Nisei Week Parade Marshal Kenny Endo joins his son Miles, designer of the Sei Fujii Monument on Second Street in Little Tokyo, on Aug. 1. Kenny lives and works in Hawaii, but he is a Boyle Heights native who continues to pave new paths as a performer and teacher of taiko drumming. (GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo)
Nisei Week Parade Marshal Kenny Endo joins his son Miles, designer of the Sei Fujii Monument on Second Street in Little Tokyo, on Aug. 1. Kenny lives and works in Hawaii, but he is a Boyle Heights native who continues to pave new paths as a performer and teacher of taiko drumming. (GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo)

By ELISE TAKAHAMA, Rafu Staff Intern

Kenny Endo studied traditional taiko in Japan for a decade and melded it with his own contemporary background in American jazz to pave creative new paths in the Japanese drumming genre.

So it seems fitting that the Japanese American taiko legend would be chosen as parade marshal for the 75th Nisei Week, the community’s annual cultural celebration that has also embraced change and evolved over time from its traditional roots.

Endo, 62, will lead the parade on Sunday, Aug. 16, along with the 2015 grand marshal, Chef Roy Yamaguchi. Nisei Week President Terry Hara said Endo was selected because his life’s work reflects the core mission of the Japanese American community’s largest annual celebration.

“Nisei Week is honored to have Kenny as our Nisei Week parade marshal, whose life work exemplifies Nisei Week’s mission statement of sharing Japanese and Japanese American culture with the greater diverse communities of Southern California,” Hara says.

For Endo, the honor is close to his heart because he was born in Boyle Heights, just a bridge away from Little Tokyo. Although he lives and works in Hawaii, he said Los Angeles reflects his roots and the place where he got his start in taiko.

Endo began playing drums at just nine years old, though he was strictly a snare and bass player. He lived in the L.A. area until graduating from high school, then went on to attend UC Santa Cruz for two years. He then worked on a Native American reservation in Arizona for half a year before transferring to UCLA for his next two years. While a student at UCSC, Endo saw his first taiko performance.

“Not only are you hearing it with your ears, but you’re feeling it throughout your bones,” Endo says.

After all, in our modern world, where nearly everything is provided for us, it’s easy to be removed from nature, Endo observed. Taiko drums are made from natural materials, and their sounds have a powerful effect on people for this for reason – they take listeners back to something more primal. Many even describe taiko sounds as “a mother’s heartbeat when you’re in the womb.” Because of its entrancing nature, Endo knew in an instant that he had to pursue it.

He embarked on his taiko journey with the renowned Kinnara Taiko in Los Angeles. Soon after, Endo heard of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, which Seiichi Tanaka, the “father of taiko in the United States,” founded and taught at. After graduating from UCLA, Endo moved to San Francisco and lived there for four and a half years to study with Tanaka-sensei.

“Tanaka-sensei approached his teachings like a martial arts dojo and Japanese values like respect, obligation, hard work, gratitude, and quality were emphasized. Because he formed the first taiko group outside of Japan, his influence on the taiko world outside of Japan is immense,” Endo says.

At the time, there were only three taiko dojos in the United States, each with their own mindset. Taiko in the United States had become very neo-traditional and had grown from the original Japanese taiko style. So eventually, the “roots of taiko” drew Endo to Japan, where he could study more traditional drumming techniques.

In Japan, Endo was able to study older styles of drumming, such as hogaku (classical drumming) and Edo-bayashi (a type of festival music). He became a professional member of O Edo Sukeroku Taiko in Japan, originally called Shin On Taiko, which is considered to be the first taiko group to begin touring professionally and even the first professional taiko group. Though Endo was originally only going to stay in Japan for a year, it was ten years before he moved back to the U.S.

“The more I studied, the more I realized how little I knew,” Endo explains.

In 1986, four years after joining O Edo Sukeroku Taiko, Endo received a natori (stage name and license to teach) from the Mochizuki School in hogaku hayashi. His stage name is Tajiro Mochizuki.

Kenny Endo performs regularly at Berkeley Buddhist Temple's Satsuki Bazaar. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)
Kenny Endo performs regularly at Berkeley Buddhist Temple’s Satsuki Bazaar. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Since then, Endo has received commissions to create and tour new work from countless organizations, such as Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Rockefeller Foundation (MAPP), Japan Foundation, and Honolulu Mayor’s Office of Culture and the Arts. Among many other certificates and awards, Endo even received a certificate from Honolulu City Council naming April 23, 2001 as Kenny Endo Day.

With an unbelievable work ethic, Endo continued to study, practice, and even perform four to five times a week with O Edo Sukeroku Taiko all over Japan, Hong Kong, the U.S., Malaysia, and Australia. Even today, Endo ideally practices for two hours a day. Though this year marks Endo’s 40th year playing taiko, he still believes “there’s a lot to learn.” And, as Endo says, “As long as there’s a lot to learn, there’s work to do.”

For some people at the dojo, it seemed strange that an American was studying taiko in Japan. Nevertheless, Endo stayed open-minded and enthusiastic about learning as much as possible.

“The key to surviving is to just take advantage of the resources who will help you,” Endo says.

But, in 1990, Endo ended his ten-year journey and moved back to the U.S. to get his master’s degree in ethnomusicology, the study of non-Western music, at the University of Hawaii. Endo and his wife, Chizuko, made their home in Hawaii and four years later, they founded the Taiko Center of the Pacific.

With both parents being taiko instructors and performers, Endo’s two sons, 28 and 26, also studied taiko for a time. Though both live on the East Coast now, they are still committed to the Japanese American community. In fact, Miles, Endo’s older son, recently designed the Sei Fujii Monument in Little Tokyo, which honors the famous Japanese-born late civil rights activist.

Regardless of where Endo and his family go, L.A. will always hold a special place in his past. With the 75th anniversary of Nisei Week coming up, he’s enthusiastic in participating in any way possible.

“I really appreciate this opportunity to be honored and I look forward to giving back to the community,” Endo says.

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