Big Bang Theory

In training, the Japanese drum gods in Kodo walk a narrow road. On stage, they shake the earth.

In the world of Western pop music, there's a reason the drummer sits in the back: We are married to melody. The casual pop-music consumer could probably easily rattle off names of musicians responsible for his or her favorite melodic hooks, but that same individual would probably draw a blank if asked to identify those responsible for keeping the all-important groove. If melody is the favored child, than rhythm is its ugly cousin.

Ringo has gotten his revenge in the Japanese taiko performance group Kodo, whose drummers are not banished to the shadowy areas of the stage during their show. On the contrary, they are the show. In Kodo, fat-free Sumo-wrestler types -- clad only in headbands and G-string diapers -- wildly attack their instruments with the aplomb and ferocity usually reserved for annihilating opponents. The magnitude of the instruments requires this decidedly aggressive approach, which sometimes resembles battle: The 900-pound odaiko drum, carved from a single 200-year-old African burumbi tree, is the centerpiece of a Kodo performance, and the drummers pummel it with sticks the size of baseball bats.

Kodo's drumming demigods are just as capable of summoning a gentle rain as they are of inducing a thunderbolt, however. For example, the shimedaiko drum, played in whisper-soft unison by the twenty-person troupe with what look like oversized chopsticks, evokes pure tranquility. A piece involving a row of cross-legged Kodo members playing tiny decorative cymbals while miming a childlike game of Ping-Pong, is indicative of the group's ability to quickly shift from sublime to silly. Kodo's arsenal includes everything from a stringed shamisen, bamboo xylophones and flutes to gongs and wooden clackers.

Hitting with their best shot: Members of Kodo go to work on 900-pound odaiko drums.
Hitting with their best shot: Members of Kodo go to work on 900-pound odaiko drums.

The drummers' incorporation of athleticism, spirituality and earth-rumbling music has earned it a sort of cultish following since its beginnings as a commune on Japan's Sado Island in the late 1960s. Though its traditions are tied to the Japanese heritage that is shared by most of its current and past members, the group accepts applications from drummers all over the world. Today aspiring Kodo members are required to undergo a three-year apprenticeship in order to gain access to the group -- and to accept a lifestyle that has more in common with seminary or Olympic training than the excesses that sometimes characterize the life of a Western musician.

"A typical day in the summertime is getting up at 4:50 in the morning," explains the group's spokesman, Takashi Akamine. "Through the apprentice period there is no smoking, no drinking, no TV and no hanky-panky. A very important part of the training is running. They have to run ten kilometers every morning. If you would like to get married while in the training period, that is fine, we respect that -- but it just means that that person would be advised to leave."

While on Sado Island, Kodo members share household duties such as cooking and cleaning -- and hopeful apprentices learn how to make their own chopsticks, clothes and drumsticks. "During the three-year program, they are challenged with those tasks," continues Akamine. "It's a bit like a monastic life in a way, in that they are asked to do many things and they are asked not to do many things. It's a tough life."

The idea is to create a kind of selflessness in performance -- and it works: On stage, Kodo presents itself as a unified front with no stars and no leaders.

"I think that it was in Madison, Wisconsin," recalls Akamine, "when we started early in the morning with setup, and the stage manager said, 'Oh, when do the artists come?' and we told him, 'Those are the artists.' He was very surprised. The performers themselves do loading and setup. That is a part of the preparation for the performance. This makes our group different than other companies."

This devotion to the Kodo ideal -- and the commitment to the athletic aspect of the performance -- was at times taken to outrageous lengths by Kodo members in the past. Once in the late '70s, the drummers decided they needed a little warmup before a concert in Massachusetts. Most bands would settle for a soundcheck. Kodo had other ideas. "All of the members ran the Boston Marathon a few hours before performing," says Akamine. "At that time, running was more important than anything else as part of the group's training. The guy who plays the big drum, he has run the marathon six or seven times. Kodo's training has changed a lot. Back then they probably ran more than they played music."

In its genesis, the Kodo concept encompassed more than just music. Located about five hours from Tokyo, Sado Island is home to some of Japan's most breathtaking landscapes; it was there that the group first formulated its philosophy of communal living and music-making. Motivated as much by political ideals as by artistic ones, the original commune was established by Japanese youth who welcomed a return to their culture's roots of dancing, music -- and taiko. Sado Island welcomed political prisoners and convicts, as well as individuals who had simply grown disillusioned with the trappings of modern society. The drum became the symbol of the new idyllic society, whose adopted name, Kodo, translates to "drum" and "child." It represented the history of their culture: The instrument, originally used as a method of speaking between two villages, is one of Japan's earliest forms of communication; then, the limits of a village were not based solely on geography, but also on how far the beat of a drum could be heard. Taiko drums were used for such things as summoning gods and announcing emergencies. Today taiko is recognized as a major form of Japanese classical music.

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