Keeping Hayashi Alive in Southern California

ACTA - Posted on 31 July 2015

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Master artist, Kimisen Katada (Mariko Watabe) of Japanese Hayashi classical percussion, leads her apprentice Amy Smith through some musical exercises on the ōtsuzumi drum.

Driving from East LA heading towards downtown LA, I exited from the I-10 to Highway 101, always unclear if I am in the right lane because part of the I-5 in that same intersection becomes I-10, while the I-10 actually becomes 101 – a confusing moment of transference.  Making it through the confusion, I headed over to meet two participants in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program, Kimisen Katada (Mariko Watabe)*** and her apprentice Amy Smith, to document and talk to them about their study of Hayashi classical percussion.  This is a Japanese classical form that is utilized as part of the musical accompaniment in Kabuki theater traditions.  Along with Nagautashamizen and vocal music that comes out of the Kabuki tradition – Hayashi stands on its own as a performance style since Kabuki is an incredibly invested art form of time, money, and people to create the spectacular theater works, making it uncommonly available in its full glory.

Upon arriving to the Hollywood Japanese Cultural Institute, I was received by both artists dressed in kimonos. I stated that there was no need for them to dress in performance attire for my visit.  Sensei (teacher) Katada responded that this is how they dress when they work together, that there are many other cultural protocol involved in this work in addition to learning the technical aspects of the music.

Once the women began the lesson, it was obvious what some of the different manners were that this cultural expression sustained.  To name a few they, took formal sitting positions on the ground, an opening bow, and specific ways in creating vocal utterances at certain times of the playing.  The two musicians played two different drums; Katada played the kitsuzumi (a drum utilizing different pitches), which is played upon the shoulder, and Smith worked on the ōtsuzumi, that is played by the hip. The instruments, depending on the song, vacillate between playing unison and creating counter rhythms to each other to create rhythmic phrases that have a beautiful bell effect due to the different pitches of the two drums. Sensei Katada will remind Smith of patterns as she verbally states them, using different syllables to represent the rhythmic hits, drums, and pitches: "su – ta – su – to ton – chiri – kara – chiri – koto."

Master artist, Kimisen Katada (Mariko Watabe) plays the kotsuzumi drum accompanied by her apprentice Amy Smith who plays the ōtsuzumi drum, both of which are of the Japanese Hayashi classical percussion tradition.

The work between Katada and Smith is rich and vibrant, however, it is unique in the sense that there are not many people that continue to practice the Hayashi classical percussion form or Nagauta, which Sensei Katada also teaches.  Katada does have some students, however, many of them are not ready to present the work, and the few that are ready are hardly enough to present high levels of performances of both the Hayashi and Nagauta forms that utilize the shamisen, singing, and percussion in addition to dance forms that come from the Kabuki tradition.  Nevertheless, Sensei Katada is committed to sharing these forms and is able to collaborate with people from different parts of greater Los Angeles to piece together an ensemble to present these classical forms from Japan.

Sensei Katada shares that, "This music was quite popular 20 years ago [here in LA], however, the instructors have passed away and then a very little number of people were able to keep it, and when I came here there was almost nothing."  Upon arriving to LA, she realized the urgency of sustaining these musical practices, especially in this geographical area, which maintains a rich historic Japanese community, which itself is highly diverse, culturally, socially and politically. Her ambition is to reaffirm the classical instruments, forms, sounds, and repertoire with the Japanese community and to culturally bridge her traditions to the general population of Southern California.  Though she feels an urgency in preserving and keeping her expression vibrant, she finds solace in her apprentice and her efforts as she states, "It is very nice that Amy is doing everything.  She dances, she plays shamisen, she sings, and she plays this instrument (pointing at the kitsuzumi), and taiko.  That is why she understands the big picture of what the work is."

Like many traditional art forms that undergo a geographical and at times a cultural transference, the efforts to maintain cultural expressions becomes an exercise in critical analysis to figure out how to continue with the people and resources that are available without changing the integrity of the art.  Master artist Kimisen Katada and her apprentice Amy Smith are currently going through this exercise of critical thinking to make sure that this moment of transference keeps them on the same road of sustaining and promoting the Japanese traditions of Hayashi and Nagauta in the United States.

*** A note, Watabe’s performance name is based on her education of the Hayashi traditions coming from the school of master artist and Japanese Cultural Treasure Kisaku Katada. Upon completing her education she takes school’s name, Katada, then a syllable from the head master’s name, which she picked Ki, and then a syllable from her mentor’s name, which is Kikomi, taking mi, and then adding sen to create Kimisen, which inherently positions herself within a rich lineage of Hayashi.

Master artist, Kimisen Katada (Mariko Watabe) and her apprentice Amy Smith are current (2015) participants in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program working in the Japanese Hayashi classical percussion tradition.

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