Kenny Endo – A Lifetime Journey for a Boy from East LA

Kenny Endo celebrates a 40 year musical adventure that has taken him to places near and far. Born in East Los Angeles across the street from Rowan Elementary School, Kenny knew from the beginning that the drum was his calling. Like so many young people of his time, his own initiative (building his own drum set from any drum he could get his hands on) to instruction in Public School, there were not easy models for him to follow. Pop, Rock, Jazz and Funk framed his musical soundscape during those formative years at La Habra High School. The story of these beginnings up to today is a testament to his innate quest to master the drum, find personal meaning in music, and connect his ancestral history with the contemporary sounds of today.

Behind Kenny’s physically and musically demanding practice of taiko you will always find his drive is grounded in both spiritual and political sensibilities. His world view was shaped early on when he left UC Santa Cruz to volunteer at the Colorado River Indian Reservation. Ironically this Reservation in SW Arizona was the site of the Poston War Relocation Center (the largest of the ten Japanese American concentration camps). The camp was established over the objections of the Tribal Council, they wanted no part of oppressing others as they had been oppressed. An unintended consequence of working with the Mohave and Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo people was to live in a place where 17,000 Japanese Americans were interned during WWII. These early experiences shaped his political views and compelled him to search deep into his own cultural heritage. The result is a career dedicated to make music that can transform and inspire peace on our planet.

Kenny found political and spiritual soul mates when he returned to LA in 1975, enrolled at UCLA, and met Reverend Masao Kodani, Johnny Mori, Chris Yamashita, George Abe and the other members of Kinnara Taiko. It is well known that Senshin Buddhist Temple was the first in the country to understand how Taiko could serve as a vehicle for community building and Buddhist practice in action. Kenny was welcomed and encouraged by Kinnara, in fact, on the day he first visited the group, Duane Kubo (then a graduate film student) was doing a film shoot at Senshin. Before Kenny knew what to say, Reverend Mas put bachi in his hands, asked him to play, and thus his first contact with taiko can be seen in this early film Cruisin’ J-Town.

Kenny Endo and Friends

Soon after graduating from UCLA Kenny headed to San Francisco to join Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka founder of the SF Taiko Dojo. In this 1978 photo of SF Taiko Dojo’s 10th anniversary you will see key players of the American Taiko movement surrounding Tanaka Sensei- Kenny is on the right. During these heady days of the Japanese-American and Civil Rights movement Kenny earned his living by playing drums at Club Dan in SF. However, it was not long after this photo, in 1980, Kenny traveled to Japan, a trip that would forever change his direction. As taiko became a part of the JA movement in the US, Kenny soon realized that in Japan taiko was only recently invented as an ensemble tradition. He soon learned that the roots of taiko are inextricably related to the virtuosic tradition of classical Hogaku and as well as folk music. Thus began a ten-year immersion of training and performing with Japan’s most distinguished percussion masters.

In 1980 Kenny traveled to Nagano-ken to work with Daihachi Oguchi, who is credited as the creator of modern ensemble taiko drumming (in the 1950’s). In addition, Seichi Tanaka, a former member of Oedo Sukeroku, encouraged Kenny to play professionally with this ground breaking professional company. From 1982-87 Kenny played with the best taiko players in Japan as a member of Oedo Sukeroku.

During these Japan years Kenny was joined by his wife Chizuko. An artist in her own right, Chizuko’s studied the art of mask making with a special concentration on Noh masks. She gained deep knowledge of this venerable art form. In addition, their two sons were born in Japan in 1987 and 1989. While we do not always see Chizuko on the stage, their professional partnership is a key to Kenny’s successful career.

Kenny Endo and his wife Chizuko

Kenny’s serious study of classical Japanese music- known as Hogaku explains the rich aesthetic soundscapes from which he draws inspiration. Kenny became the disciple of one of Japan’s greatest players Grandmaster Mochizuki Saburo.   Unlike the burgeoning world of ensemble taiko, Hogaku is steeped in the formal hierarchical world of the classical arts. Historically access to these art forms were determined by birth (or adoption), that is, transmission was limited to a chosen few. Therefore, for an American to receive formal training by a Grandmaster was unprecedented. Hogaku is used in many musical contexts but perhaps most famous is the music played in the rarefied world of Kabuki theater.

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Kenny submitted to rigorous study under Mochizuki Saburo and was the first non-Japanese to receive a natori (stage name and masters degree) in Hogaku Hayashi. His professional stage name is Mochizuki Tajiro. You can hear in Kenny’s music the theatrical sensibilities that come from the highly codified and virtuosic techniques of Kabuki music. The 1980’s were a time of economic boom for Japan. The country enjoyed a well-spring of musical activity, consequently, in addition to his formal study and apprenticeship, Kenny was in demand as a musical collaborator within the Tokyo music scene.

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With the education of their young boys in mind, Kenny and Chizuko Endo left Japan and established Hawaii as their home. In keeping with their social activism they built their own American taiko community. In 1994 they founded the Honolulu based Taiko Center of the Pacific (TCP). Over the years Kenny and Chizuko have taught thousands of musicians of all ages and skill levels. Their outreach activities have enhanced the cultural life of Hawaii and have even appeared on Sesame Street. Many senior players from the mainland have gone to study and apprentice with the Endo family, including On Ensemble founder Shoji Kameda.

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Kenny’s mastery of ensemble taiko provided the foundation from which his creative and artistic quest begins. While the taiko may be his signature instrument, Kenny is a master of many kinds of Japanese percussion. He combines his training with Japanese masters with his own love of world music. His work is informed by a network of collaborators from Hawaii, Cuba, China, Korea, Africa, Brazil, Indonesia and American Jazz. Concerts by Kenny Endo provide a wide palette of sound, his compositions are both Japanese and Western, and his loving collaboration with other artists always demonstrate his generous and inclusive spirit. Underlying it all is his ambition that this music can bring light, inspiration, and transforming experience to all.

I have had the pleasure of working with Kenny Endo for many years and am proud to play a part in bringing his 40th Anniversary Tour to the Aratani stage-Los Angeles on Saturday, March 5th.

I hope you will be there to celebrate this milestone accomplishment.

JUDY MITOMA

 

 

This Post Has One Comment
  1. What an interesting story. I’ve heard Kenny Endo play when he comes to the bay area. I never knew he was born in east LA and spent time with the Colorado river Indian Tribes. I was born in the Poston camp on the Colorado River and grew up in Boyle Heights, East LA. I live in the Bay Area and have admired SF Taiko Dojo for many years. His path crosses many of the familiar landmarks in my life. Now I feel a greater need to hear more of his music. Thanks

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