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Lesotho RPCV Al Zdrazil plays Japanese Drums
Lesotho RPCV Al Zdrazil plays Japanese Drums
Joe Kimball: Prosecutor keeps the beat with Japanese drums
Published August 25, 2003
Al Zdrazil is known around the Ramsey County courthouse as a quiet attorney who excels at his stressful job. It takes lots of emotional energy to handle court cases involving abused children.
But on evenings and weekends, there's a very different Al.
Trading his suit and tie for a short kimono and hachimaki (head band), he grabs the drumsticks, strikes a pose and begins pounding out the flowing, thumping, choreographed rhythms of Japanese taiko drumming.
"It's a tremendous release, the physicality of it," said Zdrazil, who began taking classes in 1998 and for the past three years has been an intern with the Theater Mu performance group called Mu Daiko.
"You can be exhausted after a day at work, but you get energy back when you hit the drums," Zdrazil (pronounced Dra-zil) said.
His devotion to the art takes a new, international turn next month when Zdrazil goes to Japan to study with the Kodo, the theatrical drum group that travels internationally and has many popular CDs.
When they're not on tour, group members live and train on Sado Island -- about 20 miles off the coast of mainland Japan in the Japanese Sea. Each fall, they invite 20 North Americans to study there with them. Zdrazil figures he wasn't selected solely for his drumming ability.
"They stress that the training is about Japanese arts and culture, not just drumming, and I've long been interested in Japanese things," he said. He had met two of the Kodo drummers at recent workshops in Winnipeg and Minneapolis and figures they might have remembered him. And, he came up with the $2,600 fee.
Zdrazil, whose heritage is Czech, might have developed his yen for things Japanese 12 years ago, when his daughter, Amy, attended a Japanese culture summer camp at the Science Museum of Minnesota. "We were looking for good things for her to do and that worked for us," said Sally Mortenson, Zdrazil's wife. The next summer, two Japanese students stayed at their home, and Amy attended summer Japanese language camps for the next six years.
By the time Amy shipped off to Japan in 1998 in a student exchange program, Zdrazil had seen Kodo a couple times and urged his daughter to check out taiko drumming during her year abroad.
Soon after she left, Zdrazil attended the local Asian Heritage Festival, where he saw someone from the local Mu Daiko taiko group in the parade. He picked up a brochure for the group's classes, remembered what he had told Amy, and realized: "I was guilty of that age-old sin of parents: trying to get your child to do something you want to do."
He signed up, loved the classes and has been drumming ever since. Three years ago, the Mu Daiko invited him to be an intern in the group. He still holds that position, practicing with the group two or three times a week at the Minneapolis studio. He participates in most performances, but doesn't get the high-profile solos.
It's fine to be a 55-year-old intern, he said, "as long as I get to keep drumming."
Drums have been part of the Japanese culture for thousands of years, in war and in village life. But after World War II, many of the traditional Japanese arts, including drumming, went out of favor. A resurgence in the 1950s, though, brought taiko drumming to a new level, combining multiple beats into complex rhythms. Now, there are more than 5,000 taiko groups in Japan, Zdrazil said. "Every town has them, here we have softball teams, there they have taiko groups," he said.
Many say taiko is as much fun to watch as it is to hear; the skilled musicians dance their way around the drums often striking the drums with martial-arts-like thrusts.
Zdrazil said he likes the pageantry and musicality of the art, even though he had no previous musical training. "I was in choir class in high school and I've always been a dashboard drummer, tapping along with the radio," he said. "I was so fascinated by the taiko drummers that I had to try it. Of course, I think Bob Marley is cool, too, but I never took up reggae."
Zdrazil grew up in Hopkins and said his first job was shining shoes at the Oak Ridge Country Club when he was 12. He studied speech at the University of Minnesota, thinking he might go into labor negotiations (on the workers' side), but after graduation joined the Peace Corps. He worked with farm co-ops in the African nation of Lesotho even though his only previous agricultural experience was weeding his parents' garden. The Peace Corps, he said, "trained me well."
He traveled after his Peace Corps stint, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, then returned home, not sure what career path to take. His older brother suggested law school. Zdrazil took his advice and met his wife there.
After graduation, the new lawyers moved to Bemidji, where Al was an assistant county attorney, working for Beltrami and Cass Counties. He also worked as the Bemidji city attorney. During that time his wife was elected Beltrami County commissioner. They moved to St. Paul in 1987; Mortenson is an attorney in private practice, and Zdrazil is an assistant Ramsey County attorney. He has long worked on child abuse cases, and now heads the team that handles domestic abuse cases involving children.
"I really like working with the kids and I care a lot about them and the cases, but I have to be able to leave the work at the office," he said.
Mortenson said she is so glad her husband has found a passion in his life outside of work and family. "It's so interesting that he has this avocation that's unrelated to his work life, and they're both so very different, yet he does an excellent job at both," she said.
She has noticed that many members of the taiko group have pressure-filled jobs, too.
"I think they're able to work out a lot of the stress that builds up at work," she said. "As one of them said: It's cheaper than a psychiatrist."
Around St. Paul runs Mondays and Fridays. Joe Kimball is at 651-298-1553 or email@example.com.