At just under five feet in height, Eva Kestner ’09 is one diminutive powder keg. A founding member and now music director of Yamatai, the Cornell taiko group, she not only plays the taiko, an instrument that demands immense strength and flexibility, but has also trained on the piano and timpani and is now teaching herself the guitar. Standing in the basement of her favourite haunt, Lincoln Hall, this soon to be professional taiko player (and member of the Japanese taiko group Bonten) talks about her journey as an artist, her influences and inspirations and the future of taiko music.
Sun: How did you get involved in Taiko?
Eva Kestner: When I was eight years old, my mom wanted me to try new things. One day she said, “I want to do Taiko.” [She] asked me and my sister if we wanted to give it a try and we did. It was mostly her [at first] who was involved in it — we were just following her.
Sun: Where was this?
E.K.: This was in Tokyo. I was just like, it sounds cool. I had seen it once at a Japanese festival and I found it very cool. [And] there were all these guys looking all powerful and emotional!
Sun: Is that the same thing that keeps you attracted to Taiko even today?
E.K.: No. Today I don’t know … that is a very tough question. I just do it because it is my life. [Laughs]
Sun: So I was reading that you don’t have a life outside Taiko?
E.K.: [Laughs] That’s kinda true — I don’t know. I guess.
Sun: How do you see your involvement evolving with Taiko?
E.K.: Well, [there is] one thing [that] I want to do — Taiko is not really known as a performing art. Even in Japan, people still view it as traditional ceremonial thing that you only play at festivals. People don’t really go to Taiko concerts because they don’t even know that that exists. So I would like to see Taiko as performing arts more first in Japan then all over the world.
Sun: So how did you get involved with Taiko in Cornell?
E.K.: My friend, Haruki Yukawa ’09, said that he wanted to start a Taiko team and I said “Really?! I am experienced and I think I can help you guys!” And they were like “What? You? Why?” And I was like, “Trust me, I can help you.” And then my friend who started the club, he bought one drum. In the beginning it was like one more job; I wasn’t too into it then. Then the semester after we started it, my teacher came to Cornell, and he bought more drums and then I brought more drums the semester after that. That’s how it kind of started.
Sun: You said your teacher really kick-started Cornell Taiko, in a way.
E.K.: Yes, in a way.
Sun: Who is he?
E.K.: His name is Masataka Kobayashi and he is the lead drummer and a professional at a band called Bonten and he is still a teacher.
Sun: Tell me about your relationship with Masataka Kobayashi how he has influenced you.
E.K.: When I was kid he was like my teacher. But now he is like a father, a teacher and someone I look up to.
Sun: So has he influenced your music in any way?
E.K.: Well, the music we do in Cornell Taiko is what I learnt from him, and most of the stuff he composed. I guess I am biased, but I like his type of music.
Sun: In what way has he influenced you — in your life and Taiko?
E.K.: He is very serious about what he does. He is a very loving and caring person. His whole lifestyle, not just how he drums.
Sun: What about playing with Bonten — what is the best thing about them?
E.K.: I think that what we are aiming for — I think we all have different individual goals — but what we are aiming for as team: I think we are all united in that way. It’s different here, because you know Cornell Taiko is more like a hobby for its members. With Bonten, it’s their life.
Sun: Tell me about your most memorable concert, at Cornell or elsewhere.
E.K.: My most memorable one was when the first time I played with Bonten — that was last summer. It was my debut as a professional drummer, but not really, because I had to come back here. That was a rock concert, Taiko with a rock fusion.
Sun: What was so memorable about it?
E.K.: I didn’t think that I could [play] as part of Bonten. Usually, to be in Bonten you have to be in Japan and train with them for a few years and then you can get an opportunity. But for me, I didn’t have a chance to do this because I was here. But I don’t know, because I guess my teacher recognized the work I had done and put me on the stage.
Sun: I do hear that you are turning professional once you graduate?
E.K.: Yes, I’m joining Bonten.
Sun: I’ve heard that you have a huge adrenalin rush after playing Taiko. How does it generally feel?
E.K.: You feel [like you] just can’t sleep. Your heart is beating so fast!
Sun: So is there some sort of zone that you get into?
E.K.: Yes it’s a different feeling. It’s like a switch. I just walk in stage or stand in front of the drums and feel different.
Sun: People have come up to you and said, “I didn’t recognise you up there.”
E.K.: Yeah, I would walk outside in my puffy jacket and people come up to me saying like, “You wearing a puffy jacket — I’d never imagine you in a puffy jacket on stage, it’s so not like you.”
Sun: Do you need to be physically fit to be Taiko?
E.K.: When I was a kid I was really skinny and really frail. And now, I am sort of skinny, but stronger. You have to be flexible and you really need arm and leg power.
Sun: What is the most difficult part of playing Taiko?
E.K.: To keep yourself healthy everyday — your health is the most important. I think that is the hardest for me — especially here because I don’t have my mom cooking for me and all my friends are in college and stay up late … It’s hard to maintain my own rhythm or lifestyle out here.
Sun: How many hours a week do you need to focus on Taiko?
E.K.: In Japan, I can practice more because [of] Bonten; I can practice with them, with their students and at home. Here I have six hours a week to practice; that’s not enough for me. It sucks.
Sun: How do you balance your coursework with Taiko — especially now that you are graduating?
E.K.: As a student — I know that this is kinda bad — but my priority is Taiko and my second priority is being a student. And yes, I want to go to the gym and work out but I can’t. I have all these preparations to do for the Bonten concert.
Sun: You are doing a major in philosophy?
E.K.: I think it changes my mental state. Philosophy teaches you more in how to think rather than factual knowledge. I do philosophy because, well, I started to take philosophy classes because I was interested in them and I guess I just stuck with it and took it as my major. How I got into philosophy is my parents — they are really into spiritualism and elevating yourself spiritually, and I try to be that way too … And doing that and not doing that, it would make me a totally different drummer. I really like taking philosophy classes here it’s helped me much with my drumming.
Sun: So do you prefer yourself out there [referring to a picture of her playing Taiko] or you right now?
E.K.: Out there. I feel I am more myself out there.
Catch Eva in action with Bonten on March 6, 2009 at 7 p.m. at Bailey Hall. Tickets are $10 for students and $20 for the general public.