On the early evening of March 14th, I arrived at the Heineken Music Hall in South Amsterdam. I picked up my tickets for the performances on the 14th and 16th; I had been unable to buy a ticket for the 15th, as the show had sold out very quickly (all three shows were sold out eventually). Coincidently, Jun Aukimoto, one Kodo’s tour managers, was at the ticket will call window when I arrived; Mr. Aukimoto and I had been in correspondence over the past month, and he had generously arranged to have a ticket for me for the show on the 15th. It turned out that Mr. Aukimoto gave me a VIP pass that included access to the after party on Sunday night (I will get to that later). So, a big, BIG thanks to Jun Aukimoto and Gen Matsui of Kodo; I cannot express how much I appreciated their help to ensure that I was able to attend all three shows!
A little background information about Bløf: they are one of the most successful Dutch bands. In a way, I would describe them as the Dutch version of U2. The band itself is comprised of Paskal Jakobsen (vocals/guitar), Peter Slager (bass/vocals), Bas Kennis (piano/vocals) and Norman Bonink (drums/vocals).
The Heineken Music Hall (HMH), which basically looks a large box with metal panels and concrete floors, has a capacity of about five thousand people. Directly in front of the stage is a floor with fold-up seats; there are two levels of balconies in the rear; and VIP balconies on the left and right sides of the concert hall. With the obvious exception of the VIP balconies, there are no assigned seats throughout the venue. Regardless of where you choose to sit, the acoustics are superb.
On the first night, I sat on the floor, seven rows from the right side of the stage. It was absolutely incredible to be so close to the stage. For the three Kodo concerts I attended in Japan in December, I was all the up in the balcony at each venue (in Hiroshima, Okayama, and Osaka). It is true that the acoustics (as in, the projection of the sound from the drums) is better if you are further away from the stage; yet, it was most excellent to be able to see all of the facial expressions and body movements of the musicians.
On the second night at the HMH, I opted to sit in the upper rear balcony. Although I was rather far from the stage, I enjoyed the distanced vantage point, as it allowed me to have a full, unobstructed view of the stage. On Sunday, the final night, I took advantage of my VIP pass, and sat on the VIP balcony on the right side of the stage. (Yes, the seats were much more comfortable there).
It was great to watch each performance from three distinct perspectives; this certainly made each night feel very unique. Nonetheless, I will readily admit that, when watching Kodo perform, the closer to the stage you are, the more intense (and thus, more memorable) the experience is. Being so close to the stage, allows you to feel the vibrations of the sound waves resonating from the taiko drums.
The set lists were relatively identical throughout the three nights. In short, there were four Bløf “solo” songs, five Kodo “solo” songs, and eleven songs performed by both groups. Because almost every song had a different arrangement of instruments/combination of musicians, there were many stage adjustments. It was rather impressive to see how fluidly the transitions were; there was almost no time wasted in between songs to set up the stage. Interestingly enough, only Kodo members moved the taiko drums; the regular stage crew never touched any of Kodo’s drums.
(The following is applicable for all three nights of performances).
The set list was flawless: it was a perfect showcase for the members of Kodo and Bløf to demonstrate their talents individually and in tandem. (It should be noted that the way the musical arrangements worked was that Kodo played with Bløf; as in, the Japanese drummers learned Bløf’s songs. Bløf did not “learn” or “add on” to Kodo songs, with one notable exception that I will discuss later).
What was most effective about the set list was that there was a tremendous amount of variation. To get an idea of how the concert worked, here is a (loose) set list:
1. Both groups begin on stage together; a very cool taiko beat with the pop rock beat
2. Bløf song
3. Kodo jam; about fifteen minutes
4. Bløf song with two female Kodo members, one on a Japanese slide guitar and the other providing additional vocals
5. Bløf song; apparently a big hit, as the crowd knew every word
6. Bløf song with one Kodo member on the Japanese guitar again
7. Kodo jam; about ten minutes (I recognized this one from the December concerts)
8. Kodo & Bløf melodic interlude, with two Kodo members playing the flute
9. Bløf song
10. Bløf song; duet with female Kodo member; Shogo (of Kodo) on the violin
11. Kodo song; famous number played on the giant o-daiko drum
12. Bløf song
13. Kodo jam with Bløf’s drummer playing various taiko drums. West meets East, indeed!
14. Kodo and Bløf end the first set together; crowd chants “We want more!”
15. First encore: both groups together for slow song
16. Kodo jam
17. Kodo and Bløf together
18. Second encore: Kodo song performed by female vocalist and string player
19. Kodo drummers parade through the audience; jam with Bløf’s drummer (with him on the drum kit)
20. Kodo and Bløf come together for the big finale
Without a doubt, the zenith of the concert was when Norman, Bløf’s drummer, played several different taiko drums during an extended Kodo solo. Norman was extremely fluid on the taiko drums; it was clear that he had practiced much before the performance. It was just so neat to see him so engrossed while playing; not to mention how cool it was to see the Kodo members fully embrace him. This was the most memorable aspect of the show, hands down.
Another highlight was during the second encore, when Kodo played a song with Bløf’s drummer on the drum kit. The thunderous taiko beat incorporated with the rhythm of a full drum kit was phenomenal: percussive fusion at its finest.
During the fusion songs, it seemed that that the less complicated the Bløf drumbeats were, the more creative Kodo could be. In a certain sense, secondary drumming is for rhythm what harmony is for melody: thus, Kodo provided a “rhythmic” harmony for the Bløf songs.
I had seen several of the same Kodo songs performed back in December; yet, these versions were definitely different, specifically in the length of the song and number of drummers performing. The music of Kodo tends to challenge the notion of sound and perception: the drummers both will play their instruments as loudly and as softly as possible. Kodo performed classics, such as “Zoku, ” “Kyosui,” and “Floor” – okay, I admit that you probably haven’t heard of any of those songs, but they are all wonderful!
Patience is needed to listen to taiko in order to appreciate the flow of the movements of each composition. Many pieces are very long, and thus require much attention to fully enjoy the trajectory of the song. One of the Kodo jams last almost fifteen minutes: of course I could listen to straight percussion for hours, but I would have assumed that many people do not differentiate a cacophonous din from a symphonious rhythm. Nonetheless, it was clear that even during the extended Kodo solos, the audience was continually captivated.
It felt as if every one in the venue – musician and ticket holder alike – were all completely absorbed by the music. Throughout the entire evening, the audience was very responsive – in a positive manner – to both the fusion songs and Kodo solo pieces. It should be noted that Bløf has attracts an older fan base. Marinating in Eastern and Western rhythms for two-and-a-half hours can be an invigorating, yet taxing, experience. By the end of each night, I was exhausted!
There was a definite element of humor to the concerts; a sense of “light-heartedness” prevailed throughout the performances. For example, after the first extensive Kodo drum solo, the Bløf lead singer/guitarist, Paskal Jakobsen, made a joke in Dutch that I did not fully understand – although I did recognize that he was poking fun at the strenuous effort of the Kodo drummers, as he used the word, “workout.” It is absolutely true that taiko drumming requires an exceptional amount of endurance, as it is a very physical activity.
Kudos to Bløf for creating more international exposure for Kodo: I do not doubt that Kodo’s popularity in the Netherlands will skyrocket after these concerts. Everything about this concert series was executed so perfectly. The production of the shows was stellar: everything from the background videos to the lighting to the mixing of the audio tracks was excellent. Even during Bløf’s solo rock songs it was just cool to see giant taiko drums in the background. By the final night, there were definitely a bunch of the Bløf songs that were stuck in my head; that band has some very catchy hooks!
It was so wonderful to be able to see all three performances because during each song, so much music was been played, as there were frequently around eight to ten musicians on stage. Furthermore, no two songs sounded the same. I was able to focus on different parts and layers of each song throughout the three nights.
The after party on Sunday night was a really nice conclusion to a great weekend. (It was also nice to get free food, as I had skipped supper that evening!). Because there was a notable absence of certain Kodo members at the party, I went to see if I could find Shogo, the drummer I met on Sado Island back in November. Eventually, I found him, loading up equipment onto a truck. It was interesting that some Kodo members were assembling and disassembling their own gear. Shogo and I chatted for a bit; he was surprised to see me, considering we first met on the other side of the globe.
Indeed, these concerts are not reflective of drums and percussion in a “religious” context; yet, there was a definite spiritual essence to the whole production. The beauty of fusion music begins with the marriage of two different genres of music; yet, what truly makes fusion music special is how it can bridge different cultures together. By that token, fusion music is more than just anything genre of music. Surely, some sort of profound – perhaps even “spiritual,” if you will – connection was formed between the members of Kodo and Bløf. The exercise of fusion truly can be a wonderful construct.