Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Here are a handful of videos from Sukakusai, the harvest festival, on Sado Island. The performers are members of the Kodo Kenshujo, Kodo's apprentice center. The fourth, fifth and sixth videos are a rendition of "Chonlima," a popular Kodo song that is meant to reflect the running of wild horses. In the second to last video, notice the students holding Asahi (beer) bottles: normally lit lanterns would be used in this traditional dance and song. The last video is of John, a former apprentice, performing Oni-daiko, the regional dance and drum beat. Oni-daiko usually is done in full costume with masks and everything, and is believed to ward off demon spirits....Enjoy!


Saturday, November 24, 2007


Before I begin, this post is a little unorganized, so I apologize. There is just a bunch to explain, and some necessary background information…Anyway….

In the previous post, I (intentionally) failed to mention that Atsushi from the Sado Island Taiko Centre had told me that on Sunday, there would be a festival at the Kodo Kenshujo (the Kodo Apprentice Centre) in the town of Kakinoura. Because Kakinoura is about an hour away from Ogi and there are no public buses in between the two towns, Atsushi, very thoughtfully, arranged a ride for me.

On Sunday morning just after eleven, I was picked up two Kodo members, Shogo and Tokyo. In the pouring rain, we drove north up the coast to Kakinoura. It was a narrow, windy road, sandwiched in between the edge of a rocky forest and an even rockier ocean. The scenery and conversation made for an excellent combination, though…

Shogo spoke English very well; so I was able to learn about him and his experiences with Kodo. Mind you that Shogo and Tokyo, although they are in their early 20s, are a full-time members of Kodo. So there I was, sitting in the backseat of a van with two professional Kodo members: these guys have toured extensively throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. Every August, Kodo holds an annual festival, Earth Celebration, on Sado, and there are performances from drummers from all over the world. (Yes, I know, I should have been there; next time I come to Japan, it will be to attend the EC). This year, Shogo and other members of Kodo performed with one of the other headliners, Zakir Hussain. As I wrote in the previous post, Zakir Hussain has recorded with Kodo in the past (on “Mondo Head”); and he is a phenomenal tabla player. Zakir has also played with John McLaughlin (of the Miles Davis fame) and Bill Laswell (producer of many David Byrne records). Zakir’s father was the tabla player for Ravi Shankar. So, in short, Shogo has jammed with the most distinguished tabla player alive. The more I think about it, the more remarkable it was that I was able just to ride and hang out with Shogo and Tokyo.

Tokyo has been playing taiko for over fifteen years; unfortunately, he didn’t really speak English, so I was not able to learn too much about his experiences with the group. Shogo has played around twelve years. Both spent two years as apprentices at the Kodo Kenshujo, and have been formally playing with the group for just over a year. I asked Shogo if when he was younger, when he began studying taiko, whether he aspired to someday play with Kodo, and he say that he had. So basically he is living his dream, which is so admirable and, just straight up awesome! It would be like learning to play drums listening to Led Zeppelin records and then the band asking you to join. (I think there was a Mark Walhberg movie about this idea). Anyways, that is just such a wild concept to comprehend.

Just a week or so ago, Kodo ended their annual “One Earth Tour,” which, as the name indicates, is an international tour, lasting about four months. I knew that Kodo has performed in New York City, and I asked him how they were (this was last March; I had heard about them at the time, but was in London on Spring break). Kodo played two shows at Joe’s Pub, a tiny venue in downtown Manhattan. Normally, Kodo performs at good-sized concert halls, like Carnegie Hall, but they had decided to try a more intimate space. Shogo said the shows were fantastic (both were sold-out, of course), but the loudness of the drums was amplified by the small space so much so that the wine glasses from the bar shattered!

After talking about New York City for a while, I commented to Shogo on the beauty of Sado Island, and how the Kodo Village is in an ideal setting for making music. I told him that I believe music often reflect its environment. He responded, “It is important to practice in nature. We must never forget nature.” It certainly seems that Kodo is greatly influenced by nature: between the group only using drums made of natural materials to the location of their headquarters, Kodo uses nature as a spiritual inspiration.

(((Now back to my day))) After picking up an elderly couple in Kakinoura, we made our way to the Kodo Kenshujo (the Apprentice Center), which was founded just over ten years ago. The Kenshujo is actually an old school house that was going to be torn down, but Kodo bought the building at the last minute. Every year, after many young taiko players audition, ten are inducted to the Kodo Kenshujo. The apprenticeship is a very serious commitment: the members all live together, which includes cooking and farming.
Shogo explained that it very physically difficult: every morning the group runs ten kilometers (6.2 miles). Being a member of the Kodo Kenshujo is basically like having a two-year long audition to join Kodo. Even though ten new apprentices join the program every year, only one or two older apprentices join Kodo. Shogo even said that this past year, no apprentices were inducted to the group; so, even with all that work, nothing is guaranteed.

(((I just realized I haven’t really gotten ‘back’ to my day, so here it goes!))) After we arrived at the Kodo Kenshujo, I learned that today was a very special day, the Sukakusai – the harvest festival. (Sukaku means harvest, and sai means festival). It seemed like the entire town of Kakinoura packed in this old gymnasium – there were probably about three hundred people in total, all sitting on the floor at tables.

It seemed like there was an endless amount of food, beer, sake, and most importantly, conversation. Fortunately, I met a Japanese-Canadian man named John: he was an apprentice four years ago, but since moved on. John explained many things about the festival, and was graciously enough to help translate when I was conversing with the locals.

The Kodo apprentices performed for almost two hours, playing a mix of Kodo compositions and traditional pieces. They sounded really great: it was just so neat to be eating and drinking with everyone while listening to the music. I will include some short videos in another post.

One of the most memorable aspects of the festival was when the locals were performing: on Sado, there is a folk dance, with specific drum beats, that are done to ward away evil spirits, called Oni-daiko. Just about everyone knows how to do the dance and play the beat; but the performance is only two people, the drummer and the dancer. The way it is decided who drums and dances is the best part: someone in the audience will tell the MC, “I will give X dollars (yen actually) if so-and-so dances.” So members of the community call out their friends to do the dance – and usually very intoxicated individuals are called upon. (I believe the money raised is used to fund the festival). So, as you can imagine, this can turn into a very funny scene, particularly when the would-be dancer either no interest in getting on stage, or very little capability in doing so.

In all honestly, as this was a harvest festival, there was a fair amount of drinking, so if my camera work is a bit shaky, that is why! It was actually really amusing seeing almost the entire community (of mostly very old people, I should add) getting tanked. I probably shouldn’t be writing about this; so let’s just leave it at that, to the best of my memory, the festival was a blast...

This is John performing the Oni-daiko.

This is one of the "good" demons.

Shogo does the Oni-daiko.

Sado Island

Thursday, November 15, 2007


November 10, 2007

After taking a train from Hakusan to Naoetsu, I boarded a ferry to Sado Island. The ferry was more like a really nice cruise ship: it even had a game room, and yes, I played old school Nintendo baseball for the bulk of the trip. In the late afternoon I arrived in Ogi, a tiny port town on Sado Island. I made my way to a youth hostel, which is basically a traditional Japanese house. Since it is the offseason, there are no other guests.

On Saturday morning, I walked to Kodo Village, which is 4.5 kilometers (just under three miles) from the hostel. Aside from the rain and the fact that it was an uphill walk, it was a pretty nice journey. For part of it, I was walking aside a bamboo forest, which was very beautiful.

Just above Kodo Village is the Sado Island Taiko Centre. Built in 2006, the SITC has a magnificent view of the bay. The SITC is directly affiliated with the Kodo group; the Taiko Centre houses the Kodo Cultural Foundation, which was established in 1997.

Undoubtedly, Kodo represents the best of taiko: only the top Japanese drummers are admitted into the group. The Kodo community consists of fifty-two people: twenty-seven drummers and twenty-five staff members.

Kodo has a tremendously grueling schedule: one third of the year is spent touring internationally, another third touring in Japan and another third on Sado Island. Since 1981, Kodo has had over 2,900 performances in forty-three different countries!

I was fortunate enough to meet Atsushi Sugano, the Administrative Director of the Kodo Cultural Foundation. Mr. Sugano gave me a tour of the building, and told me much about Kodo itself. The Taiko Centre has a giant practice space that is used for workshops; throughout the year, various one-day classes on taiko playing are taught to all different age groups. In the practice room, there are, of course, many different drums; there was one particularly interesting drum that had several branches coming out of it. I’m not sure I can really describe it properly, so here is a picture:
The Taiko Centre sold a variety of Kodo memorabilia and records, the soundtrack for the Jet Li movie, “Hero.” I bought the most recent Kodo yearbook (which had some English in it), and two records, “Heartbeat: Best of Kodo 25th Anniversary” and “Kodo Mondo,” a collaborative effort with Mickey Hart, the drummer of the Grateful Dead, and Zakir Hussain, who is considered to be the best tabla player alive. I will write more about the “Kodo Mondo” record in another post.

After I left the Taiko Centre, I went to Kodo Village, which opened in 1988. The Kodo group (which is simply referred to as “Kodo”) made their debut at the Berlin Festival in 1981. Taiko had been popular on Sado Island prior to the foundation of Kodo; but, through Kodo, over the past twenty-six years, there has been a tremendous evolution of taiko music on Sado.

A man named Gen Matsui gave me a tour of Kodo Village, which is three main buildings: an office building with a kitchen and dining hall, a dormitory for first-, second-, and third-year members, and, of course, a practice hall. There is a definite sense of communal values in Kodo Village: all members, performers or staffers, are obliged to cook. Furthermore, in the springtime, everyone is involved in collecting firewood for the following winter season. Also, everyone partakes in working on the farm.

In the of liner of the “Heartbeat: Best of Kodo 25th Anniversary” record, it reads, “Exploring the limitless possibilities of the traditional Japanese drum, the taiko, Kodo are forging new directions for a vibrant living art-form The taiko is something you experience viscerally as the sound of the drum travels from the player and reverberates in the body of the listener… Kodo strives to both preserve and reinterpret traditional Japanese performing arts as they develop new styles that transcend all genre and borders.” Thus, Kodo uses a traditional Japanese instrument in a contemporary context.

In the introduction of the Kodo book I bought it explains: “The name ‘Kodo’ has two meanings. The literal readings of the two characters that make up the name ‘children of the drum.’ A reflection of Kodo’s desire to play their drums simply, with the heart of a child. The word ‘Kodo’ is also a homonym for ‘heartbeat’ – humanity’s most fundamental source of rhythm – the first sound a child hears in their mother’s womb.”

Although there is not direct connection between Kodo and any specific religious institution, there is an undeniable essence of ‘spirituality’ in their music. While I will be the first to admit that using such a broad term as ‘spirituality’ can be dangerous and misleading, there is something so pure and universal about Kodo’s music. In the book, it affirms, “Kodo uses the taiko’s unique ability to transcend language and cultural barriers and reminds listeners in all places of their membership in a larger community: the world.”

The “spiritual” element of Kodo is evident in the group’s appreciation and dedication to nature. The Kodo Village is nestled in the wilderness of Sado Island – the founder of Kodo, Ei Rokusuke, explicitly chose a remote, but beautiful, location.
Surely, music is a product of its environment: the gritty lyrics of hip-hop genuinely reflect the struggles of urban life. Thus, Kodo uses nature as inspiration: it would be next to impossible to make their music in Tokyo. One Kodo record, “Blessing of the Earth,” the cover shows a taiko drum growing out of the soil.

Today was a truly special day: it is so difficult to explain all of my experiences, but I really just feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to see Kodo Village and meet various Kodo members. Everyone was extremely helpful – I know I say that quite often these days but when you consider the fame and stature of Kodo, it is remarkable that I was able just to have the chance to see their headquarters. I am so excited to see the performances in December!

On the walk up to Kodo Village...

The view from the Sado Island Taiko Centre.

The practice room at the SITC.

The main practice hall in Kodo Village. The building was built in 1921, and at the time was the largest wooden building on Sado Island.

Almost all of the drums Kodo uses are made by Asano Taiko.

The main office at Kodo Village.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Below this post is a post that describes my experiences at Asano Taiko. I took many, many pictures, but rather than just posting them, I will post some of them with captions. Just so you know, this is not in chronological order. I do apologize if the spacing/text is off. There are also two short videos; so, enjoy!

The smoke warehouse.

Smoothening the interior of the drum.

The (chemical) timber dryer.

Turning a tree trunk to a taiko.

I pondered buying this one, but decided it wouldn't fit in my carry-on.

A different huge taiko.

Yasuo Asano leads the way.

The store, which displays final products, but does not sell any drums.

Sticks galore!

Professor Tagaki and Yasuo Asano in the background.

A Build-Your-Own-Taiko Kit! Soooo cool!

African drums in the museum.

Big. Very big.

Softening the drum head.

I love this photograph.

Playing away.

Old taiko crafting tools called kougu.

A very old drum.

I love the writing on the drum heads.

Very small drums used in religious ceremonies, called the furitsuzumi.

Gaku-daiko, used for Buddhist and Shinto ceremonies and rituals. The detail of the painting is amazing.

The biggest drum I will ever play.

The collection of drums used for religious purposes.


The kakko.

I finally discovered what the spiral taiko symbol means: it is called a “tomoe,” and according to Asano Taiko, it, “it has long been a symbol of the spiral created by the energy of thunder and cloud, fire and water and universal creation in Asia. The spiral represents the meeting, clashing and flow of Heaven and Earth, Yin and Yang. In Japan, the tomoe was considered to be the shape of the human soul and fetus. From that idea, the heavenly spiral of Heaven, Earth and Humanity, mitsudomoe (three comma design), was created.” Pretty neat, huh? In the photography, the symbol is black and gold.

Noda, Professor Tagaki and their little one.

To soften the leather on the drums, two things are done: first, sake is rubbed on the skin. Second, the skins are (carefully) jumped on. Here is a video: