Ashura

In 1969, Reverend Masao Kodani of the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles founded a group at the temple called ‘Kinnara,’ the name of a celestial musician in Buddhist mythology. He founded the group “with the intention of involving temple members in activities such as chanting which, at the time, was uncommon for Japanese Americans in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist sect” (of which Senshin Buddhist Temple is a part) (Yoon 2007, 14). The group’s activities were initially centered around chanting, but soon after they began they invited a visiting gagaku(Japanese court music) artist who was in residence at UCLA to teach them as well.[1] From these lessons emerged Kinnara Gagaku, a Senshin Buddhist Temple group that is still active today.

The introduction of chanting and gagaku activities was part of an effort to revive at the temple a Buddhist performance tradition called horaku, “celebrations that follow major temple services” that include “singing, dancing, and poetry recitation” (Yoon 2007, 17). In a 1985 article, Susan Asai described the various performing arts that were developed “as an effective means to teach Buddhist ideas”:

gigaku(masked dances popular in the seventh century); gagaku(instrumental art music with song and dance performed in the Imperial Court); mōsō biwa(a blind priest tradition); and kyogen(comic plays), to mention a few examples. (Asai 1985, 163)

Hōrakuwas practiced in Buddhist temples in the United States in the early 20thCentury, when many temples had chanting and gagakugroups, as well as often hosted elaborately staged plays – in Japanese – that “ranged from light comedies to rather heavily dramatic morality and period plays” (Asai 1985, 164). Many of these practices declined post World-War II, however, during a period that Asai calls “the Americanization of Japanese Buddhism” when the participation of Japanese-American youth in temple activities was deemphasized and less importance was placed on hōrakuactivities. However, many ensembles were revived in the late 1960s, tied to broader movements within the Japanese-American community to reclaim elements of Japanese cultural heritage that were almost abandoned following World War II and the Internment experienced by many Japanese-Americans.

The Beginnings of Kinnara Taiko

Following a bon odoricelebration at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in 1969, some of the drummers who had accompanied the dancing on taiko continued to play the drums after the dancers left.? Enjoying the experience, these drummers – many of whom were also participating in the newly-founded Kinnara activities – decided to form a new group under the Kinnara umbrella called Kinnara Taiko. While this happened in the same era as taiko groups were also being founded in Tokyo (Sukeroku Taiko) and San Francisco (San Francisco Taiko Dōkōkai), Kinnara members had no knowledge of these activities. They simply enjoyed played the taiko and wanted to keep doing so outside of Obon and gagaku. Indeed, they saw their activities as simply “a product of Jodoshinshu Buddhist temples in America.”[2]

Unlike Tanaka Seiichi in San Francisco, who had the benefit of drums gifted from Sukeroku Taiko and repertoire learned from Sukeroku Taiko and Osuwa Daiko, the Kinnara Taiko members had to start from practically nothing. They had a small number of drums that had been at the temple for years, but in order to create a drumming ensemble they needed more. Upon learning the prices of drums imported from Japan, they decided to build the drums themselves. Buying tacks, rawhide skins, and empty barrels previously used to hold nails at a hardware store, the members stretched the heads over the barrels with pliers and quickly tacked the heads to the body, creating their own nagadō-daiko.[3]Meanwhile, the members created shime-daikoby using bolts to tighten the heads rather than rope.

This same DIY approach was taken when composing works for the group. Taiko have long used in Buddhist ritual, but as an accompanying instrument – most prominently, to accompany the chanting.

There is little within this usage that could be adapted for ensemble performance, so instead Kinnara Taiko members combined rhythms used in bon daikowith rhythms from the music that surrounded them – popular music of the day. Johnny Mori talked about this mixing of influences in a 1974 interview:

“It’s not traditional at all. The timing is kind of like black, and rock ‘n roll, and Chicano or Latin music. And on the other hand, it has some Japanese roots, because of our background in listening to Japanese music that my grandmother plays and my dad plays.” (Kubo 1974)

Kinnara Taiko members then applied to this musical foundation that Buddhist ideals that were – and continue to be – at the heart of the Kinnara activities. The goal of the broader Kinnara group was to “get the young as well as the old more involved in the Buddhist Dharma,” and music was “the initial medium used to try to meet this ambitious goal” (Takemoto 1997). The activities of Kinnara Taiko were another way to pursue this goal, and thus the pieces composed by the group ?were a form of not just musical expression but also Buddhist thought. One of the first songs composed in this style was called “Ashura,” and eventually it would become “the most-played taiko piece in America for a long period of time.”[4]

“Ashura”

Written in 1970 by Reverend Kodani, “Ashura” is a prime example of how Kinnara Taiko uses taiko performance as a way to pursue/reinforce Buddhist ideals. The title comes from the realms of rebirth in Buddhist thought:

Ashura is the 5thof the 6 realms of Samsara, the unawakened existence. It is the realm of suffering produced by envy and jealousy. We become “fighting demons” or Ashura when we feel the need to win at all costs, or seek thrill in conflict, violence, and war.[5]

As is common with many Kinnara Taiko pieces, there is not a single orchestration or way of playing the piece. Searching for the words “Kinnara” and “Ashura” on YouTube brings up quite a number of different groups playing the piece, all with slight variations, but none of these are videos are by Kinnara Taiko. There is a performance of “Ashura” by Kinnara Taiko featured on the Big Drum: Taiko in the United StatesDVDpublished in 2005 to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the Japanese American National Museum in 2005-2006, however, and the following description is based on that performance (2005).

“Ashura” uses numerous nagadō-daiko– on both flat stands and slanted nanamestands – divided into two groups, accompanied by atariganeand horagai(conch shell trumpet). The piece is constructed around a series of rhythmic patterns played in succession by two sub-groups of the ensemble over an underlying rhythmic ostinato.

The underlying rhythmic ostinato in “Ashura”

The first series of rhythms, which could be called “melody A,” is played by one group of nagadō-daikoplayers and then the other (hence the division of the drums into two groups), with one measure of rhythmic ostinato between each repeat. The atariganemimics the melody played on the drums, with occasional variation when rhythms become more difficult to play with one drumstick on the handheld gong.?Meanwhile, the transition between groups is signaled by the horagai, a practice that hearkens back to the use of the conch shell in Buddhist rituals, meant to signal “the movement of one’s entering into the path of the Dharma (the voice of the Buddha-Dharma)” (Takemoto 1997).

 

Rhythmic melody A of “Ashura”

The repeating rhythms and phrases of melody A – a compositional practice used throughout “Ashura” – are not unique to Kinnara Taiko; many of Osuwa Daiko’s pieces, for example feature repeated rhythms and phrases, and repeated phrases are commonly found in Japanese folk music. However, within Kinnara Taiko’s pieces it may have a degree of extra-musical purpose. Another work, “Samsara” (written by Kinnara founding member Johnny Mori), also features a limited number of rhythms repeated many times. In “Samsara,” the repetition is meant to stand for the Buddhist concept of samsara, the cycle of rebirth that continues until enlightenment is reached. While samsara is not the main theme of “Ashura,” the Buddhist concept might have influenced the broader use of repeated patterns in Kinnara Taiko works.

After each group plays rhythmic melody A (with a measure of ostinato dividing each group), the second group presents the second rhythmic melody (B) of “Ashura.”

Rhythmic melody B in “Ashura”

After a measure of ostinato and the sounding of the horagai, the B melody is then played by the first group. This presentation of the melodies by one group and then another, never played in unison by the entire group, is one way in which the conflict narrative of “Ashura” is evoked.

Following the presentation of the first two rhythmic melodies by both groups, the conflict within “Ashura” is fully revealed, described in Promotional materials for “Ashura” as created by the Seattle-based group Kaze Daiko as “the two sides fighting against each other on the drums.”[6]The first group of players plays the A melody, while the second group of performers the B melody. Following this, the second group plays the B melody while the first group introduces a new melody (C).

Rhythmic melody C of “Ashura”

While continuing the conflicting nature of the latter half of “Ashura,” this C melody also hints at a resolution that is to come by the end, which some of the rhythms fitting into the patterns in melody A. In particular, the hits on the rim in the final measures of the melody alternate with similar hits on the rim in the final line of melody B, creating an interlocking matter with rim sounds interchanging between the two groups.

Finally, in the final four pieces of the piece, both groups play the same rhythm for the first time as the horagai?are blown.

 

Ending series of “Ashura”

And yet, Reverend Kodani notes that the ending is:

“…not intended as a resolution, but simply the nature of the Ashura. Resolution is not a term used very often in Buddhism. Things seem to come to a close, only to begin the conflict anew.”[7]

Buddhist Taiko and the Kinnara Influence

With works like “Ashura” and the aforementioned “Samsara,” Kinnara Taiko members melded taiko performance and Buddhist doctrine, moving beyond simple musical performance into something that could be used to support the broader mission of the Senshin Buddhist Temple. Reverend Kodani describes participation in Kinnara Taiko as an expression of Buddhist ideals; the purpose of performance is “to encounter one’s arrogance, pride or desire to impress, and the group is a forum in which one figures out how to cope with those emotions” (Yoon 2007, 15).

The relationship between Buddhism and taiko performance in the United States was influenced to some degree by the role of Buddhist temples in the United States, as Buddhist temples have been and continue to be a central part of Japanese-American communities. As Buddhist temples were often center of Japanese-Americans community activities, it was perhaps natural for taiko performance to arise there. Furthermore, these temples often had drums for use during Obon and other events (Tanaka Seiichi first borrowed a drum from a Buddhist temple in San Francisco).

And yet, in the end, Reverend Kodani states that “taiko playing is just another aspect of temple life on par with any of the other activities at the temple” (Yoon 2007, 14). Indeed, members call Kinnara Taiko “a family and support network first, and a performing taiko troupe second” (Yoon 2007, 15). Even still, the group had a huge influence on the spread of contemporary taiko performance in the United States. They proved that taiko performance could be a viable activity for Buddhist temples, increasing engaged by young people and bringing the community together. This was noticed by other Buddhist temples across the United States, many of whom started their own groups. Eight of the first taiko groups in North America – eleven of which were founded in the 1970s – were founded at Buddhist temples:

  • Kinnara Taiko (founded in 1969 at the Senshin Buddhist Temple, Los Angeles, CA)
  • San Jose Taiko (founded in 1973 at the San Jose Buddhist Temple, San Jose, CA)
  • Denver Taiko (founded in 1976 at the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple, Denver, CO)
  • Ogden Buddhist Taiko Group (founded in 1976 at the Ogden Buddhist Temple, Ogden, UT)
  • Midwest Buddhist Temple Taiko (founded in 1977 at the Midwest Buddhist Temple, Chicago, IL)
  • Daion Taiko (founded in 1978 at the Orange County Buddhist Church, Anaheim, CA)
  • Sozenji Taiko (founded in 1978 at the Sozenji Buddhist Temple, Montebello, CA)
  • Soh Daiko (founded in 1979 at the New York Buddhist Church, New York, NY)[8]

Kinnara Taiko not only influenced the creation of these groups, but also in many cases had a hand in helping these groups to start activities. The Midwest Buddhist Temple Taiko group, founded in 1977, was created with the help of Reverend Kodani.[9]This group in turn inspired members of the New York Buddhist Church to founded Soh Daiko in 1979, and Kinnara members helped the New York group to make their own drums.[10]

These groups learned not only drum building techniques, but also – in the words of Soh Daiko – “basic taiko techniques and philosophy.”[11]This would continue as more and more groups continued to be founded at Buddhist temples. In 2017, Alan Okada of Soh Daiko reported that out of the first 115 taiko groups in the United States, 31 were founded at Buddhist temples. Nearly fifty years after Kinnara Taiko first began activities, all 31 groups are still going strong. For many, “Ashura” is at the core of their repertoire. Even though performances by Kinnara Taiko of “Ashura” may be hard to find on YouTube, performances by other Buddhist taiko groups are more easily accessible.

 

Alan Okada calls “Ashura” “the first open-source taiko piece.” The sharing nature of Reverend Mas Kodani and the other members of Kinnara Taiko helped taiko performance to spread across the United States and Canada, along with the Buddhist ideals that the work embodies.

 

Works Cited

 

  1. Big Drum: Taiko in the United States: Japanese American National Museum. DVD.

Endo, Kenny. 2011. Aatisuto intabyuu, Vol. 07: Kenii Endō アーティストインタビューVol. 07: ケニー遠藤. Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten.

Kubo, Duane. 1974. Cruisin’ J-Town. Los Angeles: Visual Communications.

Takemoto, Arthur. 1997. “Buddhist Taiko.” accessed December 3. .

Yoon, Paul J. 2007. Development and Support of Taiko in the United States. New York: Asia Society.

 

Footnotes

[1]As described in a sermon given in December 2009 during a service for Kinnara’s 40thAnniversary, and later posted on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVgV3QdUAzk(accessed February 14, 2013).

[2]From a series of notes about this article received from Rev. Kodani in February 2018.

[3]In time, they would refine the process and start incorporate car jacks and other equipment to make the process a little less labor-intensive.

[4]As said by Alan Okada during a presentation given as part of the Opening Session of the 2018 North American Taiko Conference, held at the University of California, San Diego. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xDY_2WdDo8(accessed April 28, 2018)

[5]?http://web.archive.org/web/20160527170108/http://kazedaiko.com/KAZE_SONGS.html (accessed April 28, 2018)

[6]?http://web.archive.org/web/20160527170108/http://kazedaiko.com/KAZE_SONGS.html (accessed April 28, 2018)

[7]From a series of notes about this article received from Rev. Kodani in February 2018.

[8]Information taken from Alan Okada’s presentation at the 2017 NATC Opening Session.

[9]https://mbtchicago.org/temple-activities/taiko/(accessed April 17, 2018)

[10]http://www.sohdaiko.org/about/(accessed April 17, 2018)

[11]http://www.sohdaiko.org/about/(accessed April 17, 2018)

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