Kodo Drummers bring together young and old in the tradition
by Allan Wigney
“Kodo,” observes Jun Akimoto, manager for the touring 24-member ensemble whose thundering sounds will resonate throughout Southam Hall this evening, “is regarded as one of the traditional Japanese drumming groups. But, actually, we only have 40 years of history, which makes us very young — even compared to jazz and rock, we are younger than those.”
The troupe, which is celebrating its 30th year under its present name Kodo (the word means both “heartbeat” and “children of the drum”), is in fact about as old as the hippie movement that spawned similar roots explorations in western culture — and inspired behaviour similar to that of the young people that in the 1970s migrated to the remote Sado Island to commune with the spirit of the taiko and other percussive instruments.
“Local people had kind of dubious eyes on them,” Akimoto says diplomatically of Kodo’s reception, “because younger students suddenly came to the island and started banging drums and in the morning running 10km by the seaport half naked. They must have seemed very, very weird to the local people.”
Weird. But sincere in their desire to study and learn from the elders, the better to meld cultures old and new. Acceptance would come, slowly, and with it would come new sounds and new avenues for Kodo to explore. Members of the ensemble had from the beginning of Kodo journeyed to rural parts of Japan to watch and learn. And, in the relative solitude of Sado, they then created original works steeped in tradition.
“We still have lots of traditional pieces which we actually went to the local towns and learned from the local people there,” Akimoto says. “But we also have lots of new compositions done by Kodo performers, and we also commission from outside — from classical music, jazz, or even kabuki or taiko musicians. So now we have many pieces in Kodo. But we are deeply rooted in the styles of folk performing arts. Even when we try to compose new songs, we also base (them) on the roots of traditional folk performing arts. Trying to find a good balance between traditional and contemporary expression, this is how we do it.”
In that regard, having Kodo members that range in age from 21 to 60-plus is beneficial.
“The older generation knows more about a lot of things,” Akimoto explains, “but at the same time they are responsible to teach, and the younger generation is responsible to take over what the older generation has. So we try to communicate more in our group now than going out to the different regions finding new performing arts in Japan. We try to learn (from) each other and we just try to be honest to the original traditional folk performing arts the oldest performers of Kodo have learned many, many years ago. We still have lots of connection with local communities, and younger performers of Kodo are urged to go there and introduce themselves. It’s important for Kodo to have a tight relationship with each performing community in Japan, still.”
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