Music » Music Stories & Interviews




Japanese drum ensemble respectfully maintains cultural traditions - but it also rocks

One type of fan (for ease of reference, we'll call them KODWEEBS) approaches the group's work dispassionately. They are Japanophiles, quite likely academics, who appreciate the Taiko drums not for their thunderous ability to invade the human heart and make it beat in synchronization with the music, but for KODO's successful pursuit of both the authentic and the avant-garde through the medium of the traditional percussive aspects of Japanese drums. KODWEEBS like the idea of KODO, but are more apt to wear earplugs when they attend one of the group's admittedly loud performances.

Photo by Ryuichi Okano

The other subspecies of fan is interested only in KODO's ability to kick ass. While often unaware of KODO's cultural history, these fans are more likely to be drummers themselves (whether they play an actual instrument or conjure up snares, toms, bass drums, and cymbals from thin air is a matter of relatively little importance). To their way of thinking, KODO simply rocks, even if it has nothing to do with the genre of music known as rock. Members of this group are known as (what else?) KODORKS.

KODORKS are reviled by the KODWEEBS mainly for their inability to articulate why, exactly, KODO rocks, but also because KODORKS approach the music with a more honest intent. They do not just appreciate the music, they act it out, giving credence to KODO's own mantra to play the drums simply, with the heart of a child.

KODO itself is much harder to pin down. Formed in 1981, the group has become the most well-known Taiko drumming group in the world. And for good reason: Their training regimen, when not on tour, consists of a monk-like existence of communal workouts, meditation, and musical training. In the cloistered environs of Sado Island, Japan, the KODO life seems an amalgam of Julliard and the Shaolin temple. The group's approach (and identity) is largely the brainchild of Yoshikazu Fujimoto, KODO's senior member and O-daiko soloist, though the immense effort of staging KODOs lavish performances falls to an extended family of around 70 people.

As the group spends an average eight months on the road, this is no easy task: Worldwide transportation of huge and priceless 800-pound drums would be hard enough without also having to worry about composing for the flute and an assortment of stringed instruments, choreographing dances, making costumes, and feeding a troupe of musicians/athletes with a taste for good sushi. It helps that they get respect wherever they go.

By melding Japanese traditions and innovative approaches to music, KODO has expanded beyond the boundaries of Taiko drumming and turned itself into a world music institution. Their collaborators, who range from producers such as Bill Laswell to DJ Krush to percussion icons such as Giovanni Hidalgo, Zakir Hussein, and ex-Grateful Dead drum guru Mickey Hart, are a mixed bag of musical forces.

Each summer, the KODO compound on Sado Island is opened to visitors during the world music Earth Celebration Festival. KODO has also pooled its funds to establish cultural exchanges and institutions promoting music outside of Japan, especially in the Western world. This may go a long way in explaining the two divergent fan groups, in that both the hippies and the academics have shaped and been shaped by KODO's contribution to world music.

Yet it is less illustrative of my own tendencies toward KODO. The year was 1997, and I had procured a front-row ticket to a KODO performance that was scheduled to take place a few days after college midterms. I read up a little on the history of Taiko drumming, Japanese music, and KODO itself. Finally, in order to further foment both the wild and cathartic aspects of the show, I consumed a handful of psylocybin cubensis magic mushrooms.

For the entire show, I watched spellbound as the different compositions progressed in a display of enormous musical skill and athleticism. I was surrounded by a be-tweeded academic group gently nodding in time to the music and a dreadlocked couple sitting stock-still in deference to the percussion freakout that was happening on stage. And then the amazing


8 p.m.
February 25
Laurie Auditorium
715 Stadium Drive
happened: Yoshikazu Fujimoto, stripped to the bare essentials (barely more than a diaper), was helped to a position directly in front of the largest drum I had ever seen, the O-daiko, and for 30 minutes he savagely attacked the thing with what looked like enormous baguettes, baring himself against the drum as it rang out in deep booms over the crowd.

My jaw dropped. I began to gesticulate wildly as the man was reduced to a small puddle of sweat and muscle (he must have lost five pounds from perspiration), his arms ceaselessly windmilling against the great drum as the entire group of performers, the audience, the entire space became focused on his effort to maintain the impossible pace of the song against his obvious exhaustion.

I wanted to help him. I stood up and began to dance. My friends tried to hold me back, but to no avail. Security came, and they were just about to lead me away when members of KODO stood up and, saving my ass from a certain beating at the hands of soulless guards, invited the crowd to dance. For days afterward, I was unable to describe the experience and now, years later, it is all I can do to keep from being long-winded about it. But I have come to accept this fact: I acted like a KODUMBASS. •

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