Amy Moore talks to Neil Mackie, one of the founding members of the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers.
Mugenkyo is celebrating almost two decades of rigorous touring, with 2014 marking the 20th anniversary of its formation. This makes Mugenkyo the longest touring and most successful group of its kind in Europe. Mugenkyo has been heavily influenced by the ancient art of ‘Taiko’ in Japan, with its latest enchanting performance to feature mysterious masked choreography interwoven with an almighty musical force. Audiences are guaranteed to enjoy the spellbinding display of athleticism and energy displayed, with last year seeing the group perform at over 80 venues across the UK. Neil Mackie is the visionary and driving force of the group alongside his partner Miyuki Williams, having returned to the UK in 1994 to form the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers.
Mackie trained with Masaaki Kurumaya Sensei in Japan for two years prior to his return and draws from his experience when performing the role of the ‘Odaiko’ (big drum) player, having previously performed as a kit drummer in various bands around Bristol and London. He also takes charge of the ‘Jiuchi’ – the base beat or underlying rhythm – of the performance.
What inspired you to form the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers?
I travelled to Japan to visit my partner Miyuki who had a job teaching English. While I was there I came across this drumming called Wadaiko or Taiko as we know it. It was quite a life-changing experience because it made me realise that drumming could be so much more than sitting at the back of the stage behind a bunch of guitarists. The great thing about Taiko is that it’s about using your whole body to project the sounds and visuals of the performance.
You’ve really got to put everything into it when you play, and that was really appealing to me because I was a kit drummer before I went out there. Never before had I experienced something where the drum was the central thing. I was lucky enough to come across Masaaki Kurumaya Sensei and he became my Taiko Sensei – my teacher or spiritual leader. He taught me about how to perform with your whole heart and soul.
How do you work to showcase that passion on the stage?
The great thing about Taiko is that it’s not like playing a drum kit. You’re using your whole body. The idea is that you put all your effort into playing. These are big drums and they take a lot to make a sound, and because of that you’re making them sing. It’s very musical in that way, we treat the drum like a musical instrument, it’s not just something to hit. You can make many sounds from a Taiko drum and in that way, the spirit of the drum is awakened.
Now, we’re living in a different culture and when I came back it wasn’t the same. I had the idea of forming Mugenkyo and started the Mugen Taiko Dojo, which is a place of learning that we have here. People’s backgrounds, attitudes and aspirations aren’t the same so we’ve had to adapt. We’ve had to come from a different angle, but we still adopt all the same principles learnt from Japan.
How do you keep the performances fresh and modern?
We’re constantly changing. Things are never exactly as they were in the last performance. Our image is very modern.
We’re using UV lights and different soundscapes to freshen it up. Our performances are evolving all the time. They’re a living, breathing art form.
Is there much spontaneity involved?
Some of the pieces we play are very set and some are completely ad-libbed. You never know what’s going to happen next and that’s the greatest thing about it.
How does your musical background influence the style of the show?
Everyone comes from different countries and different backgrounds. On tour, we have people from Portugal, Germany, Scotland and England. For me, I’m very much into music. I’ve played with punk bands, reggae bands, rock banks and even soul bands. All those influences have really helped to secure the direction of some of the pieces we play.
Do you face any challenges when performing?
When you have a certain number of drummers on stage, you constantly have to work on keeping time with each other. What’s great about Taiko, is you get used to performing with certain people – locking in with them and connecting with them. Everybody has fantastic rhythm, but because we’re human we have different ways of doing things. In this sense, it’s important we play as a team.
How do you prepare for a show?
When we’re on tour it’s very busy. We all try and get our rehearsals in during the afternoon of the show, which is not always possible. Before we go on tour, everything is planned out and worked on. During the tour it’s more about tweaking things and trying to improve.
The group has been going for 20 years – that’s at least 15 years touring. We’ve done thousands of performances and I’m still really excited about it. You never lose that feeling, the excitement of playing and having the luxury of performing in front of loads of people.
How did you work to get yourself known?
Wherever there’s an event happening, I believe there should be Taiko. We’re never giving up the chase and we’re always looking for new avenues to explore. There are a lot of places we haven’t played yet and a lot of people we haven’t reached. It’s been a really wonderful journey and will continue to be. We’ve been to a number of countries and performed at all kinds of strange events. We performed at an event called Nagano in Japan. It’s the most renowned Taiko festival in the world. We were invited to perform two years ago. We are the only European group to ever be invited to perform at this event. It was such an amazing experience for us and we were honoured to be asked to perform. It was also a great chance for us to get ourselves on the world stage.
Are you surprised that the show has become so successful?
When we came back to the UK, no one had heard of Taiko – there wasn’t anyone else doing it. Things have changed a lot in the last 20 years. The way people think about Taiko is very different. In fact, the word ‘Taiko’ is now in the English dictionary. We are the only touring group in the whole of Europe and we’re still surprising people to this day.
What can the audience expect from the show?
We’re welcoming the return of our co-founder Miyuki Williams, who hasn’t toured with us for three and a half years. She’s an amazing player and it’s going to be great to see her perform on stage again. We have a very varied set, lots of energy and lighting, different soundscapes and different moods. We’re going to take people on a journey through our performance. If people haven’t seen us before, come with an open mind. Taiko really does have this power and this energy, and if you’re on the audience you can really feel the power of the drums – huge drums – some even the size of a small car. Drumming is universal. It appeals to a wide range of people. It is boundless.
What do you see for the future of Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers?
This year, we’re working to renovate and expand the Mugen Taiko Dojo to enable us to do more teaching work and reach more people. We’re also looking forward to this tour and going back to the places we know. We want to carry on performing and touring, and we want to keep recruiting more players for the future. We’re pushing on all fronts and we’re very much looking forward to the next few years. It’s a very exciting time ahead.