Kodo: the heartbeat of the drum

Have you ever visited somewhere which totally enchants you? You know when a place has captivated you when you are leaving and you look back at the island, city or countryside and say to yourself “I will come back someday”. Yet at the same time, knowing that you may never get the opportunity again, and the memories you’ve made there will be forever romanticised in your mind.

Last summer, some friends and I visited Sado Shima, a small island in Niigata Prefecture, off the western coast of Northern Honshu. We were going for the Earth Festival to see the internationally renown taiko group Kodo play on their home island. It was by word of mouth that we heard about this festival, and it didn’t disappoint.

Taiko in Japanese refers to any kind of drum, but it is the performance of an ensemble of drummers playing for performances that taiko is now become known as. These drums had previously been used to motivate troops in warfare, to accompany Shinto dances and as a key component of Noh and kubuki theatre. In the 1950s a master taiko drummer named Daihachi Oguchi helped transform taiko from its traditional roots in shrines and a festivals to kumi-daiko, playing for the sake of performance. This energetic style of taiko took off in popularity and soon groups sprung up all over Japan. Nowadays children learn it in elementary school although the arcade game Taiko no Tatsujin is more popular than playing the real thing!

If you have heard of taiko before, you may be familiar with the group Kodo. They have toured the world, shaking stages and impressing audiences wherever they have played. They are a group who don’t do anything by halves.slide06

Only the best taiko drummers in Japan have a chance of becoming part of Kodo. Apprentices have to endure two years of rigorous training and practising to even audition to become a performer. The daily routine for members is gruelling, starting with a 10 km run, then the rest of the day spent drumming until they are too tired, or they have two many blisters-on-blisters to drum any more. It is not just their bodies that the forty men and the seven women of Kodo that are in training. Being part of Kodo is also a training of the mind to forgo selfish desires and to make decisions as part of a collective. Watch this video to find out more of the hardships apprentices go through to become part of Kodo.

Although playing taiko is no longer associated with religion, it does still possess a deeper meaning than just a musical performance. “Kodo” has two meanings, the first being “heartbeat” referring to how the taiko resembles a mother’s heartbeat as felt in the womb. The second reading is “children of the drum” that reflects Kodo’s desire to play the drums simply, with the heart of a child. Yet it is certainly not children you think of when you watch Kodo play.

The men of Kodo are the gladiators of drumming. Wearing just a fundoshi, a white loin-cloth, it is not just the rhythm of the drum that will impress you. The strength and stamina of these men is exhibited in various musical pieces, and they play the drum in various positions. In one piece, three men sit reclined on the stage with an odaiko drum between their legs and their toes curled around it. They play in this half-sat-up position for over ten minutes, their stomach muscles tightened, their buttocks clenched and their quads in tension, whilst their arms swing back and forth as they beat the drum. From the shouts of passion and pain that they make, you can be mistaken for thinking you are watching a primal ritual, not a drumming performance in the twenty-first century.Kodo-5-Epworth

Yet that piece was just a warm up. The real jaw-dropper was when two men stood on opposite sides of a two metre high and three metre long odaiko and played it like they were at war. With their backs arched, their legs apart and their arms above their heads, this type of drumming is so athletic it could become an Olympic sport.Kodo12_main1

As a member of the audience you can feel the deep rumble of the odaiko reverberate through your chest, and the beat is infectious. My friends and I found ourselves dancing with a crowd of energized fans, all wanting to be part of the performance, not just the audience.

After two nights of watching Kodo, my friends and I were enchanted by them. All we talked about was who our favourite player was, the man we met who was an ex-taiko player and sightings of their van going through the town. So we visited Kodo Village, where the group live and train for the months they are not on tour, to find out more about them. We learnt about the strict rules of being part of the ensemble; no television, radio, alcohol, cigarettes, or sex. Members also have to plant rice, cook and clean together. Their sole purpose it to give their whole selves to the community and the philosophy of Kodo; spreading the spirit of the drum.IMG_1405

It was when we were leaving on the ferry back to the mainland that we were treated to an unexpected performance from the Kodo performers. They had come to see some of their members off, who were leaving on the same ferry as us. They set up a few drums on the port, and as the ferry engines revved up, they began to play. This time, they were not in their traditional outfits but were wearing shorts and t-shirts. Nor were they performing for money, they were doing it for the love of playing. Band members from apprentices to directors took part in the impromptu farewell party. As they boat was making its way out of the port, I could still see the group playing and waving goodbye. And the Kodo members on the boat were still waving their shirts in the air, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had some tears in their eyes. From this farewell, it was clear that the group were very close to each other. Undoubtedly their monastic lifestyles and the long hours of practising their performances created deep friendships.DSCF1110IMG_1427

It was a privilege to see this group, and one I’d recommend to anyone. If you can visit the Earth Celebration Festival in August on Sado Shima you should visit other places on the island; beautiful beaches, century-old cedar forests and mountainous roads with vast ocean views. It’s definitely on the unspoilt, and underrated list of places to go in Japan, but one that has a lot of potential for becoming popular. Even if you just visit to watch Kodo, you may become enchanted with it. I did.DSCF1103


A wild sea

In the distance over Sado

The Milky Way


5 thoughts on “Kodo: the heartbeat of the drum

  1. Wow! First, thank you for writing such a great & inspiring post. I have been wanting to take a trip to Japan but did not know when was a good time, what part of Japan & what event to go to.
    I have seen some taiko drummers before at a Cherry Blossom Festival & was amazed & wanted to learn. I hear they have a school not too far from me & your post has reinspired me to look it up & try to take classes.

    • Hi and thanks for your comment! I’m glad it has inspired you! Do go and give taiko a go. I go to a class here in Japan. It’s so energizing, I always come home feeling pumped up!

  2. Pingback: Breathing Means More | Sado Island Earth Celebration - Breathing Means More

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