There’s a felicitous double meaning in Kodo, the name of the celebrated Japanese drumming ensemble. Its written characters mean ‘drum child’, but an infinitesimally different stressing of the second syllable will give you the character which means ‘heartbeat’. The company regards this accidental ambiguity as a symbolic blessing from the gods, and drumming does indeed go way back: it’s one of humanity’s most elemental forms of musical communication, at once mystical and practical in its spanning of long distances.
The taiko (‘fat drum’) tradition was imported to Japan from Tang-dynasty China. It took root in the Japanese court and in temples and shrines, in forms which have scarcely changed in a thousand years; in the twentieth century it migrated with a Japanese diaspora to the West Coast of America, while its popularity back home languished during Japan’s self-hating post-war years. But in the Sixties, with modernising Japan losing its links with traditional culture, it became seen once more as a symbol of continuity. Taiko ensembles proliferated, with one named Ondekoza (‘demon drummers’) hitting the headlines in 1975 by running the Boston marathon, and then picking up their drumsticks at the finishing line and launching into a thunderous riff.
Based on the remote island of Sado in the Sea of Japan, Ondekoza was a commune run on ferociously Spartan lines by a visionary named Tagayasu Den. After ten gruelling years, most of his drummers rebelled against the constraints – no smoking or alcohol, no marrying – and set up a rival group named Kodo. They stayed on the island and (slightly) relaxed their regime: they still had to carve their own drumsticks, and still began their day at five in the morning with a ten-kilometre run. Backed by tours and Cds, their fame grew; their annual Earth Celebration on Sado now attracts ensembles from all round the globe. And they teach, spreading the word through workshops to such effect that there are now thousands of amateur taiko groups in both Japan and America.
But what precisely is that ‘word’? Audiences in Britain, Denmark, and Germany will soon have a chance to find out, as Kodo is poised to embark on a European tour. Kodo programmes are sometimes interlarded with Japanese folk music on flute and zither, but this time their show will reflect a return to basics – drumming pure and simple, but it’s still aurally and visually riveting. Taiko drums come in several sizes, ranging from the sharply resonant little shimedaiko to the giant odaiko – six feet in diameter, hollowed out of a single block of wood, and requiring six men to hoist it into position. And Kodo’s rich sound-world includes everything from woodland susurrations to a thunder which literally hits you in the chest. Moreover, while Western drummers operate from the wrist, these young men and women drum with their whole body: they are athletes as well as aesthetes. These days they’ve swapped their traditional Japanese head-bands and (for the men) loin-cloths for less nationally-specific garb, but they still move with a beauty which is quintessentially Japanese.
Taiko drumming may be rooted in Shinto and Zen, but Kodo’s often light-hearted art has no explicit connexion with religion, or with the fanaticism of the Den years – they wince at any mention of ‘demon’ or ‘kamikaze’. Defections, when they occur, tend to be amicable: some players eventually find the Kodo style too restricting, and cross over into jazz and other forms as their erstwhile hand-cymbal virtuoso Ryutaro Kaneko has done – he is now a star in his own right in America.
But at the deepest level Kodo’s art is indeed religious. Sixty-seven year old Yoshikazu Fujimoto, who has spent his entire adult life first with Ondekoza and then with Kodo, speaks with profound reverence of his earth-shaking daily encounter with the giant drum: ‘Before I start drumming, I pray, “Please let me play you”. And I am told, “OK, you may play me”. We become one. And as I play, I feel at peace. I become the sound.’
Asked once about his earliest musical experience, Ryutaro Kaneko gave this mystical reply: ‘It came when I was three. I was under a cherry blossom tree, and the leaves were fluttering in the spring wind. I know this may not sound like music to Westerners.’ And as with many other Kodo players, his dreams were musical: ‘In my best dream I was falling through space in bright light, and singing very loudly.’ He looked at his muscular forearms: ‘I was singing with every limb. My whole body was singing.’
Published in The Economist 6.1.18