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

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.

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.

 

This link to tradition has resulted in Kodo's members regarding their craft in an almost religious way. Still, they demonstrate an openness to collaboration with far-flung artists -- even when those artists may appear to be motivated by very different ideals. Like, for example, Brazilian thrash-metal act Sepultura, with whom Kodo recorded in 1998.

"It was a really lovely, lovely experience," says Akamine. "They are really quite gentlemen. They contacted us and asked us to participate in their album. It was just one piece that we played together ["Kaimatachi," from Sepultura's Against].

"Our schedule was so tight that we asked them to come to Sado for the recording," he continues. "So they brought all of their equipment to the island. When you see them on the stage, they are such heavy, hard performers, but they are really pleasant gentlemen."

"It's always challenging for us to integrate ourselves into different kinds of music," adds Akamine. "But it doesn't have to be musicians. We enjoy working with any creators. Dancers, painters -- we like to collaborate. It is really exciting. You always discover something new by working with those people."

Members of the dance world have been obliviously raving to Kodo for the last ten years. A true mixmaster knows that the beats don't get much phatter than when they're coming from a 900-pound drum -- and DJs have long been guilty of nicking the taiko group's samples and dropping them into backbeats to fill out their grooves. In 1999, Kodo officially entered the world of techno when its drumbeats were remixed for a compilation by a number of DJs, including Strobe, Kevin Yost and DJ Krush. Sao-So was the result. "We didn't really have a physical meeting with them," Akamine says of the process. "They picked the pieces that they liked, and they did remixes in their own arrangements."

Through their travels, Kodos members have become accustomed to the cultural collisions that sometimes result when a traditionally based group such as theirs encounters more, um, free-spirited subcultures. Once, while on a tour of North America, the drummers were introduced to a group of music lovers that they had never seen: Deadheads. Though indigenous to our area, this breed of fan was unlike any that Kodo had encountered in all of its touring. At the time, Kodo was attending a show at the bequest of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, with whom the group had collaborated in the past. The experience, Akamine says, was a curious one, especially when Kodo was invited to participate in a spontaneous jam session with other players.

"At that time, I had never seen a Grateful Dead concert before, but I had heard so much about the Deadheads. They are the fans, such big fans," he says. "It's very difficult for a performing company like Kodo to just have someone come up to us and say, 'Why don't you play with us?' It just never happens with us like that. Our performance is very structured. Even the set changes are part of the performance. But Mickey just gave drumsticks to one of the Kodo members and said, 'Come on the stage. Play with me.' It was a real East-meets-West kind of thing. It was just something that I could not imagine. To make that kind of thing possible, Mickey is -- how can I say? -- he's big heart."

Kodo is also accustomed to running into different responses from different crowds. It's a spectrum that's dictated by geography and the culture associated with each location where the group performs.

"The reaction is very different from one country to another," says Akamine. "The Italians throw things on the stage. American audiences come with a kind of free mind. They are very expressive and very open. It's great, and it is so encouraging, and they have their own way of appreciating. They have no preconceived ideas about traditional Japanese music. That probably makes things a little bit different than it is for a Japanese audience. We feel that our people appreciate the show, but the way that they express it is very different. Every time we go to new places, it's a happy feeling to get a warm reception and warm applause. We really appreciate it."

 

As do fans of rhythm, who look to Kodo to keep stepping out of the shadows and giving the drummer his due.


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