Kenny Endo: Connecting to Heritage through Music

Kenny Endo playing with San Francisco Taiko Dojo, ca. 1978. Courtesy of Kenny Endo.

Kenny Endo. San Francisco, ca. 1978. Courtesy of Kenny Endo.

Chants Danse et Musiques du Japon. Courtesy of Kenny Endo.

Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble, Honolulu, Hawai'i, 2005.

Working with artists in various genres, he has paved new directions in using the traditional taiko, bringing a refreshing and creative approach to music through his background in western, ethnic, and traditional Japanese drumming.
– from the Taiko Center of the Pacific website

Taiko has played a significant role in Japan’s music history, appearing in Gagaku court music, Shinto shrine kagura music, the classical Noh theatre, the more widely known Kabuki theatre, and not surprisingly, festivals of Japan, some say dating as far back as 1000 years.

While the drums themselves constitute works of art, the musicians behind them are truly artists, creating musical experiences that incorporate the sounds of the drums and movements of the performers. Kenny Endo is an internationally renowned taiko artist who performs both as a soloist and with an ensemble. He was the first non-Japanese national to be honored with a natori (stage name and master’s degree) in hogaku hayashi (classical taiko).

Watching Kenny Endo perform or listening to him discuss the subject of taiko, audiences are immediately struck by the passion and energy with which he approaches his art. In an interview originally conducted for the Big Drum exhibition, Mr. Endo spoke eloquently about the role that taiko has played in his own life as well as in the lives of other Japanese Americans. A percussionist since elementary school, Mr. Endo said his interest in taiko was sparked when he saw the San Francisco Taiko Dojo in San Jose in 1973. “It was the first time I saw this group of drummers. It really blew me away. I knew I wanted to do it as soon as I saw it.”

Taking a year off from UC Santa Cruz, he took an internship with the Colorado River Indian Tribes on their reservation in Arizona. Ironically, this reservation had been the site of Poston Concentration Camp where Americans of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated during WWII. His work with Native Americans resulted in a number of important realizations. “One of the things after that experience of being on the reservation was that I really wanted to get in touch with my own roots. Taiko was a way of doing that because I had an interest in music and drumming. But it also put me in touch with my heritage.” From that recognition, his initial interest in taiko evolved into a lifetime passion. He worked with Kinnara Taiko, studied and performed with Tanaka Sensei at the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, and eventually spent ten years immersed in the traditional world of taiko in Japan.

As the Big Drum exhibition confirms, the phenomenon of taiko continues to grow and evolve, drawing from tradition and, at the same time, reinventing itself. Today, Kenny Endo collaborates with other artists, making “intercultural collaborations” one of his priorities. He is involved with the Asian Performing Artists Exchange at UCLA; has worked with jazz artists; performed with symphony orchestras; and offers classes for children and adults through the Taiko Center of the Pacific in Honolulu, HI, which he founded. He has also performed through pilgrimages to Manzanar and Poston in an effort to share culture through music. For him, taiko is not only a connection between the performer and the drum. It is also a musical force that has the potential to connect the spirit and energy of Japanese and Japanese Americans to a diverse audience, and like so many other art forms, Kenny Endo’s music continues to educate, to unite, and to inspire audiences of many cultures.


Kenny Endo is one of the many taiko performers featured in the Japanese American National Museum’s groundbreaking exhibition, Big Drum: Taiko in the United States. You can view a media clip from the exhibition that features footage of the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble. He will be performing at the National Museum as part of the final First & Central Summer Concert - Of Melodies Old: New Music from the APPEX Ensemble on September 29, 2005.

His CD, Jugoya, is available for sale through the Museum Store Online.