Rhythm method that thunders with life

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GRAHAM Hilgendorf and Masae Ikegawa have more in common than most married couples – they’re both drummers in TaikOz, due to hit Canberra Theatre soon.

You’ll see them on stage in “Crimson Sky”, a new work by TaikOz director Ian Cleworth based on a Japanese haiku that in English reads:

Red dragon flies
flowing like a ripple
toward the crimson sky.

When I catch up with the pair by phone, they’ve got their hands full, with two little boys and an 18-month-old girl demanding attention.

Their eldest son, Seina, joined TaikOz’s student classes this year, but according to Hilgendorf, “all play at home on the many drums and instruments lying around the house”. It’s that kind of family.

Hilgendorf and Ikegawa are one of two married couples in TaikOz, and met in 1999 when Ikegawa visited Australia on a working holiday and was invited by co-founder of TaikOz, Riley Lee, to play with the group.

“Musicians marry other musicians because of the way music works,” Hilgendorf tells “CityNews”. “We have a good understanding.”

They’d need to. Ikegawa started playing drums at age five in a milieu where taiko (literally “drums”) are a part of the culture and the spirituality.

By contrast, Hilgendorf began playing drum sets when he was in primary school, later extending into ensembles and completing percussion studies at the Sydney Conservatorium in what he calls a “Western percussion culture”.

“When I first heard Japanese drumming [it was TaikOz]”, he tells me, “I thought, ‘wow’, that looks really interesting, but it took me many years to understand these instruments and the ceremonies more deeply.”

While Hilgendorf has visited Japan many times now and his kids speak fluent English and Japanese, he doesn’t pretend to be a “master” as Riley Lee is, from years of total immersion in Japanese culture.

But there are advantages in his Western practice, too, he says: “I can play faster, but Masae plays with depth.”

So why does he think Australians so love the Japanese drumming and music in which TaikOz excels?

Three things impress Australians, he believes: the sheer size and structure of the instruments, which have very thick skins; the sound of the instruments which, after warming up, is “something else”; and the vibrations that people feel – some of the drums are carved out of tree trunks that “move a lot of air in the theatre”.

As well, he admits, it’s a visual art form that encompasses music and near-dance, too.

He puts Ikegawa on the phone. Compared to the male drummers, she’s petite, but says: “I try to be big on stage”.

As a little girl, she didn’t encounter outright criticism for her drumming, but it felt “a bit weird, because no one else was doing it”.

Unusually, for a musician, she stopped for several years at age 13 when she felt it was becoming too embarrassing, returning in her early 20s to become a serious drummer with the Japanese group Manno Daiko.

She doesn’t develop her strength by doing running or push-ups.

“It’s not really about muscle, it is more about technique,” she says.

“And cultural depth,” Hilgendorf concludes.

“Crimson Sky”, TaikOz, Canberra Theatre Centre, 7.30pm October 26, bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.

Top image: TaikOz performers Tom Royce-Hampton and Masae Ikegawa

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