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Drums Take Center Stage in Kodo’s Return to Cal Performances

Originally published in Piedmont Post, February 13, 2019

Kodo in Evolution Tour. Photo courtesy of Kodo.

Just how many ways can one strike a drum? For Kodo, an internationally acclaimed taiko (traditional Japanese drum) performance arts ensemble from Sado Island, the opportunities are endless. You can tap it. Patter it. Pound on it. You can drum in a side lunge, or swiveling in a dance. You can drum solo, or in a group. You can drum on different sides of the drum. You can use drumsticks with finely tapered tips or drumsticks with felt mallet tip at the top. Whichever way, the result is music. Drums can sing. This was the biggest discovery of my evening with Kodo on the first weekend in February, at the Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley.

We usually think of drums and percussions as an accompaniment, a way to dial up up or dial down the drama. But what if drums were the drama? Unlike traditional Western orchestras that rely on juxtaposition of various music instruments, Kodo, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, pulls off an amazing feat of keeping the audience gasping throughout the two-hour show with drums and not much else. Since ancient times, the loud, resonant sound of taiko has been used to convey prayers, deliver messages, and signal battle—and it retains its urgency in our noisy world. What Kodo brings forth is, at once, a performance, a ritual and, at least for some, a religious experience.

In Japanese, the word “Kodo” conveys two meanings. Firstly, “heartbeat,” the primal source of all rhythm. The sound of the great taiko is said to resemble a mother’s heartbeat as felt in the womb. Secondly, the word can mean “children of the drum,” a reflection of Kodo’s desire to play the drums simply, with the heart of the child. Since the group’s debut at the Berlin festival 1981, Kodo has given over 6,000 performances in 50 countries worldwide under the banner of “One Earth Tour,” spending a third of the year overseas, a third touring Japan, and a third rehearsing and preparing new material on Sado Island.

Evolution, the latest program from the group, weaved together some of Kodo’s best-known previous work and latest core repertoire. Among the signature pieces was O-daiko. Based on traditional rhythms, the composition is performed on the group’s largest drum; some five feet in diameter, it literally has to be wheeled onto the stage (o-daiko” means “big taiko”). Playing a drum like that requires not only artistry of the highest caliber, but also power and endurance. At the end of the number, the artists’ bodies were glistening with sweat.

Monochrome, an acoustic written by Maki Ishii in 1977, and another of Kodo’s classics, is a trip through sounds and silence performed on several various-size drums and gongs. Moments of quiet build up to extreme loudness, with quiet pianissimos marked by occasional accented rhythms gradually developing into mezzo-forte, only to drop back to near-nothingness. These accented rhythms vary according to the player, conjuring an intricate combination of sounds, in which all players fit within a larger rhythmic whole.

The main focus of the performance is taiko drumming, but bamboo flutes, cymbals and wooden clappers also make an appearance on stage, as do traditional dance and vocal performances. In Ake no Myojo, “Venus in the morning sky,” performers drum, sing, and dance in rapidly changing formations, while manipulating the lanterns attached to their drums and hanging over their heads with handheld switches, creating two light patterns. The show’s climactic finale Rasen, (Japanese for “spiral”) features motifs of an array of Kodo pieces from various eras. The program showcases Kodo’s perpetual creative evolution by celebrating the ensemble’s past, present and future.

“Kodo is evolving as it moves in a spiral from past into the future,” says Tamasaburo Bando, the group’s artistic director and one of Japan’s leading Kabuki theatre actors. “I hope that our efforts will be appreciated.” On Saturday evening at Zellerbach Hall, his hopes have certainly come to fruition: the audience, as diverse as Berkeley itself, gave Kodo a standing ovation.

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