Boar Tusks and Rotting Wood: An Interview with Rieko Shimbo
by Mayumi Hirano
Mayumi Hirano (MH): Do you remember how you got involved in the Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference (VIVA ExCon) in 1992? The other artists who participated from Japan said that they got the information from Lunami Gallery in Ginza.
Rieko Shimbo (RS): I have never heard about the gallery. I can't recall how I got the information about the festival in the Philippines. I don't remember how it happened, but I went with two other people, and drums.
MH: You joined as the Do Do Drummers. Were you active in this group before you joined the VIVA ExCon?
RS: Have you heard of Araumaza? It's a traditional performing arts group in Itabashi in Tokyo. It's a company of professionals who perform Japanese taiko drums and dances. The three of us were "associate members," meaning we were not professional, but we were members. That's how we knew each other. The other two were Osamu Kitahara and Hideaki Kaneko. They eventually became professionals after VIVA ExCon. Osamu is still performing taiko drums as a freelancer. I think Hideaki is still active too. But both are no longer with Araumaza. When we went to the Philippines, all three of us had other jobs. The information about the VIVA ExCon may have come from Osamu. Three of us were not performing together as a group but simply knew each other through Araumaza. We had the time and motivation, so we decided to go to the festival in the Philippines together.
MH: It's been about 30 years since your trip to the Philippines, but do you remember anything about VIVA ExCon 1992?
RS: It was a lot of fun. I met many different artists. I didn't even know anything about installation art. I no longer remember the names of the people I met there, but they made all kinds of exciting things and did strange things.
Among the visual artists, there were quite a few people who were into music. They made paintings and installations, but they also played music. They used Filipino string instruments, which reminded me of Japanese shamisen, and handmade drums. They spent all day playing music.
Do you know Perry [Argel]? I still have the instrument he gave me. It has something like a boar's tusk in it. He made a lot of musical instruments. There's local wood, which rots inside but when you clean it, it becomes like a pipe. This instrument is made out of it.
The local people were quite friendly. I don't remember any details about my stay in Bacolod, but I didn't have any problems. I remember playing music with Perry, Diokno [Pasilan], and others. I met a lot of artists, but as I don't make artwork, I didn't get connected with them so much.
MH: The snapshots tell us that the Do Do Drummers performed at schools, on the street, and in many different places. The audience included a lot of children.
RS: I remember how excited the children were. We performed “Sōran Bushi” and other Japanese folk songs for them. We didn't teach them but instead invited them to perform together. Hideaki and Osamu didn't speak English, so I would explain a little first, and they would dance and play the drums and flutes. Everywhere we went, people would gather. The drums made loud and noisy sounds which would attract people. Not only did they watch us play, but they also wanted to play, so we did it together. I also remember playing taiko and local stringed instruments with the artists around the exhibition venue.
MH: Even the local people involved in VIVA ExCon have forgotten the details of the events, but many still remember the taiko performances very vividly. Did you have any connections with Japanese contemporary artists at that time?
RS: Not at all. I think it was because of VIVA ExCon that I got to know Akatsuki Harada, Tatsuo Inagaki, and others from Japan. They invited us to join the festivals that they were involved in. In one of the festivals, there were people from the Philippines, Germany, and other foreign countries, and they were making various kinds of installation art and working on different things. So I would help them, like with building a bridge with bamboo.
MH: That's probably the work of Roberto Villanueva at the Lake Naguri International Open-Air Art Exhibition in 1992.
RS: Oh, Roberto was his name? His project was about building a bridge with bamboo. I remember him and his work well. In short, his art was not about the finished product but about the process of making it. I didn't know anything about art, and I was supposed to assist him. I was surprised that the artist asked us, "What should I do?” I thought he would tell us what to do to realize his plan, but it wasn't like that, and I remember thinking that working together was his art. I was astonished, and I realized that installation art is not just about making something to present to the public but about the process of creating together. Failures are part of the process too.
MH: I guess the word "installation" also came to your ears while helping the artist's work.
RS: Before that, I had never heard of the word "installation." Later, I started to understand it better. But I still don't know if I fully understand it. What left the biggest impression on me was that I felt I was also part of the work. I realized that that was Roberto's way of making art.
MH: Do you think that your participation in VIVA ExCon and the Baguio Arts Festival (BAF) impacted your subsequent activities?
RS: Of course, in many ways, it's not just about the music. Going to foreign places, interacting with different people, and seeing a completely different culture has been invaluable to my life and in helping me grow as a person. It broadened my horizons and made me understand art a little better.
For example, I had the chance to meet Roberto and work together with bamboo in the forest. I also had the opportunity to play music with Diokno in the city center, which organically gathered people. I think I have been greatly influenced by the experience of interacting with people through music and making things without relying on language.
In 1993, the year after I participated in VIVA ExCon, I participated in the BAF, and in 1994, I moved to Reno, Nevada.
When I came back from Baguio, I wasn't feeling well and I thought I had cholera or something, so I went to see a doctor and found out I was three months pregnant. I didn't know that at all, so I traveled to Baguio, rode jeepneys, drank beer every night, carried heavy drums, and did all sorts of things that pregnant women are not supposed to do.
I then moved to Reno when I was seven months pregnant. When my son was about two years old, I started making drums out of wine barrels. I didn't originally intend to create a group, but Japanese American people were very interested and asked me to teach them. The taiko group in Reno has been going on for about 25 years now.
MH: Is there a large Japanese American community in Reno?
RS: No, the community is not big. The population is increasing now, but Reno is not a big city to begin with. But still, there was a small community of Japanese Americans back then. Today the group is universal, and anyone interested in taiko can come join us.
I think my experience in the Philippines is one of the reasons why I continue to do what I do. I learned that it's possible to share beyond the difference of languages and cultures.
Reno is right by Lake Tahoe. It's a beautiful mountainous area, and there is an art event called Trails & Vistas. The person who organizes it is an installation artist. The event is like a museum in nature, and as you walk along the three-kilometer trail, you would see people dancing in the trees or reading poetry, installations, music playing, singing, and so on. There are also performances by Native American people. There's also a taiko station where we set up drums in the forest and play them. It is a really fun event. So if you're interested in art, you should come.
Since the spread of COVID-19, my group's physical performances have been canceled and we shifted to a virtual platform, like we would show a recorded version or use Zoom.
The situation got a little better in the summer season from June to August, so we've been able to participate in some festivals, but right now, the wildfires are so terrible here that we can't even see the mountains today. The area south of Lake Tahoe is burning badly. So it's not just about COVID-19, but it's a difficult situation. I think people who do art and music are affected a lot. I'm sure it's all over the world.
This is an excerpt from an interview conducted on 21 August 2021 via Zoom. This interview was translated from Japanese and edited for length and clarity.
Rieko Shimbo was born and raised in downtown Tokyo. After graduating from college in 1982, she worked as a kindergarten teacher and participated in taiko performances as an associate member of the Araumaza folk performing arts troupe in Itabashi Ward. In 1987, she moved to the USA to become a certified Montessori teacher and worked in Houston, Beijing, and Moscow before returning to Japan in 1991, where she restarted her taiko performance. In 1992, she participated in VIVA ExCon, and in 1993, she joined the Baguio Arts Festival. In 1994, she moved to Reno, Nevada, and founded a Japanese drumming group, Reno Taiko Tsurunokai. While working as a Montessori teacher, she promotes traditional Japanese culture at local festivals and schools.