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40 Years of Toronto Taiko with Kiyoshi Nagata — Part 1

Kiyoshi performing as the leader of Toronto Suwa Daiko, 1990s

“I continue to practice and perform taiko because I feel it is a lifelong commitment as well as a way of living for me. Taiko has taught me many things about discipline, perseverance, and aiming to be the best person you can be as a performer but also as a human being. I am constantly learning which fuels my desire to keep on improving and continuing on this lifelong journey.”

— Taiko master Kiyoshi Nagata

Toronto’s Nagata Shachu founded by Kiyoshi Nagata is celebrating its 25th anniversary and 40 years in taiko for the Sansei founder.

Kiyoshi began taking taiko lessons at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto in 1982, then joined Suwa Daiko the following year. He was a member until 1992 when he eventually became the group's leader.

Kiyoshi’s parents—Tsutomu ‘Stoney’ and Ayako ‘Betty’ Nagata—in their first apartment in Toronto.

The son of Stoney (Haney, BC and New Denver internment camp) and Betty (Vancouver’s Paueru-gai and Lemon Creek internment camp) and brother of Carolyn Setsuko Miura, Gary Kiyoshi was born in 1969 and raised in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, when it was still a small rural town of farms, gravel roads and fields. He attended Beverley Acres Public School, where he was one of only three Asian kids in the school. He later attended Bayview Secondary then went on to the University of Toronto where he earned a Political Science/Economics degree.

Kiyoshi in kindergarten. He was the only Asian kid.

As a typical suburban ‘Canadian’ kid, interested in Western music, TV, and pop culture. He was really never interested in Japanese culture or music.

Kiyoshi’s grandmother Fumiko Usami performing the shamisen 1970s.

“However, my mother’s family always seemed to be involved in the Japanese community. My mom and all her sisters did odori dancing from childhood, and my grandmother played the shamisen. They would dance at Obon every year at Nathan Phillips Square. At a multicultural festival called Caravan, the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre transformed itself into the Tokyo Pavillion.”

Kiyoshi‘s mother, Ayako (bottom right), performing Japanese dance after the war

He recalls:

“Every year, my whole family would volunteer at the JCCC. It was at this point in 1982 that I saw my first taiko performance by a group called Osuwa Daiko from Nagano who were invited to perform at this festival.

“I was drawn to taiko as it was a musical form that was so different from anything I had seen before. A group of about 12 drummers playing incredibly thunderous and loud taiko with choreographed movements struck me emotionally. I was so enthralled by the performance that I decided to join taiko classes offered by the JCCC in 1982.”

Kiyoshi as a member of Toronto Suwa Daiko. approx 1982-83. Age 13-14.

During his early taiko experience with Toronto Suwa Daiko, he saw the Kodo drummers from Sadogashima (Sado Island), perform at Ryerson Theatre. “Unlike Osuwa Daiko, Kodo elevated taiko performance with sophisticated compositions, lighting, staging, immense physicality, and of course excellent musicianship” he recalls. All of the performers were in top physical condition and it was clear they were completely committed to their art form.

A few years later, he continues:

Kiyoshi meeting with Grandmaster taiko pioneer Daihachi Oguchi in Japan

“Kodo returned to Toronto and I went backstage to ask how I could join them. They told me I would have to write a letter to ask to become an apprentice. After completing university, I moved to Japan where I lived with my cousin, and contacted Kodo. Several attempts later, they granted me an interview. The interview must have been successful as they told me that I would start apprenticing April 1, 1993.

“My parents were extremely worried about my moving to Japan to study taiko, especially since I had just completed my university degree in economic and political science. Nonetheless, they were supportive of my move and helped me out both financially and emotionally.”

During his time in Japan and training with Kodo, he felt “like a fish out of water.” Communicating in Japanese was extremely tiring and being ignorant of the many Japanese customs and traditions made him feel at times like an outsider.

Kiyoshi with his fellow apprentice mates and teacher on Sado Island in 1993.

“As much as I loved immersing myself in the training and the culture, it was ever too apparent that I was a foreigner looking in from the outside, and I knew I would never be accepted as a ‘real’ Japanese. So, from Day 1 when I started training with Kodo, I knew I would not stay. The culture shock and the extreme training involved made me realize that what I wanted to do most would be to return to Toronto and start spreading taiko music outside of Japan.”

A typical day with Kodo was to rise at 4:30 am and go for a 10 km jog at 4:50 am. That would be followed by breakfast (prepared by one of the six apprentices on a cooking rotation), cleaning, stretching, and finally drumming from 9 am to 12 noon. Lunch would be at 12 pm, then more practice from 2 pm to 6 pm. That was followed by more individual practice through the evening. This happened six days a week for a year. In December, the apprentices ran the length of a marathon as part of the training.

Kiyoshi as an apprenctice in his early 20s, with the Kodo drummers on Sado Island in 1993.

In 1994, he returned to Toronto. and started freelancing with other groups. He started the Isshin Daiko at the Toronto Buddhist Church while playing with a variety of musicians including the Toronto Tabla Ensemble and doing some soundtrack work.

Isshin Daiko, which Kiyoshi helped to form at the Toronto Buddhist Church after returnng from Japan.

During his freelancing days, he met many local musicians who hailed from different parts of the world. It was at this point that his cross-cultural exploration began with the formation of the percussion group HumDrum which was a cultural melange of East Indian, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese, and Western Classical musicians.

“The intention was simply to create a new kind of music using instruments from around the world, featuring some of Toronto’s best ethnic musicians. We wanted to respect the traditions of each country while at the same time explore new avenues for our instrument. It was only meant to be a short-term project but lasted about three years! My experience with HumDrum gave me confidence to continue on my journey of collaboration with artists from all genres including dancers, jazz musicians and storytellers to name a few.”

Kiyoshi with members of HumDrum in 1995.

Another milestone occurred in 1998 when he formed the Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble and invited to teach taiko at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto (U of T). He got that opportunity to teach by chance.

“I happened to be performing at an event that was organized by the wife of U of T ethnomusicologist James Kippen who was in the audience. After the show, he asked if I would be interested in teaching a taiko course there as part of the faculty’s World Music program. From the beginning, the interest level was high. Every year, the course reaches maximum capacity which is why I guess I am still teaching there 24 years later! About 12 years ago, the Faculty of Music made a major purchase of taiko which indicated to me that they wanted to have taiko at U of T for the long-term.”

University of Toronto class 2022

Kiyoshi began teaching taiko at the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) in Toronto (2003-2007):

“Starting a public taiko course at the RCM did open up a lot of opportunities to spread taiko in Toronto. It also gave taiko a certain amount of credibility since it was being offered in such a prestigious institution. More than anything, the RCM allowed me to connect with a legion of supporters, many who still follow me today and take classes at Nagata Shachu’s studio. Sadly, in 2007, the RCM folded its world music program with no real satisfactory explanation as to why.”

Part 2 >>


© 2023 Norm Masaji Ibuki

Canada drum HumDrum (musical group) Isshin Daiko (Canada) Kiyoshi Nagata Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble Kodo (musical group) Nagata Shachu (musical group) Ontario Royal Conservatory of Music taiko Toronto Toronto Suwa Daiko universities University of Toronto
About the Author

Writer Norm Masaji Ibuki lives in Oakville, Ontario. He has written extensively about the Canadian Nikkei community since the early 1990s. He wrote a monthly series of articles (1995-2004) for the Nikkei Voice newspaper (Toronto) which chronicled his experiences while in Sendai, Japan. Norm now teaches elementary school and continues to write for various publications. 

Updated August 2014

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