March 15, 2001

The Beat Of A Different Drum

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Attending a Kodo concert is more than an auditory and visual experience. It’s also a tactile experience, except you’re the one being touched — lightly tapped and sometimes rhthymically pounded by sound waves. The performer strikes a drum, and simultaneously, the sound waves reach your ears and reverberate in your chest cavity. It’s almost as if Kodo was playing your body through their drums.

Two nights ago, Kodo, which is translated as “children of the drum,” performed to a sold-out audience at Bailey Hall as part of the Cornell Concert Series. Kodo is a performing arts group based on the taiko, the Japanese drum. Despite having firm roots in tradition, Kodo shapes their performances for modern audiences. The first song, for example, “Mikazuki-no-yoru,” uses traditional Japanese rhythms to portray the composer’s vivid impressions of modern day Turkey.

I was struck by the range and variety of the music produced by a group that relied almost exclusively on percussion instruments. Some songs had a flighty melody that took me to a small japanese village during a seasonal festival. Throngs of performers wearing shiny, blue and white costumes beat heavy drums and cymbals while dancing and spinning around other performers playing wooden flutes and hand drums.

Other songs were more abstract. Drums mimicked the noises of nature, the human origins of the sound barely recognizable. The performers created rolling thuder, drizzling rain, violent rockslides, and gurgling brooks.

The grace of the Kodo performers was highlighted in the second song, “Hana-hachijo,” named for the island that is home to the particular style of drumming used in the song. A male drummer stands with a wide stance on one side of a large drum beating a regular pattern. A female performer wearing a flowing, orange kimono with small white flowers floats on stage, dancing in time with the beat. She slides toward the side of the drum opposite of the other performer. Unexpectedly, she pulls out her own thick sticks and begins beating her side of the standing drum.

The woman glides the sticks smoothly over her petite form before striking the drum with a surprising force. She’s an impossible mixture of grace and violence, but she’s completely solemn. At one point when both performers sing what resembles a children’s song, the woman smiles with girlish pleasure.

The range of the Kodo drummers was best illustrated by the song “Monochrome.” Seven drummers sat on the floor of the stage with small drums between their legs. They began with slow, barely audible taps that you have to strain to hear. The taps quicken until their hands and sticks blur and then don’t seem to be moving anymore. The volume, however, remains the same, and the auditorium is filled with the sound of a torrent of light-falling rain.

The performers took turns playing louder so that they emerge from the din of other drummers, and I realized that their drums each have a distinct voice.

The Kodo performers then beat their drums furiously, resembling a storm of biblical proportions, before returning to a barely audible tapping, at which point a gong sounds. The performers let the tips of their sticks drop down onto the drum, bouncing repeatedly until it stops lifelessly. Combined with the low rumbling sound of the gong, this segment reminded me of a slow, creeping death. The song picks up at the end with a final explosion of effort.

The superhuman endurance of Kodo members is the most striking aspect of their performance. “O-daiko,” performed near the end of the concert, showcases their endurance. Two Kodo performers wearing only white cloth wrapped around their mid-section climb onto a two-ton wooden cart that holds the miya-daiko, a giant 800-pound drum carved from a single tree.

One performer beats a steady rhythm on the side facing away from the audience. The main player stands with his back to the audience and pounds the drum with heavy sticks, improvising as he goes.

The incredible strain of battling the giant drum shows on the body of the main player. His shoulders and back heave up and down, in time with his exhausted breaths. Sweat pours down between the sharply defined contours of his back, and it becomes obvious that he is wearing only a cloth strip to prevent from overheating from this extreme exertion.

Kodo received a thunderous standing ovation after the final song. The sound of 2000 clapping hands filled the auditorium, and it seemed more appropriate than usual to praise performers with applause.

Archived article by Dae Son