Corrections or additions?

This article by Kevin L. Carter was prepared for the February 28,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Kodo Drummers At Work and Play

One of the major misconceptions about Kodo, the


taiko drum ensemble, is that it primarily performs traditional


classical and folk music. On the surface, such an idea would seem

to make sense. After all, the visual and anecdotal evidence points

strongly to Kodo as a product of old-style, feudal Japan — a Japan

that recalls the days before foreign contact.

Although part of Kodo’s original mission was to preserve and maintain

traditional Japanese arts, the ensemble has moved light years forward

from this task. Currently on its 20th anniversary tour, Kodo performs

Wednesday, March 7, at the State Theater in New Brunswick and on


March 8, at McCarter Theater.

Among the most enduring images of Kodo from its two decades of touring

is of thin but powerful men — and only men — dressed in tight

Japanese fundoshi, the tiny loincloths that reveal all but

the most intimate body parts. The men play in groups of five or six,

wielding drumsticks with martial precision — drumming ’til they

drop, it seems. The drums they beat range in size from the snare


shimedaiko to the mid-sized okedodaiko to the 900-pound

O-daiko. And all this is executed with breathtaking speed and

a strong sense of visual flair. The effect is unlike drum circles

or African-derived polyrhythmic ensembles. Kodo’s sound is powerful

and washes over an audience like a tidal wave.

The image of the near-naked, buff drummers endures, and is a great

part of what the Kodo Drummers are. But it’s not everything, says

Kodo company manager Takashi Akamine. Akamine, speaking by phone


a weeklong tour stop in Denver last week, says his group uses the

traditions of its native Japan to expand upon and to show a new,


style of music to the world.

"It is really not our goal to preserve traditional things,"

says Akamine. "What we do is very modern. We take traditional

instruments and musically blend the new and old together."

Kodo’s two decades of performance, composing, and recording shows

a desire to synthesize and transform tradition into a totally new

product. Dedicated to this purpose, its members spend one-third of

their time working at their compound on Sado Island, one-third touring

in Japan, and one-third touring outside Japan.

Unlike some groups inspired by traditional Japanese arts, Kodo has

always been willing to absorb and collaborate with ensembles whose

styles may be radically different from their own. The band has, at

one time or another, collaborated with jazz drummers Max Roach and

Elvin Jones (whose wife Keiko is Japanese), the Amoco Renegades steel

drummers of Trinidad, Samul Nori of Korea, gamelan ensembles from

Indonesia, drummers from Burundi and Nigeria in Africa, and musicians

from Latin America.

The group’s repertoire, which at first largely consisted of Kodo’s

sometimes radical arrangements of traditional Japanese music, has

changed in more recent times to include collaborations with Japanese

classical and new-music composers as well as compositions by veteran

Kodo members. Its 1991 release "Gathering" featured gospel

and jazz performers, and its 1995 "Nasca Fantasy" was recorded

with Japanese electronic musician Isao Tomita and the Peruvian group

Kusillaqta. And in 1998, the Brazilian metal ensemble Sepultura went

to Japan to record its "Kaimatachi" single with Kodo.

"Our performers are very open to different kinds of music, to

different lines of communication," says Akamine. "We are


willing to meet with other people, because this presents a challenge.

The rewards — emotional and mental — are greater that


In 1999, the group took an even more radical step by recording techno

versions of some of its earlier compositions, collaborating with


Bill Laswell and DJ Krush to produce "Sai-So, the Remix


Compounding all this evidence is the presence of many women in Kodo,


of whom play important roles in the touring ensemble. Although women

in Japanese music have often been limited to flute and vocal roles,

Kodo’s Chieko Kojima is as accomplished at drumming as she is in the

other forms. "That is been one of the major changes of the past

decade," says Akamine, "the elevation of women."

In the 20 years that Kodo has existed, says Akamine, the art of taiko,

a generic term for any Japanese-related drum or drumming tradition,

has boomed in Japan and around the world. Japan now has more than

5,000 taiko ensembles, Akamine said. There are more than 150 taiko

groups in the United States, concentrated largely on the West Coast

and in Hawaii, and many others in Western Canada, Europe and Latin

America. Although he does not expressly say this, the phenomenon is

directly attributable to the success of Kodo, and its rival ensemble,

Ondekoza, from which it splintered. "Taiko in Japan was basically

a dead art before we got started," Akamine says.

All of this comes from the unique — some might say

uniquely Japanese — process through which Kodo organizes itself

and initiates, even indoctrinates, apprentices into its group. It

began in 1971 when a group of Japanese taiko aficionados pooled their

money and bought an old schoolhouse on Sado Island in the Sea of


There they formed a group that focused on communal living, taiko and

other Japanese performing and fine arts. Ten years later, Kodo broke

away from the original group, and in 1988 built a compound on Sado’s

southern peninsula. Since then, the group has continued to build on

the island — its members do all the construction, usually with

recycled building materials from old buildings.

There are many legends surrounding the musical and cultural


process of Kodo’s members, legends that tend to seem more and more

apocryphal with each retelling. But the basics are as such:


be they Japanese or foreign (there is one American-born member of

Kodo’s touring ensemble, as well as several others studying taiko

on Sado), must live communally in Kodo’s compound. All must run


miles every morning and spend their days working on physical


as well as studying taiko.

Since part of Kodo’s original mission was to preserve and maintain

traditional Japanese arts, the apprentices spend most of their days

immersing themselves in traditional Japanese music and theater arts.

During their first two years, they study kagura, rooted in Shinto,

the indigenous Japanese religion, the ancient gagaku court music,

Noh and Kyogen theater and the Kabuki tradition.

Then, after this initial period of indoctrination is over, they


forget about it, Akamine says. "It is very important for them

to know the traditional background of our performing arts, but what

happens is that afterwards, they begin to bring in their own flavor.

Some of the musicians have rock or classical or jazz background, and

as a result we blend many contemporary things with Japanese


music." Two of the band’s players and composers, Ryutaro Kaneko

and Yasukazu Kano, for instance, have strong jazz roots.

Every year, Akamine says, Kodo holds an "Earth Celebration"

on Sado Island. Over the years, this is where most of the group’s

informal collaborations with foreign musicians take place. But this

world of 2001 is a world of instant information, a world in which

African-American and Ango-American youth wear kanji, or


or Chinese characters, on their clothing and as body tattoos. "The

world is getting smaller," says Akamine. "We have the Internet

and CNN. If something happens here in Denver, the world will know

within minutes. If something happens in Japan, America and the rest

of the world knows very quickly. People in Japan take what they get

from America and elsewhere, and if they like it, and they use it as

part of their lives."

Kodo, Akamine says, is truly a world music ensemble. Twenty years

ago, the term itself barely existed. Since then, however, two


concepts of what constitutes world music have developed.

The first, which has tended to dominate, is that anything largely

of African, Afro-Latin, Middle Eastern, or Asian origin that did not

fit into our traditional "pop" categories was "world


This concept is ultimately inflexible because it leans largely toward

the ethnomusicological, neglecting to acknowledge the inherent popular

nature of much of this music.

The second concept of world music, more recent and ultimately more

enduring, is also more appropriate to what Kodo is doing now:


music that stems from one major ethnic tradition but which does not

limit itself to that tradition.

Not everyone in Japan or even foreign taiko aficionados agree with

every step Kodo takes. "We often hear criticism of what we do,

although not always directly," Akamine says. After the release

of Kodo’s techno album, he says, he knew that many "would not

ever see us again. But sometimes we gain audiences, and sometimes

we lose them. This is how our life goes."

— Kevin L. Carter

Kodo Drummers of Japan, State Theater, 15 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. $25 to $45. Wednesday, March

7, 8 p.m.

Kodo Drummers, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. $32 to $43. Thursday, March 8, 8 p.m.

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