Kodo drummers bridge cultural barriers

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Kodo will bring its One Earth Tour to the Palace Theatre Thursday, March 14. Tickets are $20-$40. Visit capa.com.PHOTO COURTESY CAPA AND KODO/TAKASHI OKAMOTO
Wednesday March 6, 2013 8:54 AM

Kodo drumming is traditional and it's changing. The two go hand in hand, says company manager Jun Akimoto.

"Tradition cannot stop," he said.

"Tradition is passed on. Tradition must evolve."

This apparent dichotomy unified is at the heart of Kodo, the Japanese Taiko drum ensemble that, since 1981, has entertained and moved audiences around the globe, on its own and in collaboration with artists including Blue Man Group, Cirque du Soleil, Chinese composer Tan Dun, and the Paris Opera. Akimoto said the group is, at once, both ancient and modern.

"Our roots are deeply derived from Japanese folk performing arts," he said.

"But we are constantly trying to be active to find new music from other drumming cultures and styles. We are always looking to present a well-balanced blend of elements."

Kodo performances start with drumming, which in itself is associated with Japan's ritual festivals of harvest and renewal, but involve a broader cultural spectrum.

"There are numerous folk performing arts in Japan, especially in the rural areas, that are unknown to people outside Japan," Akimoto said.

"Our mission is to introduce those to an international audience. We have learned from many towns and villages in Japan, spending time there to learn and then make an arrangement to perform."

At the same time, Kodo assimilates other drumming styles and seeks out the aforementioned collaborations with artists from a variety of cultures.

"Drums are special instruments. You see them all around the world; wherever you go, those cultures have drums," Akimoto said.

"We believe that these instruments go beyond language and cultural barriers."

Kodo's new artistic director, kabuki icon and holder of the title Japanese Living National Treasure Tamasaburo Bando, with whom Kodo has worked on a number of projects over the past decade, continues to move Kodo in both directions -- traditional and modern.

"He has made some radical changes," Akimoto said, "that are helping to set how Japanese drumming will be for the next decades."

The current touring company of 13 performers includes 11 men and two women, between the ages of 21 and 36. Akimoto said there are four who are making their first tour as members of Kodo.

Of course, the Taiko (Japanese for drum) themselves are often as much the stars of the show as those that play them. Akimoto said a performance features two kinds of Taiko: one designed to be tuned to particular pitches and the other a more primitive design that makes a more natural and, he said, louder, sound. The drums are varied in size as well, the largest being more than a meter in diameter and weighing more than 300 kilograms.

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