Nagata Shachu, 2020 Finalist

Nagata Shachu is a Japanese taiko drumming and music group that has performed throughout Canada and abroad. The ensemble’s aim is to create original and innovative music that seeks to create a new voice for the taiko. Their performances aspire to build meaningful human connection and inclusiveness with their audiences.

Canadian-born taiko master Kiyoshi Nagata told us more about Nagata Shachu and how it feels to be a finalist for the 2020 Roy Thomson Hall Award of Recognition.

Original photo courtesy of David Ohashi. Artwork by Amber Williams-King
Nagata Shachu was founded in 1998. Can you tell us how the organization has evolved and changed over the last 22 years?  

Nagata Shachu had rather humble beginnings. As the group's founder, I assembled my most promising taiko students from the University of Toronto and the Buddhist Church where I taught. We practised with just three taiko drums that I acquired from Japan, in addition to homemade taiko that I constructed from wine barrels.  We rehearsed out of a local karate studio and at the Toronto Buddhist Church during their off hours. At the time, we were not an organization per se, but an enthusiastic ensemble striving to become established in the Canadian music scene.  Our first full length concert took place at the Music Gallery on Richmond Street in 1998.  In a matter of a few years, Nagata Shachu was regularly invited to perform at concerts, festivals and events, and earned enough revenue to move into its first fully dedicated taiko studio in 2001.  We've never looked back since.  

Fast forward to today, the group has evolved into a not-for-profit organization with a wonderful board of directors and part-time staff.  We have recorded five CDs and five DVDs of original works, and our repertoire has grown to over 100 original compositions. Our collection of taiko has grown exponentially, and we have been blessed to have taiko manufacturers from Japan donate their instruments to us as sponsors.  For the last several years, we have produced a three-concert season featuring both master artists from Japan as well as Canadian performers from all disciplines.  We teach classes to the public out of our studio, and have been engaging students in the Toronto District School Board with our workshops and performance outreach activities for the last three years.

What has not changed is our passion to share Japanese drumming and culture to Canadian audiences through composition, performance and exchange.  Although members have come and gone over the years, our enthusiasm, excitement and love of the art form has only grown.

Your members are performers as well as teachers. How has teaching impacted the artistic practice of the group?

Teaching is a wonderful way to return to the basics and foundations of taiko drumming.  Each time we teach a beginners class, we gain further insight into the fundamentals and essence of the art form, which helps to keep us grounded as performers.  To see the expression on the faces of both children and adults alike when they first strike a taiko, reminds us of how we felt when we beat the taiko for the first time.  Through teaching, we have all become better communicators and role models both inside the class as well as in performances.  

2020 has been a difficult year for the performing arts, can you tell us how you have managed to stay engaged with communities during this time?

Fortunately, Nagata Shachu was already exploring digital platforms to disseminate our work before the pandemic started. This allowed us to pivot very quickly when we lost all of our performances, classes and outreach activities for the year.  In just three months, we collaborated closely with a team of technologists and programmers to develop a web-based virtual taiko drum that enables anyone to learn taiko drumming from home, using a mobile device or home computer. Our virtual taiko drum and resource website made its debut for Arts in the Parks this summer.  We are grateful that the Toronto Arts Foundation allowed us to pursue this online activity as an alternative to live events in order to engage with local park communities. Nagata Shachu also recorded an immersive 360 degree outdoor performance video with spatial audio, which viewers canould  interact with by scrolling the screen to view different aspects of the concert.

Additionally, Nagata Shachu in collaboration with Ukai Projects, recently led nine culturally-specific arts organizations in a residency to migrate their practises to digital platforms while respecting and honouring their traditions and art form. With the expertise of twenty-seven technologists/creators, each organization built a digital prototype to help them pivot during the pandemic.  This project was supported by the Canada Council for the Arts.

Nagata Shachu has toured all over the world. Is the audience response to your work the same across cultures or is it different?

Wherever we tour, it seems our performances are able to transcend cultural boundaries. When we play the taiko, the vibrations can be felt through the entire body.  This and the fact that our drumming and music is very primal seems to strike a chord with many people.  The response tofrom our performances have been overwhelming. After our concerts, audience members often come up to us in tears thanking us for the experience.   One noticeable difference, is that in some countries, audiences spontaneously stand up and start dancing, which is unusual for a Japanese drumming performance!

What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Roy Thomson Hall Award of Recognition?

To be nominated for this award is really a tribute to all the past and present performers, staff, volunteers and supporters who have given so much of their time, commitment, energy and passion to the continued growth and success of the ensemble. We are fortunate to be living in a city such as Toronto where diversity and culture is celebrated and honoured. I cannot imagine a group like Nagata Shachu thriving anywhere else than in this city we call home.  This nomination validates the hard work that so many people have put into this organization.