Powerful polyrhythms

Kodo, the granddaddy of taiko troupes, comes to the Hop

Kodo, one of the world’s leading taiko drumming ensembles, brings its new show Evolution to the Hop’s Spaulding Auditorium on Tuesday, March 4, 7 pm.

Based on Sado Island in northern Japan, Kodo has been dazzling audiences worldwide for over three decades, both preserving and reinterpreting traditional Japanese performance. Once including women in a limited way, Kodo now includes powerful female performers side by side with men.  Evolution showcases the group’s perpetual creative growth and the mesmerizing precision and endurance of the ancient drumming tradition, taiko. With synchronized power and grace, they play everything from small hand-held instruments to the five- foot-wide ō-daiko (called the “king of drums”). Kodo infuses the ancient form with fresh rhythms that move body and soul.

Formed in 1981, Kodo divides its time between training on the beautiful, tradition- and arts-focused island of Sado and touring the world with shows that combine traditional arts with extraordinary showmanship. “Superlatives don’t really exist to convey the primal power and bravura beauty of Kodo,” wrote the Chicago Tribune.” Wrote the New York Times: “Traditional rituals recast as theater, and contemporary thoughts about ancient instruments both figure in Kodo’s performance, which includes ancient and modern compositions. Yet with tense, angular postures, with stylized, frozen gestures and, in one playful piece, with animal-like scampering and slithering, Kodo reminds its audience that, above all, its music is a matter of flesh and blood, wood and stretched skin. Kodo can raise the roof, but the group can also show extraordinary finesse.”

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Exploring the limitless possibilities of the traditional Japanese drum, the taiko, Kodo is forging new directions for a vibrant living art-form. The ensemble was founded on the concept of “living, learning, and creating.” Kodo is dedicated to learning performing arts from all over Japan and around the world, as well as creating and sharing its own unique, innovative forms of artistic expression.

Kodo bases its performances on three components. One is the traditional arts, which the Kodo website describes as “rooted in the soil developed through an intimate relationship between the people and their art, and between art and nature.” The second is music composed by friends and mentors of Kodo, including orchestral and jazz musicians. Third is composition by members of Kodo themselves. “Our performance begins with the blending of these three elements with our lives amidst the sights and sounds of Sado Island,” the Kodo website states. “It is then forged into shape on the anvil of rehearsal.”

Watch three Kodo drummers play the ōdaiko, the largest taiko drum: 

Historians believe taiko came to Japan from Korea in the 6th century CE and were likely used for communication, in festivals, and in other rituals. After World War II, the first group that brought taiko onto the performance stage was formed by Daihachi Oguchi, in 1951. Trained as a jazz musician, he was given a piece of taiko notation. Unable to read it, he found someone to transcribe it then added his own rhythms and transformed the work to accommodate multiple taiko players on different-sized instruments. Several other groups emerged in Japan through the 1950s and 1960s, and taiko performance became more visible on the world stage during the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, when it was featured during the Festival of Arts event.

The ensemble Kodo traces its origins to the late 1960s when Den Tagayasu established a training center for taiko on Sado Island, where he had moved with his family. He called the group "Za Ondekoza", and implemented a rigorous set of exercises for its members including long-distance running. In 1975, Ondekoza was the first taiko group to tour in the United States. Their first performance occurred just after the group finished running the Boston Marathon while wearing their traditional uniforms. In 1981, some members of Ondekoza split and formed Kodo, also on Sado Island, and also involving rigorous training and communal living. Kodo went on to popularize taiko through frequent touring and collaborations with other musical performers and has for decades been one of the world’s best-known taiko ensembles.

One of the biggest changes in Kodo’s three decades has been the inclusion of female drummers. While women co-founded the group, they performed as singers and dancers at first, wearing graceful but movement-limiting kimonos. The drumming itself was viewed as masculine. Those who developed ensemble-style taiko in post- war Japan were men, and through the influence of Ondekoza, the ideal taiko player was epitomized in images of the masculine peasant class. The top players were the ultimate buff male beauties, and women’s bodies were perceived as being unequal to the art form’s physical demands. An exception was San Francisco Taiko Dojo under the guidance of Grand master Seiichi Tanaka, who was the first to admit females to the art form. In the 1990s, female participation in other groups began to rise dramatically and now equals or exceeds male participation--although concerns still exist that women are limited as to the instrument they are permitted to play, and that the most impressive drums are the province of men. Still, in Japanese culture, where tradition stereotypes women as quiet, decorous and subservient, the sight of athletic young women pounding large drums in synchronized fury is a true game-changer.

Want to try it yourself? Here is one of a series of instructional videos of taiko:


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