got to make the time, or sometimes when you've got a quiet time, or a lot of times there'll be a deadline, like everybody else. You have a concert coming up, you have to present new work, and all of a sudden you get productive.

Peggy:  Well especially if some other guy is waiting for it, I guess.

Kenny:  Yeah, actually before the end of the year there's a couple of pieces I need to finish up.

Michael:  Any regrets? anything you would have done differently with hindsight?

Kenny:  I don't think there's anything I would have done differently—maybe work harder.

Michael:  You've kind of answered that already when you talked about always moving forward and not worrying about what wasn't perfect in the past. What would you tell someone who is just starting out?

Kenny:  I would tell them to practice hard, I would tell them to never give up. Someone told me early in my career, "You're never as good as they say you are. And you're never as bad as they say you are. And if you can maintain that balance and keep moving forward you'll survive.

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