In a heartbeat

There is more to acclaimed Japanese drumming troupe Kodo’s apparent simplicity than meets the eye.

311_taiko drums (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_taiko drums
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In Japanese, the word kodo has two meanings: “heartbeat,” the primal source of all rhythm, and “children of the drum,” which reflects a desire to play drums simply – with the heart of a child.
That, in a nutshell, is what internationally acclaimed Japanese drumming troupe Kodo is all about, and what it’s been doing for close to 30 years. With the highly visual aspect of the ensemble’s performances, and the bare ferocity of some of its work, both those attributes will be front and center at Kodo’s forthcoming concerts here between October 1 and 5, in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.
Bare-knuckled Israeli fans of contemporary music, used to the in-your-face output of genres such as heavy metal and post-punk rock, will find themselves exposed to artistic attacks of very different intensity and texture when the Japanese gang hits the stage.
There appears to be something very simple, almost innocent, about Kodo’s music, but there is plenty more to it.
“Like nature, which is so simple but filled with mystery and complexity, I think the ultimate simplicity lies in intricacy,” observes Kodo’s artistic director Jun Akimoto. “We call this ‘a beauty of withdrawal.’ Simplification requires a lot of work, effort, love and wisdom.”
Confused by the seemingly contradictory explanations of the ensemble’s work? According to Akimoto, all will be demonstrated with crystal clarity – and artistry and dexterity of the highest order – at the shows.
“KODO’S PERFORMANCE is often described as theatrical rather than a regular musical performance,” Akimoto says, explaining that the ensemble’s performance is based more on actual folk performing arts such as you would find at local festivals, rituals or gatherings, which comprise various elements such as music, theater, dance, mime, poetry, costume, architecture, design and the visual arts.
“Music is one of the elements, and it is very important, but the visual aspect is indistinguishable from the music itself,” Akimoto says.
Kodo’s offerings have been eagerly lapped up by audiences the world over since the group’s debut at the Berlin Festival in 1981. In the intervening 29-plus years, Kodo has given over 3,100 performances across five continents, spending about a third of the year overseas, a third touring in Japan and a third resting and preparing new material on suitably remote Sado Island, located north off Japan’s central coastal area.
But it wasn’t success from the word go for a previous incarnation of the act, despite the esoteric setting of its first performance outside Japan.
“In the Seventies, the Ondeko-za drumming group, which came before Kodo, debuted in North America at the Boston Marathon with performers drumming after running 42.195 km,” Akimoto explains. “That was followed by shows in Europe, at Espace Pierre Cardin in Paris.
“In both places we had only smaller audiences in the beginning because Japanese drumming was a completely new frontier in the West and we were unknown then. Popularity and reception came a little later.”
As one can imagine, all the members of the troupe stay in top physical shape, and it isn’t exactly a piece of cake to get into the ensemble in the first place. Group members have to train for a long period and serve an apprenticeship before becoming performers.
“One has to spend two years as an apprentice, and another one to two years as a provisional member before being accepted as a regular member,” Akimoto continues.
“Eventually, about one member out of 10 passes the final audition each year. After becoming regular members, they are required to train extensively every day.”
Taking into account the amount of energy group members expend during the shows – which include beating drums over two meters in diameter with enormous brute strength – the performers take pains to follow a balanced regimen.
“They all think and work healthy, respect the others, eat good food, and sleep well,” the artistic director declares.
According to myth, taiko – in Japanese, “drum” or “great drum” – drumming has been around in Japan for thousands of years.
LEGEND HAS it that taiko was started by Ame no Uzume, a shaman-like female deity. One day, tiring of her mischievous younger brother, the sun goddess Amaterasu Oomikami hid herself in a cave. The world was plunged into darkness and the other deities tried to appease her, so that light would be restored.
They held a big party in front of the cave and Ame no Uzume danced an erotic dance, stamping her feet on a wooden tub. The gods laughed and cheered loudly, and the noise of Ame no Uzume’s foot percussion coaxed the sun goddess out her cave, making the world light again.
Somewhat more recently, various taiko drums of Chinese origin were brought to Japan in the Yayoi period (500 BCE-300 CE). Meanwhile, modern taiko was established in 1951 by Daihachi Oguchi, who is credited with forming the first genuine taiko ensemble, referred to as kumi-daiko. This sparked the modern popularity of taiko performances.
Considering the history of the art form, one might expect Kodo’s work to be steeped in the tradition. And while Kodo does feed off those ancient roots, Akimoto says that much of their act takes in contemporary influences too.
“It is hard to categorize what is traditional and nontraditional. For the last 40 years, since the formation of Ondeko-za in 1971, and with Kodo since 1981, we have been under steady influences from the various folk performing arts – often connected with Buddhism/Shintoism rituals/festivals, gatherings, etc. – in different regions throughout Japan."
Naturally, however, to draw in Western audiences sometimes a little tinkering is in order.
“For some pieces we have learned, Kodo has been pretty consistent about maintaining the ‘original’ styles; however, in order to make the traditional more accessible to the contemporary and modernized music, entertainment and performing arts industry, Kodo has added intricate arrangements to the original.
“So we are trying to be faithful to the original traditions – but, at the same time, sensitive about balancing traditionalism and contemporary and modern.”
INDEED, KODO’S repertoire includes original pieces that borrow from many other cultures and styles, such as rock, pop, jazz, classical, world music, opera and musicals; even circus and theatrical material, dance and the fine arts.
“But they are all deeply rooted in the traditional folk cultures in which we have been nourished over years,” Akimoto adds, “which acts as a filter whenever we incorporate something different from outside.”
The ensemble also commissions works from various composers and artists, including composers of orchestral works, taiko players, kabuki musicians and actors, and many other artists whom Kodo has invited and collaborated with at the annual summer festival on Sado Island. These cross-cultural excursions have also taken in performers playing a wide range of instruments from other genres, including piano, guitar, brass instruments, Latin percussion instruments and electronic instruments to computers and DJs.
“We have even used Trinidad steel drums for one of the Kodo pieces, from our experience of playing with a steel drum orchestra from Trinidad in the early Nineties,” says Akimoto.
One of the overriding impressions of Kodo’s output and ethos is that while tradition is important, the troupe engages in a dynamic art form, and augmentation does not mean dilution.
“Good music does not have to be traditional,” Akimoto declares. “I think the importance of preserving the tradition is not about preserving the traditional musical form itself, but about learning from the past through the ways of thinking and living which are inherited and passed on to us.
“Music – or any other kind of art – never stands on its own. It is always connected with people’s lives.”
It is safe to say that Kodo’s irrepressible art form is certainly alive and kicking.
Kodo will perform at the Tel Aviv Opera House on October 1 at 3 p.m., and at the Mann Auditorium on October 2 at 8:30 p.m.; at the Haifa Congress Center on October 4 at 8:30 p.m., and at the ICC in Jerusalem on October 5 at 8:30 p.m.