KODO: bringing Japan’s Sado Island culture to Manchester

It’s a special night in Manchester – in fact, it’s a special month as KODO returns to the UK after a far too lengthy 4-year gap. The world-famous Japanese drumming circle is touring Europe with what many have touted as its most ambitious show to date: Kodo One Earth Tour 2014: Legend. Their new artistic director, the Kabuki icon and Living National Treasure TAMASABURO BANDO, is taking the troupe in a new direction, and the feedback so far has been positive despite concerns within the camp about the reinvention.

Last seeing them at the annual EARTH CELEBRATION FESTIVAL over 15 years ago, performing outdoors on Niigata’s Sado Island where the drummers train and live, it’s a personal thrill for me to enjoy Kodo this time in an enclosed space. Highly disciplined and deeply connected to the local community, Kodo formulated in 1981, running the festival from 1988 and inspiring the Kodo Cultural Foundation which oversees activities focused on social education and regional revitalisation. As the most respected taiko group worldwide, the troupe consists of 80 members, with only 19 male and 7 female performing members of between 21 to 62 years of age (as of 2013).

Combining traditional and contemporary styles, the new show is definitely trying to appeal to all shades of audience. Struggling financially, the troupe is keen to spread the Kodo word far and wide and the performers are enjoying engaging with their European fans.

Tonight at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, we’re treated to an electrifying performance. Split into two halves, the show maintains its intensity throughout with barely a breath being heard in any quiet parts while wild applause and standing ovations greet the end of the utterly breathtaking segments. If anyone was planning on dismissing the power of the Japanese drum, think again, the O-daiko (large drum) itself weighing in at an incredible 400kg, including the stand it rests upon, requiring an enormous amount of upper body strength to pound.

On a dimly lit stage, fue (flute) players accompanied by wind machines set the scene, paving the way for drummers to enter the stage. Dressed down in black vests and trousers and surrounded by beautiful drums of all shapes and sizes, the precision with which they at times gently tease the drumskins and then within a moment passionately pummel away, occasionally rotating positions in time, is truly astonishing. The piece lasts for the entire first half, providing no let-up for the musicians. It’s an emotive stream of musical consciousness.

The second half starts in a traditional vein, with two dancers in respective red and white masks. Singing accompanies the male drummers as they enter in rather bizarre massive sparkly trousers – an obvious attempt to glamorise proceedings but rather resulting in some muffled giggles from the audience. It’s exciting to see two female drummers taking centre stage, the crowds appreciating their talents complemented by their much more stylish black and red kimono outfits.

The highly-anticipated men in white fundoshi (Japanese loin-cloth style briefs) and headbands saunter onto the stage, heading towards the massive O-daiko, and as they climb up onto the large podium, I get a shiver down my spine as I recall my time at Sado. I remember what enormous sound is about to fill our ears – and here it is. The men rotate as the incredible pounding resonates around the venue, while a speedy costume change means the other performers are reverted to their more usual black and white garb for which Kodo have become known.

After the first standing ovation, the troupe returns en masse with whistles and drums galore, singing in a carnival spirit. Smiling from ear to ear and seemingly not dropping much of a sweat, these artists are not only impressive in their technical prowess but also in terms of physical fitness. They are, in short, extremely fit.

I get chatting to Production Manager Jun Akimoto afterwards who kindly explains the intensity of the troupe’s training, that they also host workshops, and that they’re really interested in recruiting more female drummers. It’s a relief to hear that there is no end to this group’s passion and determination to make the world a more taiko-friendly place. And of course a t-shirt is duly purchased (I can now wear the Kodo name with pride). The troupe is touring Europe through the end of March and will hopefully be back sooner rather than later – who knows, next time with a hands-on workshop maybe, Jun suggests… Boom!