Saturday, December 29, 2007

MY FIRST TABLA LESSON

December 27, 2007

Today, I had my first tabla lesson. After lunch, Anthony and his friend, Kalai, picked me up and drove me to a small house near the beach (yes, there is a huge beach in Chennai, and oddly enough, although it is the most public part of the city, it is the cleanest. Go figure). The neighborhood, mostly comprised of fishermen, is a pretty interesting, chiefly because it was completely decimated in the 2004 tsunami, but there still are tons of people residing there.

Kalai introduced me to Chandran and his son, Jacob. Chandran is 52 years old, has been playing tabla for over thirty years, and is a recording artist. Jacob, also a tabla player, is in his mid-twenties, and has played for eight years. Although Chandran was there for the whole two-plus hour lesson, Jacob was the main teacher.

(Minor clarification: the tabla is two hand drums, the left one bigger than the right one. “Tablas” is not a word; so I will always refer to it in the singular “tabla,” even though I am referring to two drums).

From having watched many tabla performances, I always have had a tremendous appreciation for level of musicianship it takes to play the instrument. The tabla is not just a hand drum that you bang away at: it is a very delicate drum that can only be played in a specific manner. The proper tones will not come out by just hitting the drum.

Indeed, like Western drums, tabla provides the rhythm for the music: nonetheless, for all intensive purposes, I might as well been trying to play a saxophone. The mechanics required to play a tabla are more akin to that of a piano, than a drum set or even bongos.

Actually that is not entirely true, because unlike the piano, with the tabla, you can only use certain fingers, certain combinations of those certain fingers, and even more complexly, certain parts of those certain fingers! (Yes, I intentionally worded that as confusingly as possible to put you all in the mental state I was in during my lesson).

What fascinated me was how each finger must be in a precise position, in order to get the proper tone out of the tabla. To clarify, if your middle finger on your right hand is touching the head, the drum will not make the right sound. Playing the tabla requires a tremendous amount of coordination between your hands and even more so among your digits: the right and left hand are never in identical positions, and the tabla must only be played with the tips of your fingers. (There is another sound made from the heal of your hand, but fingertips are used most often). I was told to pretend the right tabla was on fire, and thus to always play it staccato, never leaving my finger on the drum for more than a split second.

Jacob and I worked on the positioning of the hands and fingers, and other mechanical techniques. I did learn one basic, sixteen-bar beat, the “Teental.” Here is a little chart of the beat:

Dha Dhin Dhin Dha (called the “Sam”)
Dha Dhin Dhin Dha (called the “Tali”)
Dha Thin Thin Tha (called the “Kali”)
Tha Dhin Dhin Dha (also called the “Tali”…maybe I took that down wrong?)

This might not even be worth reading, but here is my description of that chart:
For “Dha,” you use your right index finger and left index finger at the same time. For “Dhin,” you use your right index finger and left index and middle fingers at the same time. The second “Dhin” is played the same as the “Dha.” For “Thin,” you use your right index figure and you close your entire left hand on the drum. For “Tha,” you only use your right index finger. Remember the middle finger on your right hand must never touch the drum, and the ring finger on your right hand must always touch the drum but ever so gently. Got it???

Before he first touched the tabla, Jacob, an Indian Christian, crossed himself. As I have written about before, the tabla is an intricate part of Hindu rituals and prayers. For Hindus, the tabla is not just a manifestation of Saravati, the Goddess of Music and Knowledge, but is Saravati Herself. (I do not think a Western could ever understand this concept; I know I don’t). The tabla is used in various Muslim rituals and prayers, but of course, the central tenet of Islam maintains absolute monotheism, and rejects all forms of idolatry, thus eliminating the prospect of God manifesting Himself in any material way, like in a drum for instance. I am not positive, but do not think that a Muslim would “bless” his tabla the way a Hindu would.

I found it extremely intriguing that an Indian Christian would bless himself and the drum. I would assume that this is a result of an Indian Hindu converting to Christianity. (Jacob is not a convert; he was born a Christian. Nevertheless, clearly, at some point in his family’s lineage, there was a conversion). Thus, within the scope of Hinduism, certain mannerisms, like the proper etiquette of how to handle the tabla, have been transferred to that of the Indian Christian musician. That is to say, I have never heard of an American Baptist crossing himself before playing his drums in church – but, of course, when it comes to religion and music, anything is possible.

Here is a video of Chandran playing the tabla, and another of him and Kalai performing a folk Tamil song.



Friday, December 28, 2007

PHOTOGRAPHS FROM TABLA LESSON

Hi everyone. Yesterday, I had my first tabla lesson. I will write a post on that experience, but until then, enjoy these photographs.

P.S. I am fully aware of the situation in Pakistan right now. If a civil war breaks out, I will leave India.







Jacob.






















































Thursday, December 27, 2007

Zzzzzzzz

December 26, 2007

I have a confession to make: this afternoon, while watching a performance at the Music Academy, I fell asleep. What I did was not a sign of disrespect; in fact, oddly enough, it was almost expected of me. There are many customs within Indian culture that would be deemed rude back in the West; such as dozing during a musical performance and eating with your hands.

Several years ago, I read the autobiography of the sitar legend Ravi Shankar. In one passage, he recounts a special performance he gave for Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. In the middle of the show, Raviji noticed that Mr. Nehru was sound asleep: in the autobiography, Raviji affirms that when a patron falls asleep during a performance, the musician has done his job.

I must admit that I have seen countless “snoozers” at the performances at the Music Academy. I’d even estimate that at any given time at least 15% of the audience is in the Land of Nod. The combination of the hot weather and the droning sound of the tanpura can make a siesta simply irresistible.

…When I awoke from my catnap, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, which was billed as “Hyderabad Brothers, D. Raghavachari and D. Seshachari” (I am unsure why the they have different last names; maybe they are not blood brothers). The mridangam and ghatam players were outstanding: I actually think they were the best rhythm section I have seen here in India. Unfortunately, the ghatam (clay drum) player always is squirreled in the back of the stage, so I am never able to watch his hand movements. The closing twenty minutes of the performance was a duet between the mridangam player and ghatam player: it was really neat to see the two players battle back and forth with the beat.



On an unrelated noted, I do have a mobile phone here: my number is +91 988 485 3905. I can receive SMS.





PP, myself and Anthony having "Christmas" lunch.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

GENDER & DRUM

December 24, 2007

The daily “programme list” (as they call it) at the Music Academy is as follows: from 9:15am-11:45am a “Senior” artist performs; from 12noon-1:30pm a “Junior” artist performs; from 1:45pm-3:45pm a “Sub Senior” performs; and there are two “Evening Senior” performances at 4:15pm-6:45pm and 7pm-9:30pm (the last two are not free shows). It should be noted that the “Junior” performers are still very good musicians, but there is, of course, a difference in skill (chiefly due to experience, and not necessarily to raw talent).

This afternoon, I went to a “Junior” performance, which included a flute, violin and mridangam. (You’ll notice in the photograph and videos that there is a fourth instrument, a tanpura, which is a drone. Tanpura players are never credited in the music programs; and I always thought drummers were the least respected musicians!)

For the first time in India, I saw a female percussionist. A girl, probably about eighteen years old, was playing the mridangam; and she was very, very talented. While there have been many Carnatic female vocalists, I have never heard of any female drummers - which is not to say they don’t exist. The girl, named Rajna Swaminathan, is actually from a family of mridangam players.

Her father, Madirimangalam Swaminathan, is a very accomplished player: that evening, he performed at the Music Academy, just like his daughter had earlier that day. I think it was pretty neat that the organizers scheduled today’s program in this manner.

The evening performance was a typical Carnatic show: mridangam, violin, flute and ghatam. I must admit that I had never heard of the ghatam before: it is a drum, entirely made from clay. It could easily be mistaken for a cooking pot; but, apparently, they are made specifically for Carnatic performances. That is to say, it is not just some guy banging on a cooking pot. Hopefully, I can locate a ghatam crafter, because I am very curious how they determine the pitch and whatnot. In the second and third videos, you cannot see the ghatam; but the ghatam player is in white, but blocked by Madirimangalam Swaminathan. The third video is a composition called, “Siva Siva Siva,” a devotional piece. Enjoy!









This composition is called "Siva Siva Siva"


MOTORCYCLES, MANDOLINS & MRIDANGAMS

December 23, 2007

This morning, I was picked up by one of Anthony’s friends, a man named Dhinakar. For several hours, Dhinakar and I rode around on his motorcycle throughout Chennai, which was a pretty wild experience. Cheating death always is exhilarating – and sorry mom, we did not wear helmets! We ate lunch at his house, which was nice to get a home-cooked meal, albeit an extremely spicy one.

Later that evening, I went to the Music Academy. The place was packed, and my seat actually was in the last row of the balcony! (I still had a relatively good view though). As I have written in an earlier post, there are ongoing performances at the Music Academy and various other venues throughout Chennai, so there is no shortage of music to be heard. I do have a schedule of all of the performances at the Music Academy, so I know what I will be seeing when I go there.

Tonight, I attended another Carnatic (South Indian) music performance, yet there was a little twist. Like many traditional performances, the instruments included a mridangam (hand drum), ghatam (clay drum), kanjira (South Indian tambourine), and violin; yet what drew my attention was that there also were two mandolins. (And, of course, for me, the strong percussion section was really fantastic). I have come to learn that mandolins, like violins, are not uncommon in Carnatic music. What was so interesting was that the musicians were making an “Indian” sound out of the mandolin – if I did not have program, I would have never guessed they were playing mandolins.

I always have enjoyed fusion music; and particularly like the idea of a “Western” instrument used in an “Eastern” devotional piece. Once again, the universality of music transcends all cultural and religious boundaries.


The mandolin players are in white and black kurtas.

Monday, December 24, 2007

MARGAZHI FESTIVAL, DAY ONE OF MANY

December 22, 2007

While in Japan, I became so accustomed to the constant high-speed internet access; it made posting videos and pictures a mundane task. Unfortunately, in India, internet access is scarce and turtlely (I know that is not a word, but it should be). Thus, I will be unable to post many videos (as it takes over 30 minutes to upload each one); and that, I be updating my site much more infrequently.

All that being said, here is another update: yesterday, I met a rickshaw driver named V. Anthony Mani. After he took me to a delicious restaurant for a buttered chicken tikka lunch, I told him why I was in India. It turns out that he has been studying keyboards for several years, and has invited me to visit his music school. He also explained to me the details of the Margazhi Festival and the upcoming dance festival at the Music Academy in January. Immediately, he and I established a relationship through our mutual interest in music.

This morning, Anthony picked me up at 9am and drove me the Mylapore Fine Arts Club to hear some music. The venue was an open-aired auditorium. There were five musicians, one singing, and four instrumentalists, playing a violin, moharsing, pedele (like a drone instrument played with the mouth), and mridangam (a South Indian hand drum, similar to the dholak). The songs were sung in Sanskrit, which meant that they probably had some religious significance, but Anthony did not know the exact meaning. We stayed for over an hour. I was a little hesitant to leave, but Anthony promised the next venue would be better.

Next, Anthony took me the Music Academy, an extremely nice facility. The auditorium is relatively new, and even has a state-of-the-art Bose sound system. In that performance, there were three women and three men, playing the same instruments as the players the Mylapore Fine Arts Club. These songs were sung in Sanskirt, and Anthony told me they were devotional pieces about Paravati, Lord Shiva’s wife.

I opted not to attend the performance in the evening, as I was pretty exhausted by the late afternoon. The good news is that there are so many opportunities to hear music over the next few weeks that I can really do all this at my own pace. Here are some videos and photographs from today:




















WELCOME TO CHENNAI

December 20, 2007

After a grueling twenty-eight hour door to door journey – including a not-so-exciting midnight to 8am layover in the closed Singapore airport –, I arrived at my hotel in Chennai (formerly known as Madras).

For the past few weeks, in all honesty, I have not been looking forward to my arrival in India. It is not so much that I do not want to be in India, rather the transition of going from Japan – a country that has the highest quality of life in world, is extremely safe, and amazingly easy to travel throughout – to India – the antithesis of all of those characteristics, has caused some personal anxiety as of late. Nonetheless, here I am to take on any adventure that may come my way.

I must admit I feel so thankful that I have spent a semester in India before; albeit, that it was in the north, which, for all intensive purposes (read: language, religion, and food), is an entirely different country. South India has a reputation of being far less intense than North India: while this speculation has yet to be tried and tested, I think it is almost an irrelevant point. India is India: it is a crazy place no matter how you slice it.

Lady Luck once again appears to be in my corner, at least for research purposes, that is: throughout the next few weeks in Chennai, there is a citywide music festival. I had read about this festival, called the Margazhi Festival, before, as it is apparently the largest Carnatic festival in the world. The festival has performances predominately of Carnatic (South Indian) music, but also, much less frequently, Hindustani (North Indian) music is played. The festival is held at many different venues, and there are daily performances from 9am until the evening (about 9:30pm). To make it even better, all of the shows until 4pm are always free!

If that weren’t enough, from January 3rd until January 9th, there is a dance festival that will have a ton of music performances as a well. I am thrilled to have arrived in Chennai during the “music” season.

Ganesha plays the tabla.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

LAST VIDEOS FROM JAPAN

As I was leaving for the airport, I saw this on the streets of Asakusa, Tokyo.



I think I have discovered "the art of the drum:"

FINAL REFLECTIONS ON JAPAN

(Note: This is my final post on my experience in Japan. My apologies that it is a bit disorganized, but I had many topics I wanted to include…)

It is amazing how quickly the past few months in Japan have unfolded: I am still in disbelief that my time here has come to an end. I still feel it is remarkable how fluidly the past few months have gone: I have seen some incredible performances, met some truly wonderful people and had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the country.

In all honesty, prior to my arrival, I knew very little about taiko. I am so pleased that I was able have a logical progression in my study of Japanese drumming and drum crafting. It just worked out so well that I was able to build my way “up:” that is, I first learned about taiko through the students at the university – and thus was able to begin to appreciate the dedication it takes to study taiko. Then, I was able to learn about the instrument itself, while visiting the Asano Taiko factory. Next, I went to Sado Island and got my first taste of Kodo, and began to understand the spiritual relationship between taiko and nature. Lastly, I attended several Kodo performances: as excellent as the Shien (the group from the university) were, simply put, Kodo is the most talented taiko group in the world. I am sure that I would not have appreciated the tremendous level of musicianship of the Kodo performers if I had seen the three shows in October. Albeit I, admittedly, did not plan to have such a logical progression, there was a seamless evolution to my research here in Japan.

(Not to mention that along the way, I also have had other “drum and percussion” experiences, such as the Ainu traditional music concert, the fire festival at the Buddhist temple in Kyoto and the djembe workshop).

Indeed, the initial parameters of this research fellowship sought to focus on the “spiritual essence” of drumming and drum crafting. Of course, the idea of “spirituality” is a very broad and rather ambiguous concept: thus, throughout this year, I have intended to concentrate mostly on the drumming and drum crafting within the religious institution. That being said, during my stay in Japan, I did focus more on the “spiritual essence” of taiko.

Without a doubt, taiko does have a place within Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines; yet, I have learned that in these situations, the drums are more ornamental than essential to the religious service. That is to say, in Fiji and India, for example, the tabla often has an explicit function within the prayers and rituals. In Japan, that tends not to be the case.

During my visit to Asano Taiko, the most famous Japanese drum company, it was interesting to see the differences in crafting of a taiko for religious and non-religious purposes. While Zen Buddhism greatly differs from the various other sects of Buddhism throughout Japan and it is not fair to associate all forms of Japanese Buddhism with Zen, I would have anticipated that because Zen (and to a lesser extend, any form of Buddhism in general) emphasizes minimalism and simplicity, taiko drums used in the temples would be the very plain. On the contrary, the taiko drums employed in various Buddhist rituals and prayers almost always have very intricate designs and are painted in an array of colors. To be honest, I am not sure what all this means, but it is somewhat intriguing, and I would have never hypothesized this.

Speaking of the drums themselves, I am really disappointed that I did not buy a drum while in Japan, but the circumstances were not ideal. The truth is that most of the taiko drums are so big and played in such a different technique than Western drums (taiko is played with your whole body, whereas Western drums are supposed to be played only with wrists and fingers), that there would not really be a point of me owning one.

I did find an amazing taiko, beautifully painted black and gold (picture below)…but it was over $3,000 without shipping! I think it is still possible that I will order a taiko from Miyamoto or perhaps even Asano, pending the price is right, and more importantly, that I would actually use the drum.

Yes, that is real gold-leaf.

One memorable experience that I have yet to write about was I visited John Lennon Museum in Tokyo. What is so awesome about this fellowship is that I have an infinite flexibility in my program: the John Lennon Museum has nothing to do with my research, but it represents another facet of my greater interest in music. It was one of the most interesting museums I have ever visited; a truly comprehensive and enlightening experience. In all honesty, George Harrison has always been my favorite Beatle, followed by Paul McCartney; and, even though I have always loved John, I developed a new, profound respect for him not only as a musician but also as a human being. He truly was one of the most important people of the 20th Century. I definitely dig his philosophy of diplomacy through music, even if it oversimplifies the solution to world peace.

So, again my apologies for the frazzled nature of this post; it is very hard to sum up how wonderful my experience in Japan. I cannot wait to go back! I would like to give a BIG thank you to Noriko Fuku, Professor Tagaki, Nobu, Kyoko (Nobu’s mom), Noda Satoru of Shien, Rei, Yuki, Gen Matsui and Atsushi Sugano of Kodo, and Sumiyo Asano of Asano Taiko. I’m sure I am missing some people, so sorry about that!

Lastly, for almost two months, I was living with one of Noriko’s students, a really great guy named Nobu, and his mother, Kyoko. There is a small temple/shrine attached to their house, and here are some pictures from it.
































Nobu & I out to eat in Kyoto.














I saw this as I was heading to the airport. Fitting finish to my time in Japan.








And I’m off to India…

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

TAIKO IN POP CULTURE

December 17, 2007

Taiko music is present throughout Japanese pop culture in so many random ways that it is just astonishing. It must be remembered that taiko are a very traditional instrument – yes, I realize that my previous post on Kodo’s redefining the concept of “tradition” sort of contradicts the power of this statement.

There is a very popular arcade video game in Japan: a taiko simulator, where there are two big rubber and plastic taiko drums with sticks. It is similar to the popular video game, Guitar Hero, where you try to “play” a song with a controller shaped like a guitar. In this game (let’s just call it “Taiko Hero” from here on out), you follow a beat, and either compete against the computer or another player.

(Sorry it's sideways)

I have played Taiko Hero and it is a blast. It’s very funny because the songs in Taiko Hero are not like traditional Japanese taiko songs; I have even played it to the Mario Brothers theme song! For me, it’s just really neat to see taiko in such a contemporary and popular context.

Furthermore, I have been eating a rice cracker snack that depicts several cartoon taiko players on it. Again, it’s not incredibly important and I don’t have much to say about, but I just love the idea how taiko is spread throughout Japanese culture…And the crackers are really good! I have been eating some as I wrote this!

RAMEN & RAP

December 17, 2007

Yesterday was my last full day in Kyoto: aside from tying up some loose ends and running some minor errands, I basically just rode my bike around the city one last time. As I was cruising along the river, I saw a guy playing a djembe, so I stopped to watch for a little bit. I thought it was a very appropriate encounter. After that, I was hungry, and wound up at a tiny ramen noodle shop near the Gion entertainment district.

To give you an idea of the setting, the place didn’t even have doors, it was a real hole-in-the-wall. The place was real “locals-only” joint: the food was delicious, exceptionally cheap, but the experience stuck with me for a very, very odd reason.


The whole time I was eating lunch Southern gangster rap was playing. Now, I have come to learn that among the Japanese youth, there is a certain idolization of the American hip-hop culture. Japanese rap is very popular (and of course, as is American rap); so, I have heard my fair share of rap while in Japan. Nonetheless, what was so striking about this incident, was I was the youngest person at the noodle shop….by about thirty years. So there I was, eating delicious ramen while listening to T.I. with a bunch of elderly Japanese people.

While this experience does not have any direct correlation to what I am researching, with this fellowship, from day one, I have slowly understood the idea that music is the universal language. This prospect is nothing new to me; almost every agrees of the universality of music. Yet, seeing it (rather hearing it, that is) in practice is something truly remarkable. Music disregards the notion of context; but, I guess that is what makes it universal, right?

Monday, December 17, 2007

KODO IN OSAKA

December 16, 2007

Last night, I attended my final Kodo concert in Osaka, which is barely a twenty-minute ride on the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Kyoto. Despite that I have spent all this time in Kyoto, I have never made it Osaka before yesterday. It is definitely a much more industrial city, and has much less cultural significance than Kyoto; but, I did like it much more than I had anticipated I would.

I saw Gen Matsui again; we chatted for about ten minutes before and after the show. I cannot emphasize how warm and friendly he has been to me: he even offered to give me a tour shirt (I had bought one the night before), so instead gave me the 2007 Kodo yearbook. Again, it’s so amazing to me how welcoming and helpful he has been. It’s just very reassuring to know that even Kodo is one of the most famous and successful Japanese arts group, the members and staff still are extremely grounded.

Of the three Kodo performances I saw this week, I thought this was the best for a handful of reasons. First, it was definitely my favorite venue: the acoustics were noticeably better here than Hiroshima or Okayama. Second, I had better seats: I’ve always felt that vantage point doesn’t make or break a concert-going experience, but it is that much more exciting to be closer (although, with a taiko performance, you do not want to be too close, otherwise the sound quality will suffer, as it will be too undefined). Lastly, because I was so familiar with the set, I was able to appreciate each song individually and the whole flow of concert, in general.

I am so happy I have been able to see these three performances. It has been such an appropriate, wonderful conclusion to my time here in Japan. Again, my only regret is that I was not able to take pictures or videos: I would highly, highly recommend seeing a Kodo show at some point in your life, as there is nothing quite like it.















Tickets from all three shows and the yearbook

KODO IN OKAYAMA

December 15, 2007

Tonight I saw my second Kodo performance in the past three days, this time in Okayama. Before the show, I ran into Gen Matsui, one of the managers of Kodo. He actually approached me; I was surprised he had remembered me. He had shown me around Kodo Village on Sado about a month back. I told him that I had gone to the previous performance in Hiroshima, and he really liked the idea that I was following Kodo’s tour this week. It was great to see a familiar face.

Although I had much better seats tonight, I will admit that I did not like this venue as much as the one in Hiroshima. While it was nice to have a more intimate setting, the venue was almost too small, as the sound of the drums was so loud that, at certain points of the concert, the back walls were rattling!

This did not affect the quality of the show, though; and I am sure I am just being a little nit-picky. And actually, now that I think about the idea that the drums, that are acoustic and thus have no electronic amplification, could be so loud they shake a concert hall, that’s pretty cool!

While there were certain numbers that I enjoyed more so tonight, particularly “Hana-Hachijo,” the song with the three players performing many stick-tricks, I think that the show in Hiroshima was a bit more fluid. Again, I’m just being fussy, as it was a really awesome show.

The program for the “Trans-Border 2007 December Concert Series,” written Kodo Artistic Director Jun Akimoto, asserts that Kodo, “at times stays true to our roots, and at times makes a break with the past in order to realize new expressions.” Most importantly, the group affirms that, “‘Tradition’ is not a constant. Rather, it is a formidable force that evolves to survive the passage of time.”

I couldn’t agree any more with that maxim: it is so important that, in every aspect of life, we stay true to our heritage but always be looking forward to the future. Contemporary and classical do not have to be antonymous: perhaps the greatest example of this idea is with The Beatles, as their producer, George Martin, often included traditional string arrangements with their innovative “rock” music.

Jun Akimoto also writes that Kodo strives to “explore new creative territory through song and dance, two expressions that are inextricably linked to the drum and help realize its full potential.” Because Kodo refuses to be tethered to tradition, there are limitless creative musical possibilities for the group.

Friday, December 14, 2007

KODO IN HIROSHIMA

December 13, 2007

My apologies for a lack of recent posts: I have been bopping around Japan, really exploring the country before I leave next Wednesday, after about two-and-a-half months here. I still cannot believe how quickly the time has passed; yet, paradoxically, it feels like I have been here for ages.

For the past few days, I have been in Hiroshima, which was a very introspective experience. I strongly encourage anyone that makes it to Japan to visit the city, not only to pay due respect to the city’s tragic history but also because it is just a really nice place. In regards to my research, on the ground level of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, there is a giant taiko drum that is painted in a magnificent design. The drum, which has a rich color combination of black, gold, green and red, is held up upon a wooden turtle - I was unsure of the symbolism, but it was very neat.

Music can bridge the gap between so many cultural misunderstandings: while it is extremely na├»ve to believe that international issues can be resolved from a simply “jam session,” I do think that music can help us learn about, and thus appreciate, other cultures. Through music, we can learn how similar we all really are.



Moving along: my primary reason to visit Hiroshima was because Kodo was performing at Hiroshima Yubin Chokin Hall last night. Since I arrived in Japan in early October, I have been looking forward to this opportunity, to see the premier taiko group perform live. When I was much younger, I saw two Kodo performances (in Manhattan and SUNY Purchase); but, as I was less than ten-years-old, I remember very little from those shows, and did not really appreciate the musicianship.

Unfortunately, photography, video- and audio-recording was prohibited. Truth be told, words can never wholly describe a concert experience: live music is to be heard and seen, not merely “described.”

After the almost sold out crowd filed in the concert hall, the show promptly began at 6:30pm. Kodo performed two sets, with twelve songs lasting over two-hours. Although Kodo is a percussion group, there were a handful of numbers that had vocals in addition to the drumming.

Kodo has twenty members: with the exception of the finale, at no point were all of the members on stage at the same time. The number of performers on staged varied; sometimes there were only two, but more often between six to ten members.

Because Kodo frequently performs traditional festival pieces (that they, of course, have made unique arrangements for), dancing also is an intricate element to their concerts. Furthermore, due to the physical nature of the music, when the members are performing, it is as if they are dancing while playing. So, all this creates an amazing visual spectacle.

The night began with a duet, “O-daiko Hounou,” a traditional piece with one vocalist and one performer playing a giant o-daiko. After several minutes, the two performers together played a standing nagado-taiko, one on each side. The rhythm was fairly basic, but it was so perfectly delicate that it appeared like the two men were painting the drum with the beat.

The second number, “Jingi-no-Taiko,” is a Kodo original: the song begins with three female members, wearing elaborately beautiful dresses, playing the katsugi-okedo-taiko, a medium-sized drum that is almost like a marching drum. Five male members, playing a small bell with a hammer, surround the women, while they all sing.

During the next number, entitled, “Yae no Furyu,” five nagado-taiko drums (the standard taiko) were set up in a V position, with two members playing each drum. At the climax of the song, which is a traditional piece arranged by the group, it truly sounded as if all ten performers had transmogrified into one giant being playing one giant drum. (I realize how ridiculous that sounds, but the sound was so tremendous and the ten drummers were so perfectly synchronized, that if your eyes were closed, you would have never guessed it was more than one person playing). It was absolutely incredible to see such perfect unison among so many players: it was almost as if the drummers were shadows of one another. Of course the sensations of sound are the core of a Kodo performance, but, in a way, the visual aspect almost is the most exciting part. The coordination among the ten players simply was amazing.

Another really neat aspect about “Ya no Furyu” is that at the beginning of the song, as it starts to really pick up, the members are shouting back and forth: there is something to be said about the intensity of hearing the drummers shout while playing such a furious beat. I wish I knew what they were saying – if it is just to display raw emotions or if it serves to keep everyone in time (I would guess the former, though). Hands down, this song was the highlight of the concert.

The fifth song, “Miyake,” another traditional piece arranged by Kodo, was quite outstanding. As the lights begin to brighten the stage, the audience only sees one drummer standing above five different drums. The performer begins an electric solo that lasts several minutes. Splashing in an array of sixteenth-note triplets while demonstrating his ability to constantly change the tempos, he seamlessly moves across the nagado-taiko, tsukeshime-taiko, okedo-taiko-eitetsu, gakko and kokoro drums. Slowly, a woman wearing a stunning red dress begins a slow dance, while next to a small nagado-taiko that is on a riser. Her movements were reminiscent of the oni-daiko performances at the harvest festival on Sado Island I saw: she played the drum in the same gentle manner. It was a fascinating juxtaposition of this lady in red playing a drum softly and slowly, while another man was producing an extravagant rhythm.

The next song, “Hana-Hachijo,” was the most light-hearted of the night. Three male performers slowly came out with their backs to the audience, with small katsui-okedo-taiko drums strapped to their chests. Their movements were so comically animated that the whole audience was in stitches. It is very difficult to describe their little step-and-dance, but it just looked (intentionally) very silly and awkward.

When it seemed as if there was not going to be any real music attached to this bit of the show, they then demonstrated a countless number of extremely complicated tricks with their drumsticks, all in unison. This was actually my single favorite moment of the whole night.

The following number, “Ranka,” a Kodo original that was composed this year, was one of the more visually elaborate songs. There were three drummers playing five different drums, including the hirado-taiko, which, as I learned on Sado Island, is often referred to as the “Big Mac” drum, because of its hamburger-like shape. In front of the drummers was a woman on a man’s shoulders wearing a dragon costume – with a red mask and everything. At one point during the song, the “dragon” even played a beat on a small drum. Watching this song was like watching a mini-festival.

The final song of the first act, “Un,” was composed this past year by my friend, Shogo Yoshii, who drove me to the festival on Sado Island. I believe that the younger members of Kodo are obligated to write a song, as part of the initiation. Like the previous song, it was a very visual experience: there were four dancers wearing golden costumes and lion masks that had huge wigs. It was very interesting that this was one of the newest Kodo songs, yet it seemed to be the most “traditional,” in the sense that it looked like it was a classic festival song and dance. Regardless, it was a great conclusion to the first half of the concert. Shogo did a fantastic job writing this song!

The second act was fantastic; but, due to the length of this post, I will not go through each song, but instead my two favorites. “Monochrome” demonstrated the seemingly limitless stamina of the Kodo players. Sitting down, seven drummers played the tsukeshime-taiko, the highest pitched Japanese drum, similar in size to a snare drum. In the beginning, only one drummer would play would play at time; but, the instant he would stop, someone else would begin, so it sounded continuous. At times, it sounded like the drummers were echoing one another. Eventually, everyone was playing together. The collective precision was phenomenal: the drummers were able to make it seem as if you are listening to show in perfect surround sound. Being that the song had such a fast tempo and was so long, the fitness of the players was unparallel to anything I’ve ever seen before.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the second act was, “O-daiko,” perhaps the most famous Kodo song. For this number, two members play each side of an o-daiko drum that is absolutely enormous, probably about five feet wide, maybe even bigger. (Think that a snare drum is normally about fourteen inches in diameter; so this drum is just huge). Each player is only wearing a sumo-thong (that is not an actual term, but I don’t know what it is really called); the audience could see one of the players, as the drum completely blocks the other player at the back of the drum. Because the o-daiko drum is so large, the sound is so great that the listener is able to literally feel the music. There is such a powerful force created by drum that the sound waves are, in a sense, tangible.

I have seen some amazing performances while in Japan, but last night really made me understand that the sheer ability of Kodo transcends tenfold anything that I have previously witnessed. They are on another level of talent: it is no wonder that they are the top taiko group in the world, and that the word “taiko” is directly associated with Kodo.

The venue.













Drum at the Peace Museum.