“There’s an old Japanese saying,” explains Jun Akimoto, “that as long as you can hear the sound of a village’s taiko—the Japanese drum—you can feel yourself part of that community.” Imported to Japan during the 7th century with Buddhism, the drums were used to call to prayer as well as make music, and were the heart of village festivals and celebrations.
Akimoto is the company manager of Kodo, the Japanese drumming ensemble that has been taking the sound of their drums around the world for 30 years. Kodo’s sound emerges from a philosophy shared by its hundred-plus members, ranging in age from 21 to 60 years. Members cook, clean, rehearse, perform and live in close proximity on the island of Sado, an isolated island off of Japan’s northwest coast. Formerly a home to artists and intellectuals in exile, Sado is now a cultural enclave for artists seeking a communal approach to tradition and creativity.
No less important, explains Akimoto, is the deep connection of Kodo members to the place they live in, and their relationship to people of the island itself. “It’s kind of middle of nowhere,” he says with a smile coming across in his voice. “And the island’s people live by agriculture and fishing, so we learn from them to go back to the basics.” He adds that this rural, folk element also distinguishes the art of taiko drumming from other Japanese arts, which historically developed in urban areas.
Although Kodo’s dynamic live shows often include playing of other traditional instruments, it’s the drums that always steal the show, particularly the nearly 900-pound o-daiko, the group’s hallmark giant drum. But the beauty of the drumming does not lie in simply making beats. Kodo’s high-energy rhythms—from the most delicate percussion to thundering, body-vibrating pulses—are created within an intricate choreography. The musicians move every body part—head, torso, hands, arms and legs—in perfect and simultaneous alignment with each other, hitting the drum by carving the space around them into elegant, precise patterns.
Akimoto says the ensemble wishes to function as a Japanese Ambassador and share the art of its members’ homeland. However, he emphasizes, that’s actually not the most important aspect of the One Earth tour, going strong since 1984: “What Kodo wants is the sound of the drums to be heard around the world, and to bring together the people who hear the sound as one community.”
One Earth 2011 will be performed at the CSO Feb 21