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Toronto’s Kiyoshi Nagata Celebrates 40th Anniversary as a “Taiko” Drumming Leader


See From Japan to Madagascar, a double-bill March 22-23 coming to Al Green Theatre

“Large and loud,” are two words I would use to describe taiko —it can be as loud as a jumbo jet but nicer sounding – yet it’s so rhythmic it can put a baby to sleep.” This is how Toronto’s Kiyoshi Nagata, founder and artistic director of Nagata Shachu, describes the art of Japanese taiko drumming. This year marks the 40th anniversary season of Nagata’s career and the 26th anniversary of founding Nagata Shachu, Canada’s premier taiko Japanese drumming group. Led by Nagata, the nine-person taiko group are celebrating their milestones by presenting two upcoming performances.

From Japan to Madagascar is a double-bill March 22-23 at Al Green Theatre

Kiyoshi Nagata Celebrates 40th Anniversary as a “Taiko” Drumming Leader photography by David Ohashi

From Japan to Madagascar is a double-bill concert happening on March 22nd and 23rd at Al Green Theatre in Toronto featuring ‘ten ten’, an eclectic music ensemble performing original Japanese folk songs with a modern twist. The second half of the show will feature Nagata Shachu’s taiko rhythms with African-infused melodies of Madagascar-born, Toronto-based guitarist and two-time Juno award winner Donné Roberts and his band.

June 21 see Nagata Shachu group at Harbourfront Centre

On June 21 the Nagata Shachu group will be at Harbourfront Centre to premier several new, original works that bridge the gap between tradition and the future.

What is Taiko drumming

Taiko means drum and refers to a traditional style of Japanese drumming. It’s often called the ‘heartbeat of Japan.’ Big barrel-shaped instruments are used and when hit hard with bachi sticks, the drums can produce sounds that are on par with the noise of a jet airplane! When used outdoors, the drums can be heard several kilometers away.

“Traditional taiko was not used as a concert instrument but rather was played in the fields and at festivals during prayers for rain,” explains Kiyoshi Nagata. “Over the past 10 or 12 years it has evolved as we write ensemble pieces or incorporate jazz elements and create our own style. That’s what my group, Nagata Shachu, is doing. We are reinventing traditional music into a more complex and more physical movement. Tradition is evolving as we are taking taiko to new levels. It’s not just an instrument to play in the rice patties.”

Nagata Shachu taiko group

The Nagata Shachu taiko group have performed across North America, Italy in addition to major performances in Mexico and Lebanon. As a music innovator, Shachu loves to collaborate with other artists each season to rejuvenate the ancient art form. Past collaborations have included DMC World Champion DJ Dopey, World Champion breakdancers Bboy Onton and Bgirl Konatsu, Celtic band The American Rogues, blues artists Ken Yoshioka and Julian Fauth, and the Toronto Tabla Ensemble, among many others. 

Toronto roots

Born and raised in Toronto, Kiyoshi is a third-generation Japanese Canadian. At age 13 he saw taiko performed for the first time and that event changed his life. “My family were very involved in the Japanese Community Cultural Centre, and we attended a cultural festival where I saw taiko for the first time. I was blown away. It had a massive impact on me, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

Japanese Cultural Centre

The young Kiyoshi began taking taiko lessons at the Japanese Cultural Centre in Toronto in 1982. He later moved to Japan for a year to apprentice with world-renowned Kodo drummers on Sado Island. “It was a remote island and we lived communally,” he says. “I was chosen to become a member, but I chose instead to return to Toronto to begin my music career.”

U of T  taiko drumming course

Kiyoshi has taught taiko at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, a public taiko course at the Royal Conservatory of Music, helped start two taiko community groups in Toronto and Burlington and served as artistic director and performer of Toronto Suwa Daiko. He continues to teach at U of T as well as at his own studio Nagata Shachu.

This year marks the 40th anniversary season of Nagata’s career and the 26th anniversary of founding Nagata Shachu, Canada’s premier taiko Japanese drumming group. photo by David Ohashi

The taiko drums

There are different sizes of drums used for taiko according to Kiyoshi. “The shine drums are hand carved from a single tree, like an elm tree, with leather cow hide fastened to the drum with iron holders. Most drums are the size of a large whisky barrel but can be up to eight feet in diameter and this drum takes eight people to lift it! The sound is loud and thunderous! A typical barrel drum costs about $6,000 to $8,000 each while the giant drum can cost up to $200,000. This is not for the weak of heart!”

The technique

While he jokes that the cost and carrying the drum are not for the weak of heart, you will certainly get your heart pounding when participating in the very physical aspect of taiko drumming. “Your arms are straight up and there’s a lot of upper body work, or in another position you straddle the drum between your legs and sit up which is great for the abdominals,” he explains. “There’s also the lunge position as well as holding the drum above your shoulders which takes a lot of strength.”

Don’t be surprised if you hear the occasional shout or call out during a performance. “We call it ‘kiai’ when we shout as it gives a burst of energy when needed. In an ensemble, musicians shout out to each other as encouragement or to say—let’s keep it going.”

After a career that spans four decades, Nagata talks about what he loves about performing taiko: “First there is the physical aspect, but what I love most is that you are using your mind, body and spirit. Over my 40-year career I have had some highs and lows too, but I have been able to play a lot of great music, record music and videos and work with talented people. I love the teamwork of performing with my group. It’s a labour of love.”

Get Tickets

For tickets and information visit nagatashachu.com

by Laurie Wallace-Lynch

photography by David Ohashi

Other articles from totimes.ca – otttimes.ca – mtltimes.ca

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