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At this stage of the game, I don’t get to have completely new art experiences very often, but Carolina Performing Arts gave me one on the 25th with its presentation of Japanese taiko drumming group KODO in Memorial Hall. Although taiko was new to me, the hall was filled with an obviously knowledgeable crowd of drumming aficionados. It turns out that there is such widespread interest in the ancient-but-ever-evolving Japanese form around this country that even the Triangle area has its own club. If you are not familiar with the array of very handsome drums of varying sizes and shapes that are used in a taiko ensemble (I found the grouping reminiscent of a gamelan, although the sounds are very different), you may wish to look at pictures and learn a little history.
KODO is based on Sado Island, off the western coast of Japan’s main island. When not touring the world, the members practice their art, associated ritual, and traditional ways of living together at the group’s compound, where they also teach. In this way, KODO is very like Vertigo Dance Company, with its Eco-art Village in Israel, and Nrityagram Dance company, with its dance village in southern India, where the spiritual, physical and aesthetic are conjoined into dynamic art.
Led by famed Kabuki actor and company artistic director Tamasaburo Bando, KODO presented seven works in their highly dramatic “Legend” program. The three before intermission and the four after flowed together nearly seamlessly, changing in theme and emotional tone as naturally as water flowing around rocks. For a novice like myself, the visual aspect — drums, bodies, costumes, lighting — was so marvelous that the group was well into its second piece, “Monochrome,” before my brain fully engaged with the fantastically rich rhythmic patterning by the six drummers, whose powerful bare arms windmill above the drum heads. They seem to actively pull back on the upstroke after plunging downward on the beat, which gives an affecting sense of wholeness to the enterprise. In “Monochrome,” the rhythms from the different drums crisscross repeatedly; join together, re-divide and re-join in unity in an exhilarating fashion — the excitement increased by the drummers repeatedly changing positions with each other within their circles of instruments.
“Monochrome” flowed smoothly into “Ibuki,” which means “to release breath.” Using bamboo flutes with clear high sound, the large, fairly deep-toned hirado-daiko drums, and hand cymbals, “Ibuki” imbued me with a powerful sense of encompassing life. The resonance of the hirado-daiko was such that the music seemed to be generated by my heartbeat. It was an extraordinary experience, and very moving.
For part two, the enormous O-daiko took center stage, resting in a cradle on a raised platform. Hollowed from a huge tree that had lived hundreds of years, the double-headed drum, played on both heads simultaneously, gives out a tone so deep it vibrates your bones. Its special music followed the phantasmagoric “demon drumming” traditional to Sado Island and the “waiting for the moon” piece, both of which were quite evocative. But the power of the O-daiko surpasses all — all except the power of the men who play it. They slipped onstage in pairs, to take turns with the drum, climbing the platform wearing only loin wraps. One disappeared behind the tremendous drum, while the other was fully visible in all his glorious musculature before the patterned drum head. As he beat out the patterns, you could watch the blood flow into each distinct muscle group of his back and shoulders, while feeling each bone in your own body vibrate with the energy released and redirected. Something about this blood and bone motion made me feel I was rooted into earth, receiving body knowledge of boiling magma and shifting tectonic plates. A gay finale followed, but it was the grandeur of the O-daiko that fed my soul.