Hit me with your rhythm stick

East meets West in the music of Japanese percussionist Joji Hirota, who aims to take his audience higher.
Click to follow
One of the West's often-overlooked contributions to Japanese culture is the red pillar box. This, and other darkly glimmering nuggets of information, emerges during the course of Joji Hirota's dissertation on Japanese percussion and "world beat". The elfin Hirota, one of Japan's leading percussionists, lights up another menthol cigarette as he provides an absorbing perspective on cultural identity prior to his South Bank appearance on Tuesday.

Today a percussion player in the classical Japanese style, the heterodox Hirota began his musical journey by studying Western drumming, although not by choice. "When I first studied percussion in Kyoto, I had to learn Western style. People were not interested in Japanese percussion in Japan, and so it was impossible to find anyone to teach it." He toured the West in the early Seventies and found himself unable to answer the queries of would-be acolytes thirsting for honourable Japanese percussive knowledge. Upon returning to Japan, he found the cultural climate had changed - not much, but enough for him to find himself a drum master and sign up as a student.

When Japan first opened its doors to the outside world 150 years ago, the Japanese people embraced Western culture wholeheartedly. Eating habits, clothes, hairstyles, religious attitudes (and post boxes) changed to the extent that indigenous Japanese culture became deeply unfashionable amongst high society, and in turn this perception trickled downwards to the plebs. Western-style salons appeared, enabling Japanese dignitaries to meet their Western counterparts. Suitable music for dancing was essential (hopping to butoh? - perhaps not). Western classical music arrived. In short order, as Hirota says, "Japanese people came to believe strongly that they must learn and create Western-style classical music to get to be Number One. We studied and learnt Western music so much that Japanese music became completely out of fashion - no young people wanted to play it."

It wasn't until the Sixties, when composer Toru Takemitsu started blending Japanese instruments with Western orchestras, that the popular view began to change. Traditional Japanese drum groups formed in Europe and the US, and this Western attention sparked a revival of Japanese interest in their own culture. "Because, in the Seventies, Westerners recognised value in this music, it became more popular in Japan. Kabuki, bunraku puppet theatre, noh theatre, all became more popular as people became attracted back to them after 150 years of the West," Hirota says.

As Japanese music returns to favour at home, it becomes increasingly flavoured by outside influences, but Hirota, no purist, thinks that this flexibility is in the traditional nature of "folk" music. "Folk music always changes - a father sings a lullaby, then his daughter sings, then the granddaughter sings. Time is always changing, and music reflects what is going on - with the family, with relationships, with what's happening this week. Next week they may be in America!"

Hirota combined his drum studies in Japan with activities in the UK - he recorded solo projects and became musical director for the godfather of mime, Lindsay Kemp. The last Kemp / Hirota collaboration was Onnagata (named after the male character in kabuki theatre who plays the part of a woman), of which Hirota has fond memories. "Lindsay was fantastic. I still thank him for giving me the opportunity to express myself, he gave me so much." Another facilitator was Peter Gabriel - Hirota joined the travelling WOMAD circus of 100 musicians in 1990. "Peter helped me a lot with my music. We are lucky to have a man like that in this country, showing the beauty of music from other countries, showing how people are important, how friendship is important. When you are travelling, you become very aware that these things come strongly from the world of music."

One spin-off from the WOMAD tour was Trisan, Hirota's subsequent partnership with Clannad's Pol Brennan, on tin whistle, and Chinese flautist Guo Yue. The trio made an eponymous album in 1993 which won the Tower Records Critics Award for Contemporary Instrumental music. The link between Japanese and Chinese culture is historical - between Japanese and Irish less so, but Hirota is not afraid of losing his musical identity. "I am Japanese - I can't change it. I can adapt an instrument, or play it in a different style, but I can't change myself. If music comes from your heart, you can't change it." To those who decry hybrid music as culturally impure, he says: "I don't need to keep this I'm-Japanese-you're-Irish-he's-something- else thing. I'm not afraid of mixtures. We could present things as they were a hundred years ago but a musician like me wants to carry on creating, creating every day. I'm thinking about the 21st century."

Appearing in the Rhythm Sticks festival of percussion at London's South Bank, Joji Hirota is performing with Englishman Peter Lockett. Lockett, well versed in the art of Indian percussion, studied in Madras and he and Hirota have performed together often, presenting a fierce drum-based fusion of prelapsarian "world beat" to capacity audiences. What does Hirota think about those who, like Lockett, become proficient in the art of other cultures? Just as the Berbers of Morocco incorporate MTV-style headbanging into their traditional dance routines, Hirota feels that there are no rules: "The identity of the performer is not important at all. It's happening all over the world - in Japan, we have the world's leading flamenco dancer, the leading violin player with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is Japanese. It's just humanity - people sharing information."

And what does he feel about technology, the other great stumbling block for those uncomfortable with musical miscegenation? "Even if you use technology, it doesn't come from outer space, it comes from you. Some people love high-tech, some love only acoustic instruments, but technology is a new kind of challenge for a musician, and why not?" He believes that music has a real physical power - "I'm always trying to make my music have good energy and beauty. Good energy makes people happy - with it, you can see the colour of the music, the nature of the landscape, the colour of the stone. It should make people spiritually, and even physically, higher."

And what might the average levitating percussion-lover find at the Hirota / Lockett two-man show "From Taiko to Tabla"? Peter Lockett supports Hirota with global percussion accessories (Indian, Latin-American, Irish, West African and Middle Eastern) while Hirota unleashes his armoury of taiko barrel drums, Western kit, singing bowls and bells and shakuhachi flute. If last year's show was any indicator, the dramatic climax featuring Hirota's troupe of Japanese drummers as well as the main protagonists will have the audience bouncing off the roof.

"Everybody in life asks the question 'why', " Hirota says. "Music is one way of answering that question - straight away you have an answer. We are friends, we are brothers."

'From Taiko to Tabla: the Beat of the World' is on Tues, 7.30pm, at the Purcell Room, RFH, London SE1. Booking: 0171-960 4242

Photograph: Brian Tarr