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Drumbeat of the Kodo


THE sound of the great drum, the o-daiko, shivers the floors and walls of the large theater with its deep voice booming music from an ancient past. The percussionists in the Japanese group Kodo, currently on tour in the United States, command the o-daiko with marvelous precision as they do numerous smaller drums in their performance. The taiko (the traditional Japanese drum) as played by such gifted and disciplined musicians can still entrance modern audiences, riveting the imagination as it tickles the soles of the feet.

The touring Kodo company, 12 male performers and one female, have perfected performance techniques to such an extent that each drummer seems to be mechanically linked to all the others in the ensemble pieces. Virtuosity is the gift of nearly every member on stage.

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This art transcends culture, class, age, and gender - which is one reason why Kodo's world tours have been so successful.

The group's universal appeal is partly due to the athletic prowess of the performers as they take impossibly difficult stances and beat the drums with splendid force and accuracy, and partly due to the nature of the music and its heart-pounding rhythms.

Some of the music dates back hundreds of years, but most is contemporary, sometimes incorporating rhythms from Africa, Latin America, and the US - all interpreted in uniquely Japanese terms.

The word "Kodo" in Japanese is formed by the two symbols for "children" and "drum." It also means "heartbeat." "Children of the Drum" is the expressive translation of Kodo, poetically seizing the essence of the company's whole persona - performances may begin with serious stances and fierce expressions, but they end in a joyous outpouring of childlike, even primal, energy. The drummers of Kodo make music as if they were born to it.

The group's origins

A great drum company is not born, it is made.

In 1971 a small group of friends joined together to live on a beautiful island in the Sea of Japan. On Sado they decided to pursue the ancient art of taiko, and while they waited to acquire their drums they began a strict regimen of exercise.

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Ten years ago these drummers changed their name from the Demon Drummers of Sado and became the Children of the Drum. They've since earned accolades in Japan, Europe, and North and South America for their disciplined and meticulous musicianship.

The price of Kodo's precision is great: each drummer's life is devoted entirely to the art. The communal life of the Kodo community on Sado is less rigid than it used to be. But apprentices and younger members still rise at 5 a.m. daily to run just over 6 miles. Rigorous physical training is necessary to accomplish the various stances and athletic movements required by the drum - movements that often resemble those of the martial arts.

After breakfast and communal cleanup, tightening of the drums is followed by a half hour of stretching and then three hours of practice. Afternoon practice goes on for several hours into the evening. The apprentice program lasts one year and includes training in traditional Japanese dance. But few initiates make it through the first year.

Kodo used to be exclusively male due to the great upper-body strength required to become as precise and vigorous as the Kodo code demands. But three women have now been admitted into the ranks, and one of them travels with the company, performing only a small role on stage as does the other (male) apprentice.

The Kodo lifestyle

Most of the 40 Kodo musicians are married and many have children. Although life for them has been described as "monkish" in its restraint, Kodo is emphatically not a religiously oriented commune. Kodo village is no utopian society.

"What they all have in common," says their American-born company manager, Robert Ward, "is that they all love to drum. I think what keeps them going is flexibility. They have a purpose.

"I think it leads to a very different sort of practice if the group lives together, practices together, cooks and cleans together, than if they are all living separately and commute to rehearsal. If you live in Tokyo, there are many distractions.

"Not in Sado. The members also feel it is important to be in touch with the rhythms of nature: day and night, spring, summer, winter, fall, high tide, low tide.... The rainy seasons in Japan make great moods."

Mr. Ward himself was a member of the community for five years before returning to America.

The many moods of Kodo swing the evening's performance through a series of exquisitely ingenious pieces.

This year's program opens with "Miyake," a traditionally inspired piece in which the mid-sized drums are placed low to the ground, necessitating a lunge-like stance - strenuous, graceful, and fierce.

The second piece, "Kariuta," incorporates two shinobue flutes (made of bamboo and birch bark) calling back and forth in haunting melody. The third piece is a revelation of the very nature of the shime-daiko, as seven drummers take the stage, kneel before the small drums, and pulsate a slow patter resembling the beginning of rain that gradually cascades into brilliant torrents (resembling a hail storm) and back again. "Monochrome" is not merely sound effects, it is a carefully composed and executed piece of music. The inspiration could as easily be drawn from the changing seasons as the patterns of a storm.

Later in the program a single musician plays the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument. Another piece ("Yu-Karak") features dueling drummers who playfully taunt each other to greater and greater virtuosity.

A dazzling finish

The three final pieces (two plus the encore) blast the assembly with sounds and sights not easily found in the West. "O-daiko" highlights the half-ton o-daiko's resonating boom, played by Yoshikazu Fujimoto, who is the company's senior player. The prowess apparent in his playing the great drum so perfectly electrifies the audience.

But the "Yatai-Bayashi" requires even greater stamina, as the three players drum in a half-sitting-up position. And, finally, the "unscheduled" encore brings every player on stage in a spectacular last eruption of joyous percussion.

That joy is absolutely communicable. Audiences respond with rock-concert ecstatic applause. The good feeling generated is exactly what Kodo is after.

Enlarging the community

"The village drum in Japan used to determine the boundaries of the village," Ward said.

"By analogy, if you can hear the Kodo drums now, you are part of the same community. That is what is meant by 'One Earth Tour.' Kodo is always on a 'One Earth Tour' when they travel. [Kodo produces] very high energy.... Kodo doesn't turn off the old people, it's much more inclusive."

So inclusive of mankind is Kodo, it has presented two workshop-concerts for hearing impaired children, most recently in Dallas. "Our drums have such a low register that the children loved it," says Ward. "They were eight, nine, and 10 year-olds and they just loved it. It was very moving."

Kodo has completed its US tour, but the troupe has plans to return to this country in January, 1992.

This Aug. 21-23, Kodo's 4th annual Earth Celebration Drum Festival on Sado will feature performers from various cultures. Kodo has three CDs out on the CBS/Sony label, one of which is available in the US - "Irodori" - which means brightness, colorfulness, radiance.

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