Each week, World in Stereo examines classic and modern world music while striving for a greater appreciation of other cultures.
In the Niigata prefecture, 32 miles west of Honshu in the Sea of Japan, is an island widely known as a place of exile. The remoteness of Sado Island made it a site for banishment until the 1700s, a punishment second only to death for those poets, dramatists, and even emperors who were seen as disgraces to their country. But its isolation has also made it one of Japan’s unspoiled beauties, an island of dramatic precipices and remarkable ravines crowned by two parallel mountain chains.
The island is where, 30 years ago, Kodo was established not only as a Japanese performing arts troupe, but as a village sharing a very distinct collective lifestyle. Preserving and revitalizing the art of the taiko (traditional Japanese drum), Kodo has been fusing high-energy percussion, elegance, and traditional dance for over three decades. Since debuting at the Berlin Festival in 1981, the collective has given thousands of performances on five continents. Kodo’s new album, Akatsuki, celebrates its thirtieth anniversary with brand-new compositions and never-before-recorded stage pieces.
The Kodo collective is always constant, never stagnant. The almost 50-member collective lives in Sado Village, a 32-acre plot of land established in 1988. Including staff members, performers, seniors, and apprentices, the group shares the same lifestyle: living, eating, creating, and rehearsing. As the oldest members turn 60 and the youngest apprentices 20 this year, it’s an evolving cast of players, a natural transference not only skills and techniques, but also ideologies and culture.
“Kodo,” meaning either “heartbeat” or “children of the drum,” is pivotal in Kodo’s aesthetic, both in music and way of life. In many ways, it’s quite simple. From the primordial beat of the heart to the incorruptibility of the lone drum beat: rhythm is at the group’s center. But unlike Western drummers, who operate so much from the wrist, a member of Kodo uses his own body, oftentimes in positions so strenuous that it’s painful to watch. Sound and movement are of equal importance – the form meticulously shaped and a taiko performance not complete without dance. The intense physicality may be most striking above anything else, as the ensemble maintains a precise and thunderous sound with an equal display of dexterity and discipline.
But demonstrated by its new record, the Japanese collective is not strictly taiko drumming. The younger generation has paved the way for the group to explore ways to incorporate the modern with the ancient. With traditional rhythms as their base, vocals and folklore instruments such as the fue (Japanese flute) and shamisen (three-string plucked instrument) give Kodo opportunities to blend the contemporary with the traditional.
The tracks with vocal accompaniments are spare and somber; “Tamayura no Michi” opens the album with a newfound sensibility towards songwriting. A bamboo flute and kokyu (traditional bowed instrument) provide much of the melodic dynamic and a stunning contrast to the ancient vocal styling. “Yoshino no Yama” achieves the same feeling, sung and arranged by Yoko Fujimoto. Unlike much of Kodo’s past work, the song has a certain atmospheric quality, a certain emotive melancholy that can only be reached with such vocals.
More progressive is the song “Kachi,” composed by Yoshie Sunahata, one of Kodo’s youngest members. A track dominated by swelling two- and three-part vocals, it is an intelligent arrangement that looks to the future without abandoning its roots. A perfect mix of ancient and contemporary melodies, the track’s final section of vocals may prove to be the catchiest in their repertoire.
And with pieces such as “Stride” and the visceral “Vanguard,” Kodo stays close to its roots. Aside from the joyous shouts and merry yelling, the tracks stay drum-centric. “Sora” seems to bring both worlds together: Kodo’s signature drum circle is met by an orchestra of instruments, making for the fullest sound on the album. The lows of the bass drums are powerful, while the snares and various other percussion reach a careful complexity.
As a performing arts troupe, it’s best to see the group perform live. Thankfully, Kodo’s 2011 “One Earth” tour will be in North America until March of this year. From Sado Island, traveling with Kodo will be the group’s trademark giant drum – the almost 900-pound o-diako, the monstrous instrument which demands a certain strength and skill set to play. The instrument alone is enough reason to see the band perform.
A collection of electrifying rhythms and melodies built upon the ancient musical tradition of Japan, Akatsuki reaches new sounds and approaches in Kodo’s thirtieth year of existence, creating a new tradition for all to enjoy.