Kodo drums up a storm


Kodo, in Japanese, conveys two possible meanings depending on how the characters are read. The first is “heartbeat”, the life sustaining rhythm within us all. The second is “children of the drum”. In this case, both are equally fitting, as the men and women of Kodo have dedicated themselves to the taiko drum.

Living communally on Sado-shima, one of Japan’s many islands, hopeful applicants train for 2 years just for the opportunity to audition. If chosen, they become probationary members and must train for one more year before they can become full-fledged members. Kodo’s disciplined training regimen includes daily 10 km runs and hours upon hours of drum practice, with the aim to not only train the body, but the mind. Needless to say, Kodo is one of the most famous taiko drum troupes in the world, serving as cultural ambassadors for a style of ensemble drumming called kumi-daiko, which freed the taiko drum from its traditional settings, bringing its art and pounding rhythms to the world. I was lucky enough to catch the Vancouver date of the “Kodo One Earth Tour 2015: Mystery” at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Kodo’s Mystery tour was a night of contrast and spectacle, full of swirling serpents, dancing dragons, and ominous oni. It was about the light and dark, the quiet and loud, and the lure of the unknown lurking in the shadows. At some points, the only illumination came from the small lanterns swinging above the performers’ heads as they danced, conjuring up images of “Spirited Away”; and when they brought out the shakuhachi flute, it sounded right out of a chanbara (samurai) movie. But when you felt the beat resonate within your chest, you realized it was all about that bass (drum).

The performance was unabashedly Japanese, and very theatrical, occasionally straying towards the more avant garde, feeling almost like interpretive dance at times. I think those elements reflected the influence of artistic director Tamasaburo Bando, a renowned Kabuki actor whose specialty is onnagata; that is, a male actor who plays women. There was no English, but vocals and speaking were minimal, so subtitles weren’t necessary as the meaning was conveyed through vocal inflections and body language. At the very least, you could connect through the pounding rhythms and crash of the cymbals, even if you didn’t get the symbolism. Besides, the drums were the most important language that night, and they rightly took center stage.

There was something about the drums that really resonated with the ones in my ears, but that thought made me worry about their hearing, while realizing that this group may also have the fittest arms on the planet. I noticed the men had ditched their trademark loincloths, opting for more contemporary shiny black outfits instead, although there was still plenty of sweaty, bare chested drumming going on. The four women drummers brought a nice counterpoint to all of the masculinity, adding elements of micro-percussion and softer styles of drumming that added to the overall variety.

The highlight for me was their stick skills, spinning them so fast between hits that they looked more like blurred circles than sticks. Another stand-out was near the end, when two drummers stood on either side of an enormous drum, and thundered away so hard it seemed the skin might break. The rattle of the Vibraslap was also an unexpected surprise.

I remember watching the trailer for “Whiplash” and being incredulous when blood drips on the drum from the guy practicing so hard, but seeing Kodo in action makes me believe that it could happen in real life. There is something primal about the drum, and that evening, its trance inducing power took you back to those times of old, when the drum’s pound at sundown made the mysteries of the night come alive.

It ended with a standing ovation.