Japan’s Kodo drummers

The performers are among the most rigorously disciplined in the world. They will soon embark on a new European tour
Kodo drummers perform ‘Mystery’ © Takashi Okamoto

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Not all drummers are known for their discipline. It’s hard to imagine a young Ginger Baker rising at 5am to go on a 10km run, Keith Moon meticulously scrubbing wooden floors or John Bonham performing a delicate tea ceremony, but all of these things are integral to the training of Japan’s Kodo drummers.

Six mornings a week in rain or shine, trainees at the Kodo Apprentice Centre on Sado Island, off the coast of Nigata Prefecture, north of Tokyo, get up at dawn to jog up and down hilly rural roads, followed by a ritual cleaning on hands and knees of the building in which they board, a converted schoolhouse with no central heating. They grow much of their own food, carve their chopsticks and drumsticks, are schooled in tea ceremonies. No computers or phones are permitted, and so their only contact with families and friends off the island is via handwritten letters.

The apprentices have come to this verdant but isolated island in the Japan Sea for just one thing: drumming. For many hours each day the men and women aged 18-25 beat out rhythms on taiko drums, which range in size from lap-based units to shells of about 5ft in diameter.

As anyone who has seen a performance will know, taiko drumming, which dates back to at least the sixth century, is an enormously physical endeavour. As a group of apprentices work through a routine, they constantly rotate and seamlessly swap roles. Some are seated, some are upright and some clamp their feet into ankle slots, leaning back with their legs stretched and abdominals straining as they pound out blistering rhythms on the biggest drums. As the routine reaches its ear-splitting crescendo, their faces contort and eyes bulge with effort, and they emerge at the end with chests heaving and sweat pouring.

© Takashi Okamoto

They already look and sound like a crack unit but some of these neophytes will not make it into the second year; and of those who make the final grade, only a handful will be selected to join the Kodo troupe as junior members. So why on earth do they put themselves through this gruelling regime? The answer comes when you see the professional ensemble perform, something that audiences across Europe will be able to do over the next couple of months as Kodo tours one of its current shows, Mystery.

Compared with the stripped-down drills that trainees hammer out, Kodo’s stage shows are elaborate affairs: carefully lit, designed and choreographed, they ebb and flow with different forms of percussive music and employ melodic instruments such as the bamboo flute. However, what underpins the performers is the same rigour drilled into them as apprentices, and makes them honed with the tireless dedication of an orchestra or ballet company.

In the Kodo Village, headquarters of the troupe, the work routine is markedly more relaxed than at the apprentice centre but still charged with serious intent. All the members I speak to attest to the invaluable grounding they received during their apprenticeships but seem relieved to do so from a safe distance. “I don’t want to go back, that’s for sure,” confesses Eri Uchida, one of the performers. “But it was really good experience because it’s so hard and gave me such discipline that after I finished those two years I felt like I could do anything.”

Drummers in the show ‘Mystery’ © Takashi Okamoto

Masayuki Sakamoto, one of Kodo’s star soloists, recalls that his family had mixed reactions to his joining. “My parents thought I would settle down a little bit if I went to train in a strict, harsh environment. My grandfather, however, thought that going to Sado was like being exiled,” he says, referring to the island’s historical role as a destination for Japan’s banished undesirables.

But despite its devotion to rigour and tradition, Kodo is resolutely not stuck in the past. In fact, it is undergoing radical change under the forward-looking leadership of Tamasaburo Bando, who joined as artistic director in 2012. Bando, revered in Japan as a veteran of kabuki theatre, has brought a greater theatrical sensibility to Kodo’s shows with a view to lending their presentations a more contemporary aesthetic.

Kodo drummers in their latest production, ‘Chaos’ © Takashi Okamoto

“My first impression of Kodo was that they were very disciplined, but until I came in the productions were fun but fun in a very festive way,” says Bando, a charismatic figure who illustrates his soft, melodious speech with fluid hand gestures that reflect his background as a dancer. “Before it was like a traditional festive performance brought to the stage and I felt like it needed to be changed into a production for the theatre. This is very delicate but . . . I wanted to add some sort of urban aspect, to dust off what they had and to create traditional folk art refined for the theatre.”

The result is a more elaborately choreographed style with a greater variety of costumery and lighting that incorporates non-taiko elements into performances. Mystery, for example, features the eerie Serpent Dance, a folk ritual originating in Shimane Prefecture, south-west Japan. Each show now has a distinct theme and flavour.

Another innovation has been to raise the profile of Kodo’s female performers and it is no coincidence that Bando in his kabuki career was renowned as an onnagata, a male actor who specialises in playing female roles. “There are only a handful of women in the group but I try to bring out their strengths,” he says. “It’s not about being on stage for a very long time or playing the biggest instruments or biggest roles, it’s something that can come out in a very beautiful sense from a particular moment, something that stands out.”

© Taro Nishita

Eri Uchida confirms the shifting gender balance has been noticeable to the female performers — and to audiences. “Before, in Kodo, the biggest impression the audience got was of powerful men in loincloths and bare muscle. Because Tamasaburo Bando played female roles he knows how to show women . . . and he gives us a distinct role. I don’t play hard in Mystery but I find confidence in being a woman and it makes a strong impression on the audience.”

Apprentices at breakfast and practising © Takashi Okamoto

All of this is part of Bando’s plan to shake up the rigid structures that had come to dominate Kodo since it was founded in 1981. “There was a very strict vertical hierarchy in the past,” he says. “For example, 15 years ago if a young member came up with something, it would never have been passed on to the older members. I am trying to diminish that barrier. Now young members will tell older members: this is how you do it. It’s a very good environment right now.”

Inevitably, however, in a country so steeped in tradition and old ritual, not everyone in the taiko community is happy with Bando’s taste for experimentation, and some purists and long-time Kodo fans have been up in arms at what they see as excessive tampering with the form. “Of course it gets a little awkward and some people are not OK with these changes but I wanted to focus on what I wanted to make first. Then, if it is brought to a theatre and if the audience likes it, that’s when I have confidence and assurance that this was the right thing to do. And that’s when the wind changes.”

The ensemble’s latest show, Chaos, which toured Japan last month, may prove to be its most controversial yet. For this work, Bando has taken the bold step of introducing western drum kits into a Kodo show for the first time — no fewer than three of them. For him it is simply a matter of using all the tools available. “Kodo has always been focused on the taiko drum, but from now on I want to gear towards a group that will use taiko for its music,” he says. “It’s not that I want the performers to focus on the western drum set . . . it’s a question of, ‘If I use a drum set what kind of music will I be making?’ Not ‘I can only use this [kind of drum]’ but ‘I can use this and this and this.’ ”

Tamasaburo Bando (on drum) in a rehearsal © Takashi Okamoto

When I sit in on a run-through of Chaos a week before its premiere, Bando insists that there is still much polishing to be done, but rough edges are hard to find. The troupe seem drilled with military precision, layering complex polyrhythms and syncopating with each other in an intuitive way that apparently draws on their shared boot camp training. As the performance reaches its peak, taikos of various shapes and sizes as well as timpani and western kits are wheeled in and out of the performance space in a dizzying display of percussive pizzazz. Chaos is aptly named, but this is chaos of the most scrupulously organised kind. It is an exhilarating performance that leaves both drummers and audience breathless and a reminder that there is simply no substitute for the visceral thrill of experiencing the powerful cumulative resonance of these drums played in person.

“If you don’t listen to taiko being played live, you can’t fully appreciate it,” says Uchida. “You don’t just listen to taiko with your ears, you can feel the sound through your skin.”

Kodo’s European tour begins in Brussels on January 30 and they play the Barbican, London, on February 15. kodo.or.jp

Raphael Abraham travelled to Japan courtesy of All Nippon Airways

Photographs: Takashi Okamoto; Taro Nishita

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