New Work Celebrates Immigrant Innovation

Aug 3, 2018

(l-r) Chieko Kojima is a groundbreaking founding member of Kodo, the fierce, world renown taiko drumming group from Sado Island, Japan. She spearheads a female style of taiko, not feminine exactly, but a new take on the traditionally male art form. Kenny Endo infuses traditional taiko with jazz and other influences, he and Kojima have been major forces in the emergence of taiko as an art practiced around the world.
Credit Maiko Miyagawa, Marcia Campbell

The Honolulu Museum of Art is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Japanese immigration to Hawai‘i by commissioning new art work.  They are sponsoring a series of collaborations between eminent local artists and Japanese masters.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports on the first collaboration this weekend, involving a master of feminine style taiko drumming, and a shamisen player who’s jammed with Herbie Hancock.

Hiromitsu Agatsuma could be characterized as the Japanese Jake on shamisen. He spans genres, has collaborated with pop and jazz artists, writes scores, Agatsuma plays a tsugaru jamisen, a type of shamisen with thicker strings.
Credit Hiromitsu Agatsuma

Pacific Crossing: Kenny Endo, Hiromitsu Agatsuma, and Chieko Kojima (with Noel Okimoto) perform Saturday night and Sunday at the Doris Duke Theatre.  The Gannenmono series continues this Fall with local and Okinawan master dancers, and a performance featuring ‘ukulele virtuoso Taimane with a butoh dancer.  

Given that a possibly rag tag group of Japanese first arrived in Hawai‘i 150 years ago, what if we honor that original mashup with another very powerful one today?  Two of Hawai‘i’s finest musicians, taiko master Kenny Endo and percussionist/vibraphonist Noel Okimoto are central to the mix.  Okimoto says shamisen artist Hiromitsu Agatsuma, dropped right into the mix.

Chieko Kojima.
Credit Maiko Miyagawa

Okimoto:  Like a great jazz musician on the shamisen, I’ve never heard that!  We’re doing one of my tunes and I told Kenny, it would be nice if he could solo on that.  We didn’t even have to ask him, he just started soloing when we got to that section.  Amazing musician.

Hiromitsu Agatsuma has been called Japan’s trad pop virtuoso, a master of traditional tsugaru-jamisen, a square banjo like instrument with 3 strings, in this case, thicker than the usual shamisen strings.  Equally comfortable with spiked hair and flashy suits, or in traditional hakama, Agatsuma says he sees similarities between Japanese immigration to Hawai‘i and immigration to Brazil.

Agatsuma:  Japanese immigrants came with a dream and made it through a world war and difficult history.  People who came to Hawai‘i lived and worked hard here, I sense their sadness and their joys, and am proud of them.  I hope Hawai‘i’s audiences will enjoy this new work.

"The idea is the history and both the present and the future."  Kenny Endo is the only foreigner ever to be awarded a "natori" (stage name) in "hogaku hayashi," (Japanese classical drumming.)  He has pioneered an at times explosive, jazz influenced brand of taiko.

Endo:  "Arts and music can bridge those gaps sometimes.  There’s going to be a section we’re calling Pacific Crossing which represents that journey over and what was going on.  It also is something that is connected to our lives today."

Pair Hawai‘i’s best with top contemporary artists from Japan—that creates potential. Taylour Chang, Director of the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre, leveraged Museum funds, Japan Foundation support, and hospitality from Outrigger Resorts to instigate new work. 

Chang:  We’re letting the artists decide where to take this work.  Each of the artists is quite bold and innovative and they’re not afraid to take their craft into new directions.

Chieko Kojima is a founding member of Kodo, the electrifying taiko drumming group from Sado Island, Japan.  A woman where women never went before.  I asked what kind of person were the gannenmono?

She said, they’re blood type B people, a little unusual, people with a dream, people who act on impulses!

Kojima:  It was tough, but it makes it easier for those who come after.

Kojima likes pioneers.  She is one too. Know this fierce enthusiasm is behind the dreamlike precision of her movements.    And what better way to honor Gannenmono than with new work?

See Chieko Kojima dancing Hāna Hachijo in 2011.

The gannenmono were 148 Japanese who emigrated to Hawai‘i in 1868, the first year (gannen) of the Meiji Era.  They left Yokohama without government authorization, and most were not well prepared for the plantations they found when they arrived.  They were known to have included hairdressers, artists, cooks, and at least one samurai.  40 of them returned to Japan in 1870.

Read a Japan Society performance review for Endo and Agatsuma in New York City.