Meet the Face Behind YAMATO Challengers: Masa Ogawa

UNIVERSITY PARK — The soul and the spirit, side by side, are electrifying entities; united through music, however, they have the power to soar, together.

YAMATO’s Challengers performance provide wings for both the soul and spirit to fly free— to allow audience members to experience for a night the feel for the energy of life.

The Challengers is a group that formed out of YAMATO, a collective that utilizes Japanese traditional Taiko drums made out of one single piece of wood aged more than 400 years, for their performance.

YAMATO’s artistic director, Masa Ogawa, feels that Taiko drumming has always tried to express the energy of the people.

The Challengers were then created to express the energy of those facing challenges themselves to survive this little thing called life— and everything else in between.

“YAMATO wants to give the spirit and energy [necessary for challenges], but also wants to get the spirit and the energy from the audience,” Ogawa said. “YAMATO always wants to create a place where people can encourage one another.”

This encouragement and celebration of taking on challenges is embodied through the drummers’ full body movement, as the Taiko drummers are known to carry their souls into their work, pound for pound, strike for strike.

The drumming, therefore, makes for a resounding, powerful energy— the very essence of Japanese soul and spirit.

Ogawa explains that the drumming represents the pulse of the heart, the pulse to life and to witness the spectacle of a dozen-plus musician-athletes express their personal challenges and experience through the drums is personal, intimate and in every way captivating.

The drummers invite the audience to share their own personal journeys on stage, so that everyone’s story can interweave for full power and exposure

After all, at the end of the day, challenges bring people together.

“Everybody has a different mind, different background and different philosophy, but YAMATO drummers try to grow closer by [taking their differences] and becoming one,” Ogawa said, movingly. “Taiko has the power to make people ‘one’.”

The audience is in every way encouraged to watch that power unfold and perhaps even embrace it for themselves.

The term “full-body” experience, in this way, does not even begin to describe the performance.

“When you hit the Taiko by yourself with full power, you can feel the big vibration; it will come into your body and soul directly,” the artistic director explained. “It comes thorough not just the ear, but also form pores of your whole body.”

The full experience, Ogawa feels, makes the drumming actually reflect the story of the heartbeat, the pulse.

“Taiko drumming expresses the [energy of power]. For sound to come, the hit must have full power; if the power is not enough, or if the drummers give up, the sound will not come out,” he said. “When one heartbeat sounds and continues to beat, there is the energy,” he said. “Then it can be inherited to the future [and beyond].”

And the training to represent such heart stories is less than easy.

TAIKO drummers are based in Asuka village, the birthplace of Japanese culture, where they take on daily strength training, starting at 5:30 a.m.

As the sun is rising, the drummers’ feet hit the earth through the rice fields and woods, as they run their sought out 10 kilometers.

The members live together, eat and cook daily meels together and engage in “Suburi” together, a type of drumming involving large sticks they must use to hit the sky above, more than 3,000 times in an hour.

After “Suburi” and in-between meals, the drummers focus on rehearsing for shows, all of which lasts until 10:00 p.m.

Ogawa feels the most rewarding part of his work and is seeing the ebb and the flow of the energy and spirit, from within to the out, back within.

“The energy will go and return — it's the most fulfilling point,” he said.

The group has performed in 51 countries, for almost half a million people, calling for memories and moments that move the very hearts of the performers who try to convey them.

Ogawa recalled meeting a 90-year-old woman after the show, who began to tell the drummers that their show caused her to realize why she had lived so long.

“She told us that (she had been) waiting (to hear us) for a long time so that she could catch our energy, so that she could stay alive for a little bit more,” he said. “Those kind of (interactions) with the people we play for [is the epitome of] the energy of YAMATO.”

Ogawa sees his role in YAMATO is keeping alive the Japanese tradition and culture, while at the same time encouraging the drummers to continue evolving and changing as their personal journeys do.

For Ogawa, no show is the same because no audience is the same; the energy is breathed and reciprocated through the people that in State College’s case, will be seated in Penn State University’s Eisenhower Auditorium.
 “We will go everywhere, to try and give the energy to the people,” Ogawa revealed. “YAMATO is called “physical music” and so [we hope the audience will] discover the drummers’ hidden power and energy in their body and mind, [as they play].

“We hope that you can meet our Taiko drums, directly,” he said. “We hope that you feel the energy of the Challengers.”

The show will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 30 and tickets can be purchased at the following link:




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