You don’t need to be Japanese to enjoy the taiko drums. Yet if you really want to feel their full thunder, a trip to Sado island offers all the excitement of a rock’n’roll show.

By Duncan Bartlett for Japan Forward

I am determined to make a trip to Japan’s Sado island, home to one of the loudest groups in the world.

Sado, off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, is the base camp of the Kodo drummers. To my ears, the volume of the noise they make is at least as loud as a performance by a rock band, yet it’s achieved without any electronic amplification.

This is a delight to me because I have a passion for both Japan and for loud music. I’ve seen many gigs – including thunderously loud shows by bands including Motorhead, Primal Scream and The Foo Fighters. (In fact, the loudest show I ever heard was by another Japanese percussion outfit known as The Boredoms, who were anything but boring. I was almost completely deaf for most of the following day!)

Thrilling show

When I watched the drummers’ show at London’s Royal Festival Hall entitled Kodo Legacy, I was thrilled by its energy yet I was also impressed by the players’ discipline. Every beat seemed to form part of an intricate and highly melodic pattern.The musicians are fine singers and skilled at playing traditional instruments, such as the bamboo flute. This gives their concerts rich textures.

Kodo’s director Yuichiro Funabashi explains that “the sounds and echoes that resonate from the Japanese taiko drum are intricate and diverse. No two are alike.”

He says that discipline is instilled during the drummers’ life upon Sado island.

A Financial Times journalist, Raphael Abraham, visited there in 2016 and revealed that: “Six mornings a week in rain or shine, trainees get up at dawn to jog up and down hilly rural roads, followed by a ritual cleaning on hands and knees of the building in which they board, a converted schoolhouse with no central heating.”

He also explained that: “They grow much of their own food, carve their chopsticks and drumsticks, and are schooled in tea ceremonies. No computers or phones are permitted and so their only contact with families and friends off the island is via handwritten letters.”

This rigorous way of life is crucial to the music. According to Yuichiro Funabashi: “When people train everyday to hone their expression, the sound they create jolts people at instinctive level. It goes beyond the possibilities of language.”

Devoted learners

For me, the most impressive part of the Kodo legacy show came at the climax, when a performer dressed in a white loincloth beat out a rhythm on a drum known as O-daiko.

This mighty instrument weighs about 300 kilos and measures 145cm in diameter. It requires great power and an expert technique to make it resonate. Ensemble leader Yuichiro Funabashi pushes the musicians to keep trying new approaches because he wants the art to continue to develop.

“We want to preserve the classic artistic elements that are quintessential Kodo yet we will also lay cornerstones for brand new creative activities moving forward. To uphold classics simultaneously means to change, and that requires supple bodies and thinking,” says Mr Funabashi.

Despite its traditional appearance, taiko drumming as a form of performance art is relatively new. The drums have a legacy as religious or spiritual instruments and some of Kodo’s melodies draw from ancient Japanese folk music. But the Kodo composers also seek to integrate beats from Korea, Africa and from Native Americans. Some of the pieces even have rhythms which resemble more recent musical genres, such as techno and drum’n’bass.

“We have a lot of lifelong friends all over the world, and integrating all these influences has always been part of Kodo’s DNA, so we’re constantly evolving,” explains Kodo’s Ryotaro Leo Ikenaga.

The group’s 2020 European tour started in Russia and passed through Lithuania and France before arriving in Great Britain. Some of the musicians, including Shun Takuma, were initially shocked by the cold in Eastern Europe. He wrote on his blog: “As a foreigner abroad, I am relishing all the fresh experiences. Observing people, walking in the different cities and trying the local food. Yet at the same time there are moments of homesickness for Japan.”

Shun noticed how the audience responses varied from country to country. “In some places, the emotions are freely expressed. Elsewhere there is more reserve, rather like myself,” he said.  

Sadly, the coronavirus crisis, which caused the closure of most theatres in Europe, led to the tour being cut short and forced the cancellation of six shows in Germany and Poland.

The Kodo drummers are back on Sado island, preparing for their next tour when the time comes. I am confident they will be back on the road when they can. I believe you have to see them live to really appreciate them.

Sado audition

When I go to Sado, I could ask to join the group. I have taken a few lessons in playing the drums under the tuition of the renowned sensei Liz Walters, founder of the Tamashii School of Taiko. I remain a beginner but I notice that Kodo’s website says that it welcomes apprentices from abroad. It also warns that “advanced Japanese skills are a must to undertake the training.”

I expect that means a very disciplined approach to language learning is required, as well as a great commitment to understand the philosophy of this thrilling form of Japanese art. Where better to immerse myself in the intense experience than the island of Sado, where no-one complains the music’s too loud!

Duncan Bartlett is a regular contributor to Japan Forward and a former BBC reporter in Tokyo. He also runs the news portal Japan Story.

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