Metropolis travels to Sado Island to hear how the Kodo
drummers are ushering a 2,000-year-old tradition into the
|A Kodo drummer beats
a massive O-daiko in the Earth Celebration grand finale
The atmosphere is so groovy at the Kodo drummers'
annual Earth Celebration, it's hard to fathom how an
instrument whose likely first use was on the battlefield has
been transformed into a symbol for peaceful celebration. Yet
this transformation-a change that in some ways mirrors
Japan's postwar search for a non-militaristic identity-is
exactly what Kodo have helped effect in over three decades
since arriving on Sado Island.
This not-so-quiet revolution was the result of a quest fired
by idealism, says Musical Director Motofumi Yamaguchi in an
interview held during this year's festival at the end
of August. "In the early days, people came less out
of musical interest than out of a desire to join a movement,
a commune," Yamaguchi notes about the years after Tagayasu
Den founded Kodo progenitors Sado no Kuni Ondekoza in 1969.
A similar combination of '60s idealism and happenstance
also characterizes the Earth Celebration, which Kodo-formed
in 1981 when a group of Ondekoza members split with Den-launched
16 years ago. "We didn't give it much serious
thought," a reflective Yamaguchi recalls amid the hubbub
of the festival headquarters. "We wanted do something,
but we didn't expect it to grow so big."
Taking place for three days every summer on far-removed Sado
in the Japan Sea, Earth Celebration has become a sort of Holy
Grail for world music aficionados. After many years of wishing,
this writer finally made the daylong trip from Tokyo, arriving
on a sultry August evening at Kodo's base of Ogi Port,
in time for the second evening of concerts.
A key part of Earth Celebration is its interaction between
the guest percussionists and the players of Kodo ("heartbeat"
or "children of the drum"). The festival launches
with a concert by Kodo, features guests on the second day,
and concludes with a grand finale with both groups on the
final day. This attempt to unite diverse cultures through
the common language of the drum has always been integral to
the festival, and has brought outstanding percussionists from
legendary American jazz drummer Elvin Jones to Indonesian
gamalan orchestra Suar Agung to Sado.
This year, Kodo have invited the drummers of Burkina Faso,
whose colorful athleticism contrasts nicely with Kodo's
disciplined perfection. "Usually we get to know our
collaborators in advance and trade tapes or even meet abroad
and practice," explains Yamaguchi. "This time
we had never met the Burkina Faso drummers, but when they
arrived, we found that we were able to relate to them very
Yamaguchi says the fact that both Kodo and their guests are
percussionists is essential in making something unplanned
seem carefully choreographed. "Sense of rhythm of course
differs from country to country, but it gives us a point of
reference and a shared energy."
By now a well-established concern with 24 players, some 20
staff overseeing the business operations, and a compound of
their own on Sado, Kodo have become Japan's premiere
touring music ensemble, selling out marquee venues such as
New York's Carnegie Hall.
Yamaguchi says the group attracts a different kind of candidate
than in the past. "These days, many hopefuls approach
us after seeing us in concert, so rather than joining a commune,
we have people who really want to perform on stage-the
level of professionalism has increased."
Aspirants join a rigorous two-year apprenticeship of communal
living during which their ability and dedication are assessed.
"Then we look at whether they will become a performing
member of Kodo, or work in a different capacity," says
Yamaguchi. Rather than an audition per se, it's trial
by fire. "We have them participate in concerts to see
how they fare."
Yamaguchi sees two main factors behind the continuing resurgence
of interest in taiko, whose most recent example is the popularity
of a taiko simulation video game. "Why is it popular
now?" he asks rhetorically. "Well not just us,
but others also have presented a vision for taiko that is
not limited to matsuri or Kabuki as in the past, but is accessible
to people from all walks of life."
He also perceives a benign form of gaiatsu, or pressure from
outside, at work. "Back in 1981, when we debuted in
Berlin and became famous overseas, Japanese saw that westerners
were interested in taiko. Many Japanese then began to reconsider
their traditions, and the taiko offers Japanese something
from their own culture." Yamaguchi cites renewed interest
in the Tsugaru shamisen and the shakuhachi as other examples
of resurgent Japanese traditional music.
With their latest coup in the form of a soundtrack for the
recent film Hero by Chinese director Zhang Yimou and a schedule
booked through 2005, Kodo are now preoccupied with their upcoming
two-week collaboration with Kabuki star Tamasaburo Bando.
Choreographed by Tamasaburo, the performances represent the
first large-scale meeting between Kabuki and taiko.
"Tamasaburo approached us and said he wanted to work
together," said Yamaguchi. "It should be very
interesting. Tamasaburo plays both male and female parts;
he identifies with both genders. Usually when we do Kodo we
think only from a male perspective. Tamasaburo sees things
from a female point of view, and has brought out that side
in us as well."
Kodo One Earth Tour Special takes
place at Setagaya Public Theater November 14-30. See concert
listings for details.