New research out of UC Berkeley reveals some interesting tidbits about how the human…
- Posted on Jan 25th 2011 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
The o-daiko – a giant drum weighing in at nearly 900 pounds – is what everyone comes for at a Kodo performance, as inevitable as it is thunderous. No matter what else the Japanese music and dance troupe might do in a show, as dazzling as it often is, you could imagine fans going away disappointed if the o-daiko was a no-show.
But do the Kodo performers ever just, you know, play music sometimes? Forget the drum. Even forget the choreographed, costumed spectacle that is as much a part of the whole thing as the big banger. Just. Play. Music.
Well, yeah, they do. And you can witness it. In August, just head to Sado Island, off the west central coast of Japan. That's where, 30 years ago, Kodo was established not just as an arts ensemble but as a true community with a collective lifestyle. And it's where every summer the group hosts its international arts festival, Earth Celebration.
"We try to invite different types of musicians, sometimes jazz, sometimes rock, sometimes world music," says drummer (of smaller drums) Jun Akimoto, who moved from Toyko to Sado 11 years ago as a trainee and became a full Kodo member a year later. "This is purely musical interaction."
Last summer, the collaboration was with A Filetta, a traditional polyphonic vocal group from another island culture, Corsica. Details about this year's Earth Celebration have not been announced yet.
"What we're trying to do is see how we can communicate with those guys through music, not through the other types of expression," Akimoto says by phone from the Kodo office on the island. "So this kind of experience makes us build a different territory toward new musical expressions."
Can't make it to Sado? Not to worry. 'Akatsuki,' Kodo's new album, also, in places, very consciously explores the purely musical possibilities, inspired by the collaborations in the festival and in three decades of world travels – and also right at home.
"Whenever we have to record purely music for a CD, we have to think differently than we create for having people on state visually," he says. "This is a challenging process for us, just to think of music."
They added some new challenges beyond the norm this time, though.
"On this new album we have some songs, rather than pure drumming," he says. "This is something kind of new, an experiment for Kodo to explore more personality of song and melody."
He singles out one song in particular, 'Yoshino No Yama,' a Japanese folk song arranged by singer Yoko Fujimoto and sung by her with spare, atmospheric accompaniment of traditional flutes and stringed instruments.
Kodo, 'Yoshino No Yama'
"This comes from the western part of Japan – Nara, one of the prefectures and a city called Yoshino," Akimoto says. "This song is about the mountain there. I don't know exactly the roots of the song, but somehow she encountered it and fell in love with it. The original lyrics are traditional Japanese, so quite hard to understand."
But this approach is not all about the old traditions, he stresses. He points to 'Kachi,' another piece featuring one of the troupe's female singers.
"This was composed by Yoshie Sunahata, one of the younger members," he says. "This was composed on Sado Island and is about the island and our relationship with the people and culture. This is a trial to create something traditional toward the future. Not only do we learn old songs from the past but create something new, try to make this song that will last longer for future generations, for the future of Sado."
That gets to the essence of Kodo throughout its 30 years – music, dance and, yes, big drum and all.
This is also where the influences from beyond Japan come most into play. Some of it comes directly from the group members. Akimoto, 40, knew little of Japanese folk music before he came to Sado. He was a drummer steeped in Western styles – blues, rock, jazz – having lived in a very suburbanized environment. Ironically, his interest in Japanese styles came through the study of rhythms from other cultures.
As he explored, he says, he "came across how Japanese rhythms is and realized I didn't know anything about it. I looked for resources and found the Kodo website. Kodo was the most famous group in Japanese drumming."
He signed up for the Sado workshop and "joined without any preconceptions" – but also with no sense of the full immersion he'd find.
"They taught how they live and teach and treat each other through drumming. This kind of atmosphere I'd never seen before. Mostly my type of music was kind of individualistic. But these people, Kodo drummers, spend much of the time together in the same place, touring together, creating music together. This kind of existence, most of the life together, including making music. So then music and life is one form. This was really, really new to me. I just wanted to help them. This part of it I didn't know before."
While that might seem like the makings of an insular environment, it's anything but. The fact that Kodo's members come from various regions of Japan, as well as generations (ranging in age from 60 – one of several remaining founders – to 20), creates an open and embracing spirit that has sponged up a lot of sounds and styles in the course of its world tours and many collaborations. That's also evident in several places on the new album, no more so than in the closing song, 'Sora.' In fact, it's become a bit of a Rorschach test of musical aesthetics in terms of what listeners hear in it.
"Everyone gets a different image with that song," Akimoto says. "Some say it has a taste of flamenco or Irish. Also a little influence of the northwestern part of Brazil."
And to these ears, a lot of Punjabi bhangra in the rhythms, though you should judge for yourself:
"So this has a little of the recent interaction with Kodo of many musicians around the world," he says. "We travel around and meet people. The composer of that piece is Shogo Yoshii. He's very young. He's very enthusiastic about meeting a lot of different people and collaborating in many things such as flamenco dance and other jam sessions. This influence is huge for him to create something new."
Now, to be clear, none of this is meant to demean or detract from the traditions most associated with Kodo. Yup, the drumming and the pageantry. In fact, it helps put a new focus on it all. In the context of all these other things, the drumming and dancing are no gimmicks. Not even the 900-pound showpiece. It's Kodo's offering to the global community from the deep roots of its Sado community. It's still there powering several key tracks on the new album. And it's still the prime attraction of the live shows, with the 2011 One Earth tour of North America kicking off Wednesday in Spokane, Wash., and continuing across the continent for nearly two months.
"This part of performing is called demon drumming," Akimoto says. "There are about 200 types of o-daiko [big drum] dances on the island. So each community has a different type of drumming. There are different types of demon masks, vivid costumes. They dance with small sticks on both hands, drumming at the same time as dancing. So we have a lot of influences from that. And we also have Noh theater. Noh is the oldest theatrical style in Japan – 600 years old. There are several types of Noh theater that still survive on Sado, so we learn from that."
But the reach for new sounds and approaches is evidence that this is still, even as Kodo celebrates its 30th anniversary, a work in progress.
"We are still young compared to the other musical traditions," he says. "We have 30, 40 yeas of history, but nothing compared to classical or even jazz and pop and rock. We're trying to develop more. The many trials are to make a tradition more durable."