Miranda Liu speaks to Leo Ikenaga ’08 about taiko, music composition and Kodō’s 40th Anniversary
It’s a cloudy Thursday morning in early fall and the energy in the ASIJ courtyard is almost electric. Students from the elementary school sit before a large drum, squirming and chattering in anticipation as middle and high schoolers alike gather around the picnic tables. Faculty and staff emerge from buildings or pause in their meals, preparing their cameras for what is sure to be a one-of-a-kind experience. But they aren’t kept waiting for long — soon, an athletic young man dressed in traditional Japanese garb and a hachimaki headband appears to the applause of the audience. After a brief introduction, Leo Ikenaga ’08 approaches the drum, bachi drumsticks poised to begin the show as the buzz of the courtyard quickly dies out into silent suspense.
The first beats of the drum are like thunder amidst the gray weather — deep, powerful, rumbling through the courtyard and engulfing the audience in entranced wonder. The performance is not only percussive and musical, but vocal and athletic as well, as the drummer throws his sticks against the taiko drum with abandon, punctuating his drumming with traditional kakegoe shouts. The elementary school students watch, enrapt, with sparkling eyes; the teenagers and adults are breathless at the artistic and athletic feat unfolding before them. When the performance finishes, there’s a beat of awed silence before the courtyard erupts in applause as the emcee once more prompts the audience to “give it up” for Leo, a member of arguably the world’s most well-known taiko group, Kodō.
If you’ve heard of Japanese taiko drumming, you’ve probably heard of Kodō, the international performance group that has become synonymous with the art form to Japanese and non-Japanese audiences alike. After its inaugural performance in Berlin, Germany in 1981, Kodō has spent the past four decades bringing the wonders of taiko and other traditional Japanese forms of performance and music to Europe, North and South America, and Asia. The group celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, and central to its commemorative concert, Inochi, is ASIJ’s own Leo Ikenaga, who composed, directs, and performs in it. Leo is somewhat of an outlier for Kodō; at only 31 years old, he is already active not only as a performer but also behind the scenes. In fact, Inochi will be the first time Kodō performs a symphonic piece composed by a member of the group.
But it wasn’t an easy journey for Leo to make it to this point. The first step to joining Kodō is to become an apprentice, which Leo did almost ten years ago in 2013. Along with all the other apprentices in his cohort, he moved to Sado Island in Niigata prefecture to live in the Kodō dormitories and take part in a rigorous two-year training program that Leo described as “living life like a monk.” “You wake up at 5:00 in the morning, you run about ten kilometers every day, you harvest your own rice... it’s a very, very rigorous program,” he shared. And it’s not just the training schedule that makes life challenging for Kodō apprentices. “There’s all these restrictions,” Leo explained of his lifestyle as a Kodō apprentice, “You get no access to the internet. There are no cell phones, no computers, no alcohol, no relationships. It’s in the middle of nowhere and you don’t get to go home at all. You have a day off maybe four times a year.”
It may seem that Leo must have been a taiko fanatic to put up with such living conditions in exchange for an opportunity to join the foremost taiko group in the world, but surprisingly, that wasn’t the case. After graduating from ASIJ, Leo headed to New York to begin his freshman year as an economics major at Cornell University. “I was just plain not sure of what I wanted to do in high school,” Leo shared, “so when I was at ASIJ, I just expected myself to become a lawyer or an investment banker or someone who works in the finance industry, partly because that’s kind of what the expectation was. It was just ‘the path.’” While he commented that his parents were open minded, Leo himself struggled breaking away from the well-trodden path that many of his peers at ASIJ and later at Cornell were following. But even as he entered his final years of college, something about his course didn’t feel right to Leo. “It was a constant struggle within me, because I was pursuing econ at Cornell, and I did a lot of internships at investment banks. And I was pretty much going to become an Ivy League banker, but I knew it wasn’t my calling. Partly because of what I experienced during my internships, and partly because of what I’d seen from my experience at ASIJ and at Cornell, I felt like it was going to be very difficult for me to grow as a person once I started doing that type of work, and I couldn’t live with that.”
It wasn’t until his senior year at Cornell that Leo made what would turn out to be a life changing decision, the decision not to pursue finance after college. “When I was about to graduate college, a lot of things happened,” he shared. “The big 3/11 earthquake in Japan happened, and unrelated to that, I also lost a friend of mine.
And so I was thinking about all of these things, and wondering, how do I live my life to the fullest?” In his struggle to make the right decision for himself, it was a memory of this time at ASIJ that really helped Leo make up his mind. “Actually, it was in 10th grade English class that we read this excerpt from Henry David Thoreau,” Leo reflected. “I really remembered it vividly. I don’t recall the exact words, but the message was ‘carpe diem’ — you should live your life to the fullest. And I really, really wanted to do that in my life, but I didn’t know how.”
As his college career came to a conclusion, Leo felt that this was his chance to really make a big change in his life. “I thought, if I’m going to make the leap, I have to do it now,” he recalled. “I want to, I need to do it before I get sick of myself.” He wasn’t sure exactly what leap to take, but he knew that he wanted to really push himself to step outside his comfort zone and gain new experiences. “I wanted to find a way to put myself in a very uncomfortable situation and push myself to the limit,” Leo shared about his thought process at the time. “When I was looking for something like that, I found the apprentice center for Kodō.” Living like a monk fit exactly with what he had in mind, so after careful consideration, he joined. “It was definitely tough, but because I wanted to do it, it wasn’t tough mentally. I didn’t want to quit — I really enjoyed it, because I’d never done all these things before,” Leo commented about his experience as an apprentice.
Despite the intense physical endurance required to succeed as a Kodō apprentice, Leo found a deep sense of fulfillment in his choice to join. During his youth, he felt he had been missing a sense of meaning in his endeavors, a driving motivation that he found on Sado Island. “I’ve been blessed to have a very privileged life,” he noted. “I wasn’t a straight-A student; I had always been content with just passing all the time,” Leo shared of his school days. “And so I created that situation to force myself to really work hard, because frankly, up until then, I hadn’t worked hard. I didn’t really know how to put effort into things. And I really wanted to learn that.”
But why Kodō? “I considered all the options, you know, I looked at the Peace Corps and all these different things, but music was something of a passion of mine,” Leo explained. “I wanted to do something music-related, and Kodō is probably one of the most famous and best Japanese cultural groups.” Music wasn’t a new interest for Leo — in fact, he’d been exposed to a broad spectrum of music since he was born. “His family is very into music,” ASIJ Japan Center co-director Kyoko Takano (AP ’96–10), who is a close friend of Leo’s mother, shared. “His sister is a professional pianist, and Leo started playing piano from age two.”
Leo didn’t stop there. “I started with playing the piano, and then I moved on to the cello. And then in fourth grade, I took a year of taiko class at my elementary school,” Leo reminisced of his earliest experiences with making music. Moko Igarashi, Leo’s childhood taiko instructor, remembers Leo from that time period well. “My most vivid memory of him was that he was quite a bright student, and very lively, ” she shared. “He was a model student, and his eyes were always very full of curiosity. He also performed taiko in quite a few public events outside of school in those days, like local Japanese festivals.”
Leo’s involvement with music only deepened as he moved up to high school at ASIJ. “When I was here, I was in the orchestra. I also was in a rock band. I played the guitar and the piano, and did music composition here, too,” he shared. (He unfortunately declined to review the footage we have on file of his performances in Battle of the Bands!) While he’d taken a break from taiko while at ASIJ, once he was at Cornell, he couldn’t resist the draw. “In college, I joined the taiko group on campus and played there for four years,” he commented, with a modest caveat that it was just a club activity and was “nothing too serious.”
It may not have been a serious commitment at the time, but it was certainly a step along the path to an impressive career with Kodō. After his two years harvesting rice and practicing day in and day out, Leo’s efforts and talents during his time as an apprentice paid off, and he became a probationary member in 2015. “Not everyone gets to become a Kodō member — if 20 people will enter the apprenticeship, maybe one or two will become a member, maybe zero,” Leo explained. And that’s not all; once they’ve joined Kodō, new probationary members have a year to prove themselves up to the mental and physical challenge of rehearsing and performing day in and day out required to succeed in the group. “Pre-COVID, we’d practice from 9am until 10pm every day,” Leo shared. “And when we’re not practicing on the island, we’re touring. When you’re on the road and have a show, you’re in the theater for the whole day.” But Leo was up to the challenge, and in 2016, he became a full member of Kodō, spending about two-thirds of the year touring and the rest of the time rehearsing shows and preparing new works on Sado Island.
But somehow, amidst his packed schedule, Leo finds time for his other passion: composing. “While on a tour, in between shows, you actually have some time to kill,” he admitted, “so that’s when I’ll work on composing stuff.” He also finds the tranquility of Sado Island the ideal environment for creating musical pieces. “I live alone in a secluded place, and I don’t have Wi- Fi, I don’t own a TV. So I have all the time in the world to work on compositions. It was actually a small silver lining to the pandemic... I had a lot of time while everything was on lockdown.” Leo recalls that he first began writing music during his time at ASIJ. “I feel like I’ve been composing all my life. It wasn’t something I tried to acquire as a skill. Whenever I played the piano, I’d make up something on my own. It’s just that I never really made it into a piece or, you know, wrote it down as sheet music,” he reflected. “I think the first time I actually did that was while at ASIJ, in my music composition class.” He shared that he was deeply influenced by two Japanese composers, Joe Hisashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto. “What I really enjoy about those two is that they write a lot of songs that are kind of familiar to everyone and everyone likes, but they also do a lot of niche underground compositions. Their background isn’t exactly mainstream. They do all these different things and they’re constantly making new stuff.”
Leo also does a variety of different things — composing isn’t just a passion for Leo; it’s also part of the work he does for Kodō. While other Kodō performers have written and composed music for Kodō performances in the past, Leo is the first member to write an orchestral piece to be performed by the group. “That was definitely a challenge because I don’t know all the parts of the orchestra, so I had someone help me out. But I would say that I wrote 95% of the work.” Leo has never been one to back away from challenges, and composing for Kodō is no different. After a less than stellar experience with a previous composer who wrote an orchestra piece for Kodō, Leo wanted to do better for the group’s 40th anniversary. “I didn’t enjoy the previous orchestra performance that we did because the composers they asked to write for us didn’t really know us well,” he shared. So when the group’s band director announced that Kodō would be doing another orchestral performance for their 40th anniversary, Leo didn’t hesitate. “I raised my hand and I said, ‘I want to write a piece.’ And so I wrote it and I made a demo tape on my computer and I showed it to the people in charge, and then things just started rolling.”
When asked if he’d like the chance to do more experimental music like Joe Hisashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Leo was of two minds. “At Kodō we do a lot of different projects that aren’t released publicly that are very experimental, so I’m pretty satisfied with what I do,” he said. “I had the opportunity to work with a production company from the UK who introduced us to musicians from all over the world, and a lot of the music that we composed together with those people was aimed towards advertising, like a 30 or 45 second cut for commercials. Producers are looking for new sound all the time, so we do do these experimental things, but they don’t exactly get released. I mean, if you look for it on Spotify, you can listen to all the stuff, but it’s very different from what people know Kodō as.”
On the other hand, Leo has an eye towards the future, as well. “I would say I’m really just contemplating my future,” he explained. “I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in five years, but maybe I would like to be making film scores or something. Really, I would love to be involved in taiko and music composition.”
But for the moment, Leo is enjoying all the opportunities that Kodō affords him, including the opportunity to share his passions with younger generations. Back at ASIJ, Leo spends the afternoon doing workshops with students whose eyes sparkle as they stand before the drums, bachi in hand, just as Leo’s had so many years ago. Leading them through simple rhythm activities in which the children play a response to Leo’s and other faculty members’ calls on the taiko drums, the children enjoy what may be their first taste of music composition. Most of these kids most likely won’t go on to pursue a professional taiko career, or become music composers, but as Leo knows very well, anything goes. “I just really, really want to live my life to the fullest,” he shared with a smile, reflecting on his choice to pursue music, undoubtedly inspiring the next generation of ASIJ students to do the same.