Balancing the Art of Taiko: Up Close with Musician, Kaoru Watanabe

For a musician like Kaoru Watanabe, the experimental and ever changing energy of New York pervades through his own unique blend of music.

Watanabe at the Chelsea Art Museum, NYKaoru Watanabe playing shinobue (Japanese bamboo flute) at the Chelsea Museum of Art.

New York is an intense city of concrete, taxis and subways. Its streets and dimly lit clubs are lathered in hip-hop and jazz. The city attracts some of the most unlikely combinations of art, music and design — One minute you’re at Le Poisson Rouge listening to Motown classics being sung in an operatic style, and the next, you’re finding yourself watching Butoh dancers crawling zombie-like through the lawns of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens on a sunny Spring day. A musician like Kaoru Watanabe fits right into this world. For someone like him, the experimental and ever changing energy of New York is what pervades through his own unique blend of music.

Kaoru Watanabe is a Brooklyn-based practitioner of Western flute, various Japanese traverse bamboo flutes and Japanese drums, or taiko. He meticulously juggles between these instruments on stage, always somehow managing to find that sweet balance between traditional and contemporary sounds. If he’s not striking away on drums the size of the moon, you can find him standing there tall and slender, playing improvisations on his shinobue that range from mellifluous to untameable.

Kaoru Watanabe (shinobue) with Tim Keiper (Doso Ngoni), Matt Kilmer (percussions), Mathias Kunzli (percussions) and Mike Block (cello).

Since his return to New York a few years ago, Watanabe has developed work that melds together his experience in the traditional music of Japan with his experience in the experimental and improvisational nature of jazz music. He has worked closely with musicians such as jazz pianist Jason Moran, composer Adam Rudolph, Urban Tap’s Tamango and taiko extraordinaire Kenny Endo, and directed international projects in places like Central America, Mongolia and Japan. Having attended various concerts of his, I can’t quite describe in a concise way what his music is like because it really depends on where you happen to see him. I can say, however, that his sounds are spontaneous, daring and committed. One of his favorite things to do is improvise, but one of the best things he does is play with exactitude.

Kaoru Watanabe at Tenri Cultural Institute, NYHimizukaze, a benefit to raise money for the Japanese earthquake relief at Tenri Cultural Institute, NY. Watanabe (right) along with Sadahiro Kakitani, Yoichi Fukui and dancer, Mana Hashimoto.

Kaoru Watanabe and Kenny EndoWatanabe and taiko master, Kenny Endo at the Missouri Botanic Gardens Japanese Festival.

Within his busy schedule, Watanabe also manages to run a taiko school in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn called the Kaoru Watanabe Taiko Center. Since its establishment in 2008, it has about doubled in size, with plans to include children’s classes in 2012. In the near future, Watanabe aspires to expand the school into more of a cultural center, where people can learn various Japanese music, as well as explore how taiko can intermingle with contemporary music.

Kaoru Watanabe Taiko CenterStudents practicing at the Kaoru Watanabe Taiko Center in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

Kaoru Watanabe at the North American Taiko ConferenceWatanabe teaching shinobue techniques to students at the North American Taiko Conference in Los Angeles, CA.

Watanabe has a fascinating story that takes us from the mid-West to Japan and back to the East Coast. His musical career probably began in the womb, for he was born to a violinist and harpist of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in good ol’ Missouri. By the age of eleven, the taiko and flute entered his radar when a man by the name of Daihachi Oguchi showed up briefly in St. Louis,—and by briefly, I mean about one week—to teach a few taiko pieces. Oguchi was in and out in a flash. A few months later, a whole set of taiko drums arrived from Japan. Included in the shipment was a Japanese bamboo flute specifically addressed to Kaoru Watanabe from Oguchi. It was from this point that taiko and Japanese flutes entered Watanabe’s life.

Osuwa Taiko
Daihachi Oguchi (far left) during his short visit to St. Louis, MO in 1986. Watanabe is pictured fourth from the left.

Watanabe continued to play taiko as well as jazz flute throughout high school and college. While school taught him to understand jazz history and culture, it dawned on him that he knew nothing of his own Japanese culture. Upon graduating Manhattan School of Music, he decided that traveling to Japan would be his next endeavor.

Although he barely knew any Japanese, Watanabe braved it out in Tokyo, taking language courses and music lessons from some of the top folk and traditional instructors in Japan. In 1997, Watanabe moved to the island of Sado to join Kodo (Kodo holds a double meaning of either “heartbeat” or “children of the drum”), an internationally renowned taiko group that has performed in places like Carnegie Hall in New York and Theatre de la Ville in Paris. There, he endured a rigorous two-year long apprenticeship, running six-miles a day, cleaning floors by hand, harvesting rice, practicing endlessly to perfect pieces, all whilst living in a small dormitory on a tiny isolated country-bumpkin island. In 2000, he finally became a full-time performing member. He is the first, and currently only, non-Japanese person to play for Kodo.

Sado Island, Japan, KodoWatanabe playing Miyake-style on a large taiko drum at Ogi Port on Sado Island, Japan during Kodo’s annual summer Earth Celebration.

Despite the opportunity to live and breathe taiko practically 24-hours a day and despite the fact that he was touring the world, playing in some of the most renowned music halls, there came a point when Watanabe knew it was perhaps time to continue on a new path of musical exploration. What exactly he was going to set out to do was beyond him, but after almost a decade in Japan, Watanabe took yet another leap in his life, returning to New York in 2006.

He is an accomplished artist, but is always hungry for more. Through all his work, through his taiko school and through his teaching, Watanabe’s challenge is to remain honest to the roots and traditions of taiko. He thrives in the competitive waves of the city of New York, loving the constant unfolding of new possibilities. He believes that the city keeps him honest, and that success comes from remaining true to the origins of his music. Kaoru Watanabe — truly a musician that exhibits creative freedom, but one who is anchored in the weight of his authenticity.

To find out more about Kaoru Watanabe, visit:

To find out more about the Kaoru Watanabe Taiko Center, or to take a class, visit:

The 30th Anniversary Concert of  Sachiyo Ito and Company
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Ailey Citigroup Theater
405 West 55th St (at 9th Ave)

Adam Rudolph’s Go: Organic Orchestra
Mondays, November 7th and 21st
20 Green St. (between Canal and Grand)
New York, NY 10013

Alicia Hall Moran + the motown project
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
8pm (Doors open 6pm)
Highline Ballroom
431 W. 16th Street
New York, NY 10011

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