Taiko, the theatrical Japanese drumming spectacle, is seeing a global revival of interest. Michael Church speaks to members of Kodo, the group at the forefront of its resurgence. Photos by Takashi Okamoto & Nishita Taro
The powerhouse behind the current taiko craze mushrooming on every continent is to be found on the ruggedly windswept island of Sado, in the Sea of Japan. In medieval times, Sado was a place of exile to which shoguns consigned their political enemies, one of whom was the 14th-century dramatist Zeami Motokiyo, father of Noh theatre. “When I go there,” said the Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa, presenting The Tempest as a Noh rehearsal on Sado, “I hear the voices of the dead.”
Sado is beautiful in summer, but in winter it’s a desolate place whose inhabitants scratch a meagre living from fishing and rice-growing. Since labouring in the paddy fields holds no charms for the young, they now routinely migrate to cities on the mainland. Yet young people of a different, somewhat masochistic stamp are queuing up to enrol for a two-year taiko drumming apprenticeship on Sado, and are ready to endure rigours reminiscent of a Siberian penal colony to do so.
Fancy starting your day at 6am with a six-kilometre run up and down a steep mountain path – no rests allowed, no walking, in all weather including snow? Thereafter your day will be rigidly timetabled, with relentless drilling on drums interspersed with intensive training in a wide range of performance arts until you tumble from exhaustion into bed at 10pm. There’s no TV in your dormitory, and you’re not allowed to smoke, drink alcohol or have sex. And how are your woodwork skills? You’ll need some, because you must fashion your own drumsticks from the hardwood block you’re given at the outset. And will you miss your mobile phone? Well, there’s just one shared landline, which you’re allowed to use when you feel a bit lonesome and want to call home. Inmates at Her Majesty’s prisons have it cushy in comparison.
Kodo is the name of the company that these apprentices – now increasingly female – hope to join after they graduate; but with a mandatory probationary year followed by further weeding-out, most don’t make the final cut. Although it’s by no means the only professional company focusing on taiko, Kodo is the best-known internationally. And its innovative aesthetic has spawned many imitators, while several of its homegrown stars have gone on to found companies of their own.
For the Japanese, the taiko – ‘fat drum’ – has a legendary origin. It began with Amaterasu, goddess of the sun, being lured from her cave by the sound of another goddess dancing on top of an empty sake barrel. The earliest historical evidence of its introduction to Japan from China dates from the sixth century, and it has had multiple functions. These include providing the soundtrack for temple rituals and for sending messages over long distances; the director of the Kodo Cultural Foundation, Atsushi Sugano, claims that on a still day the big drums can be heard almost five kilometres away. The sound of taiko is the heart of a summer festival, and it was also used for firing up combatants in war; in the 16th century, different beat patterns were used to order an advance or a retreat, to summon an ally or pursue an enemy. Moreover, taiko drumming has always been integral to gagaku court music, and to the theatres of Noh and Kabuki.
Taiko drums come in many shapes and sizes, from the sharply resonant little shime-daiko, to the barrel-shaped miya-daiko for which the players lie back in an Easy Rider position and grip the drum between their calves, to the giant odaiko, which is hollowed out of a single block of wood, can weigh 400kg and be two metres in diameter. It was only in the 1950s that the contrasts in their timbres were exploited to create a concert art, thanks to a jazz musician, Daihachi Oguchi, who invented an ensemble style known as kumi-daiko. And the timing was right: the popularity of taiko had languished during Japan’s self-hating post-war years, but with a modernising society rapidly losing its links with traditional culture, taiko became a romantic symbol of continuity.
It was kumi-daiko that a visionary musicologist, Den Tagayasu, taught at the summer school he set up on Sado in 1970, adopting as the house style a muscular tradition unique to Sado called ondeko (demon drumming). Some students stayed on to form a permanent commune, which Tagayasu christened Ondekoza. Their purpose was to reinvigorate Japan’s regional musical forms and take them around the world. Members followed a ferociously spartan regime, limbering up for their assault on the drums by running 20km every day; in 1975 they astonished the crowd at the Boston Marathon by picking up their drumsticks at the finishing line and launching without pause into a thunderous riff.
But Tagayasu grew cranky, and after ten gruelling years there was a schism, with most of the group seceding en masse and renaming themselves Kodo. And in this name there was a felicitous double meaning: its written characters mean ‘Drum Child,’ but an infinitesimally different stressing of the second syllable will give you the character that means ‘Heartbeat.’ The company regard this accidental ambiguity as a symbolic blessing from the gods.
When I visited Kodo in 1993 I was assured that the rigours of the Tagayasu era had given way to a mellower lifestyle, but I didn’t see much sign of that – the daily run, with nobody exempt, started at 5:30am, and you could smell the asceticism in the air. Returning in 2019, I am struck by how little had changed in the intervening time, including the personnel. I had remembered Chieko Kojima as a bewitching dancer and Yoko Fujimoto as a compelling singer of min’yō folk songs, and here they are again, still charismatic in their 60s and pursuing successful solo careers. “Then Kodo was a family,” says Kojima. “Now it’s a real company where everyone is respected as an artist, whether they are a drummer, singer or dancer.”
Here too are Motofumi Yamaguchi, in 1993 the company’s democratically elected artistic director, now happily officiating as its lead flautist, and Eiichi Saito, at 56 another of the company’s senior members, who in his spare time leads workshops for elderly people fighting off dementia.
But by 2019 things have mellowed to the point that company members no longer have to do the cooking and cleaning; they are now allowed to marry, and to sleep in flats in town rather than in a dormitory. But the shime-daiko players still have to tighten the tuning ropes on their drums each day – a job that takes two people 20 strenuous minutes – and there is no let-up in the life of the apprentices, whose cooking and cleaning duties scarcely leave them time to eat. The way they lay out their personal chopsticks between meals reflects their instinctive communal discipline better than words could convey: each pair, beautifully carved to a design by its owner, is lined up with the others in a formation as immaculate as the drummers’ presence on stage. The young Swiss woman I persuade to give me a few words over her shoulder while she serves her turn as cook wouldn’t want to be anywhere else: “It’s tough, but I love it, even the morning runs.” After graduating, she plans to take the taiko message round the world. Not everyone stays the course: social media is a drug some can’t live without.
The company’s rehearsal room is full of mirrors in front of which they bend, stretch, arch and tense as dancers do, and when a performance starts you realise why. Unlike Western drummers, who operate from the wrist, these men and women drum with their whole body, often in punishing positions. Back injuries used to be the most common reason for quitting the game, but they’re now much reduced thanks to anatomically intelligent training. With the odaiko you feel the sound as a thump in the chest and a pulsing through the soles of your feet, and you begin to appreciate the rich sound-world that can be created by one perfectly placed stroke on that giant combination of wood and hide.
Legacy, the programme with which Kodo will tour the UK in February and March, is a majestic showcase for their communal art. It’s a kaleidoscopic sequence of pieces in which choral and min’yō interludes, or pieces for bamboo flute plus koto (zither), oil the transitions between the set-piece drumming works, each of which is a musical drama deserving to be taken as seriously as any piece by Steve Reich. Beautifully lit, with the male performers in their trademark bandanas and fundoshi (loincloths), it’s a feast for the eyes as well as a celebration of virtuosity. I was as entranced by the physical drama as by the music. The men attack the miya-daikos with quasi-murderous intent, the women’s left hands flash faster than the eye can register as they pummel both ends of their double-headed drums, the line of Buddha-like shime-daiko players conjure up shimmering sonic worlds. These begin with a delicate susurration, the sticks propelled by nothing more than their own weight, then they bring the volume up to a boil that makes the hall shake before embarking on an antiphonal conversation where each drummer takes his or her turn in the limelight. The arrival of the odaiko – reverently prayed to, before it is played – marks the grand climax of an evening which, though often extremely loud, never once hurts the ears.
One of the pieces consists of a shamanic dance from Mongolia accompanied by an oboe and two six-foot horns; the Kodo aesthetic is nothing if not eclectic. Their policy is to reach out to other cultures, and is best exemplified by the Earth Celebration, which they stage on Sado every August. This is where they collect and share melodies and ideas, collaborating with drummers and singers from Burundi, South Africa, Korea, Vietnam, India and Trinidad. Their current collaboration is with the avant-garde French-Canadian director Robert Lepage whose Cirque du Soleil aesthetic will, they hope, meld productively with their own. As the young Kodo drummer Ryotaro Leo Ikenaga puts it: “We are now creating a new identity for the company, and we can take risks because we know we always have our core to come back to, the essential classical Kodo aesthetic. The tree remains strong.”
Taiko drumming may be rooted in Shinto and Zen, but Kodo’s often light-hearted art has no explicit connection with religion or with the fanaticism of the Tagayasu years – they wince at any mention of ‘demon’ or ‘kamikaze.’ Defections, when they occur, tend to be amicable: some players eventually find the Kodo style too restricting, and cross over into jazz and other forms, as their erstwhile hand-cymbal virtuoso Ryotaro Kaneko has done – he is now a star in his own right in the US.
But at the deepest level, Kodo’s art is indeed religious. Why else would they not consign their broken drumsticks to the waste bin but instead ceremonially burn them as sacred objects? There’s a sacramental seriousness in everything they do. The 70-year-old Yoshikazu Fujimoto, who has spent his entire adult life – first with Ondekoza and then with Kodo – speaks with profound reverence of his earth-shaking encounters with the giant drum: “Before I start drumming, I pray, ‘Please let me play you.’ And I am told, ‘OK, you may play me.’ We become one. And as I play, I feel at peace. I become the sound.”
When I ask Kaneko about his earliest musical experience, he gives a mystical reply: “It came when I was three. I was under a cherry blossom tree, and the leaves were fluttering in the spring wind. I know this may not sound like music to Westerners.” And as with many other Kodo players, his dreams were musical: “In my best dream I was falling through space in bright light and singing very loudly.”
He looks at his muscular forearms: “I was singing with every limb. My whole body was singing.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!