Kodo: Two Takes

Mar 25th, 2019

Two reviews of Kodo, who performed on the Flynn Main Stage on Monday, March 18. 

In a Heartbeat

By Kelly Hedglin Bowen, @kelhedglinbowen, Burlington Writer’s Workshop 

I sat mid-theater, body quaking in my seat as booming rhythms reverberated off the walls of the Flynn. I swore the art deco light fixtures on the ceiling would crumble from the vibrations and rain shards of colored glass down upon my head.

I’m already tardy with this review because days after Kodo’s dominant performance, I am still trying to explain what exactly I’ve experienced.

There was drumming. Lots of drumming. The Kodo drummers use a style of Japanese percussion called taiko meaning “big drum.” A high-pitched shime-daiko similar to the snare drum gives a basic rhythm and the nagado-daiko punctuates the sound like the bass drum. But the behemoth—the show stopper—is the whopping o-daiko, an enormous barrel-drum elevated off the stage on a wooden cradle. The players, always muscular, often shirtless, stand before the instrument wielding rolling pin-sized drum sticks pounding away with arduous thrusts.

In the Japanese language, the word kodo has a dual meaning. The first, in written form, means drum child. And second, with a slight stress on the second syllable, the meaning is heartbeat. The heartbeat is thought to be the original source of all rhythm, coming from the sound a child hears while in the womb—a mother’s heartbeat.

Traditionally, taiko was used in times of festivals and war and musical performances. The sixteen-member troupe performance is called kumi-daiko, in which each player beats a differently tuned taiko and the group, as a whole, is one complete drum set.

The theme of this 35th Anniversary show was “evolution,” and Burlington was one stop on their Kodo One Earth 2019 worldwide tour.

In describing the evening, one must consider the word evolution. Merriam Webster defines evolution with multiple meanings. Kodo’s narrative can be pieced together somewhere within them. At its simplest, Kodo is “a set of prescribed movements.” Musicians perform a series of synchronized steps and rhythms. Given Japan’s powerful history and the resilience of the Japanese people, most recently with the Fukushima tragedy, I see aspects of the show as recognition and rebirth—“a process of gradual and relatively peaceful social, political, and economic advance.”

But the real power of Kodo’s message is embodied in a third meaning: “a process in which the whole universe is a progression of interrelated phenomena.” This is where the primal physical intensity of each piece reverberates off the stage through the audience and out into the world.

The evening began with what might be compared to a college football game opener. Drumming in a cadence of upbeat tones and perky beats. Welcoming us or disarming us? This sound melded into a series of faster deep throbbing tones and tiny, woody taps. The musicians expanded our understanding of percussion by moving their strikes from the drum head to the body and side and rim of the instrument.

Every inch of the drum tapped and stroked to elicit sound. A quickening meter juxtaposed against the relatively still drummers, whose only apparent motions were the up and down arm extensions with every controlled beat.

A cymbal solo played with small hand-held golden cymbals that tinged a chime-like sound. The musician brushed (not clashed) each cymbal together, creating a cadence of trailing tones, like rain falling through the treetops or an approaching windstorm.

With each tone mimicking a sound from nature, I wondered if from their base on Sado Island, off the west coast of Japan, the Kodo drummers take inspiration from the natural sounds of their home.

My favorite piece was midway through. Seven drummers sat in a semi-circle facing the audience. Set before them, a drum that from afar resembled three stacked hubcaps. The open sides of the instrument looked like honeycombs and buzzed with sound as the tune flowed through them. The drummers, using standard drumsticks, ever so lightly tapped the drum to create this buzzing sound. The melody’s foreboding nature increased with the tempo. It was otherworldly. This will be the instrument humans will play when trying to communicate with life on other planets.

Towards the end of the performance, the o-daiko appeared. The resonating deep bass drum created a tantric melody. As the lead male drummers launched into a thunderous crescendo rife with physical intensity, the bodily effect was undeniable.

The music of Kodo is more than a celebration sound. With its meditative quality, Kodo’s primal music is an invitation to contemplate the divine—“the whole universe as a progression of interrelated phenomena,” the relationship between life and rhythm and our existence within it.

The Heartbeat Heard Across the World

by Audrey Wilbur, contributor

The expertly trained and choreographed being that is Kodo shook the Flynn Center to its very core during their performance this month, their final show in the USA this spring.

From the moment the curtain rose, they demanded rapt attention from the audience, as much a show of physical movement as rhythmic and musical talent. The company notes that “the sound of the great taiko is said to resemble a mother’s heartbeat as felt in the womb” and that a heartbeat is “the primal source of all rhythm.” This was immediately seen and felt during their performance. Sitting within the audience, the thunderous drums could be felt inside you, resonating in your chest like a second heartbeat and playing close to some intrinsic sense of awe and fear.

The show itself was a display of contrasts. The tremendous, bone-shaking sound was made all the more captivating by their use of silence, sudden and beautiful, that left you holding your breath for the next beat.

Eerie and emotional pieces were backed by works that resembled a great, violent internal battle, and amid all of it was physical humor and lighter arrangements that elicited laughter and tapping feet. Kodo is powerful and primal in one moment, delicate and graceful in the next, with every piece delivered with a deliberate sense of purpose.

Kodo is the most respected taiko group in the world and the reason why was clear in every aspect of their performance. It was an experience that, in the darkness of the theater, worked its way into your soul

Filed in: Community  Music 

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