Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Hibiki (reverberations) opens Nagata Shachu’s 21st concert season Ancient Rhythms | Future Echoes on Saturday, November 30 at the Al Green Theatre. Nagata Shachu, founded by Kiyoshi Nagata in 1998, is Toronto’s premiere Japanese Taiko and Music Group, one of the finest musical companies to specialize in Japanese music that hails not from Japan, but Canada.
Artistic Director Nagata was born and raised in Richmond Hill. His family became involved at the Toronto’s Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (JCCC), where – during Caravan, a multi-cultural festival – he witnessed his first taiko performance by a Japanese group called Osuwa Daiko. “I was so moved by the energetic performance and the thunderous sound of the drums, that I decided to join a local group at the JCCC that formed the following year,” he recalls. He stayed with the group for 10 years, eventually coming to realize that he wanted to study more at the professional level. So after completing university, he moved to Japan, where he apprenticed with the world renowned Kodo drummer on Sado Island. A year later, he returned to Canada, fueled by a desire to spread taiko music in Toronto and across the country.
He formed Nagata Shachu with the express purpose of elevating taiko music to a new and higher level. While rooted in the folk drumming traditions of Japan, the ensemble aims to rejuvenate the ancient art form through innovative music. As the title of their season suggests, Nagata Shachu looks to the past for inspiration to develop new works. “Over the years, we have composed over 100 original pieces for the taiko. Using tradition as a foundation, we hope to create a new voice for the ancient taiko for today’s generation. With this solid base, we are able to explore new possibilities through collaborations and compositions.” In the past, these collaborations have included Indian tabla players, Korean drummers, blues and jazz musicians, contemporary dancers, story-tellers, orchestras and master Japanese musicians. Nagata smiles: “This is all made possible because of our deep understanding of what has come before us.”
It is of little surprise that over the past two decades, Nagata Shachu has amassed a growing audience from all walks of life, ages, and cultural backgrounds.“Drumming and rhythm is indeed a universal language that anyone can connect to,” Nagata observes. And the ensemble’s performances are powerfully theatrical. The performers do not speak or introduce songs from the stage – “instead, we use choreographed transitions and lighting to seamlessly move from one song to another.” Hibiki (reverberations) will also offer audiences the rare opportunity to hear the traditional three-stringed shamisen and the bamboo flute, and to see a masked drumming/dance ritual piece. Chris Malkowski’s lighting design will create the mood and feel of each song, and a number of the pieces will include movement and choreography, making the presentation as much a visual as a listening experience. Audiences will also feel the thrill of hearing the group’s largest booming taiko, which is perhaps the biggest of its kind in Canada.
21 successful seasons on, Nagata seems both pleased and surprised by Nagata Shachu’s ever-expanding reach. What has surprised him most about this particular field of music is how “widely accepted and ubiquitous it has become in Canadian culture”. Most people have heard of taiko drumming, and there are popular taiko video games, as well as TV commercials that feature taiko drumming. Nagata continues to teach taiko drumming at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, and has even taught a course at the Royal Conservatory of Music. And he marvels at how Nagata Shachu is frequently asked to play at folk festivals, corporate events and even non-Japanese weddings.
The reverberations from Nagata’s extended education, apprenticeship and 21-year journey with Nagata Shachu are pervasive and satisfying: “In a way, my mission to spread taiko music in Toronto is finally being realized.”
News You Can Use
What: HIBIKI (reverberations), the opening concert of the Ancient Rhythms | Future Echoes season
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: Saturday, November 30, 2019 at 8 pm
Where: Al Green Theatre, 750 Spadina Avenue, Toronto
Info and Tickets: nagatashachu.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019