A Minute With: John Caird melds Ugandan dance, Japanese drums, U.S. chorus

Reuters

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Samurai, Ugandan dance, a U.S. chorus and the thunder of traditional Japanese taiko drums mix and meld in a cross-cultural charity collaboration to raise money for orphans around the world.

"At Home in the World", performed by Ugandan youth whose parents died from HIV/AIDS and Japanese young people who lost loved ones in the 2011 tsunami, as well as a chorus from Vassar College in the United States, is directed by award-winning Briton John Caird and was playing in Tokyo on Thursday.

The production - co-sponsored by Vassar and a Japanese charity that runs a Ugandan orphanage, among other activities - premiered recently in tsunami-hit northern Japan.

Caird, who has directed widely around the world and won several Tony Awards, spoke to Reuters about the production, which will tour globally in 2015.

Q: Any unexpected difficulties?

A: The difficult thing was teaching Ugandan children to sing in Western tonality because they do tribal shout singing, which doesn't actually land on any key...

But I suppose a bigger challenge was getting the Vassar students to behave like samurai. One of the big Tohoku (northeast Japan) drumming sequences is the heroic story about the effects of the tsunami and the samurai going off and sailing across the world to seek help.

At first, the Vassar students were walking across the stage like big bags of dough. They got taken in hand by the wadaiko trainer and he turned them into samurai. They look wonderful now.

Q: What was it like melding things as different as Japanese taiko and the Ugandan dancing and drumming?

A: The thing that binds the two cultures together is drums. They both have a passion for drumming. And very interestingly, when the Ugandans' (teacher) ... listened to the taiko drumming, he said "The Japanese have no sense of rhythm".

When we were listening to the Ugandan drumming, the trainer of the taiko drummers said "I can't hear any rhythm". So I decided that the very first thing we would have to do is start the show with the two sides drumming together.

We start with taiko and then we have Ugandan drumming. Then we slowly mix them until they're all drumming together, so they all get the rhythm that they're drumming in together. Because the great difficulty is that both taiko and Ugandan drumming rely on polyrhythms, these different sorts of rhythm happening all at the same time, and it goes off the beat sometimes.

But the thing that unites them is that they're all drumming out of a feeling that they want to express deeply felt feelings. There's a lot of emotion and anger in drumming. People drum to keep their spirits up and they drum to celebrate life and they drum to share their feelings with other people.

When you've got people who have lived through very difficult times, had a lot of loss and grief in their lives, some very special feeling goes into that drumming experience. So that's what the orphans from Tohoku and Uganda are sharing - they're sort of drumming their feelings into the music.

You can feel that raw emotion coming from that experience. They shout out as they're drumming and it's very passionate.

Q: HIV/AIDS in some ways is an issue that many in the West have almost forgotten about. Why is this still important?

A: The orphanage in Kampala is only a very few miles away from where the first case of AIDS was found in Uganda, and that part of Uganda is still a real hotbed of AIDS.

The government there only just started to admit that it's a social problem that needs to be addressed in a political way and they've just started to talk about "Let's have an AIDS-free generation". Until two or three years ago it was really a taboo subject.

So the Ugandan orphans feel this very deeply. There is a stigma to being an orphan anywhere in the world and the stigma is much, much greater if you're an HIV/AIDS orphan because people assume that you must be contaminated.

Q: Any other moments that come to mind?

A: I suppose the image that stays with me most clearly is the American children and Japanese children and Ugandan children on stage, sitting together, holding hands, sharing the witness statements of what it's like to be an orphan in the world today.

And with the music just comforting one another. That sharing of those very emotional moments and rooting them in the performance of beautiful music and dancing and drumming.

Q: And then there's music.

A: Then there's music. At times of course our rehearsal room is like the Tower of Babel. You're trying to explain something and the interpreter is saying it simultaneously in Japanese and another interpreter is saying it simultaneously in Luganda.

It feels like total chaos. But it isn't, it's the opposite. It's making order out of chaos.

That's what artists do. They look at the world and see nothing but pain and chaos and difficulty and they make beautiful things that negate the chaos, that make something beautiful and positive out of the difficult and dangerous.

That's what art is. That's what art does for the world. And doing it in a way that unites cultures and takes the young people and makes them more positive about living in this difficult and dangerous world that we've created.

(Editing by John O'Callaghan)

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