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Mixing the Gospel of Drums With Gospel : Music: Lecei Wright and Kodo create trans-oceanic music at the Wiltern. 'The combination seems really far out to a lot of people. But it works.'

March 04, 1994|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lecei Wright flashes an exaggerated expression of puzzled disbelief as she demonstrates how some people react when they discover that the gospel singer will be performing with Kodo, the celebrated Japanese taiko drum ensemble.

"Everybody is like, 'What?' " says Wright, who will share the stage with Kodo during the second half of each of the group's Wiltern Theatre performances Saturday through Wednesday.

"The combination seems really far out to a lot of people. But it works. Gospel music has a lot of African rhythms that are similar to (the traditional Japanese folk rhythms used by) Kodo."

The Wiltern performances will represent the first time Wright and Kodo have collaborated in the United States. They first teamed up in 1990 during the percussion group's annual Earth Celebration festival at its home base of Sado Island in the Sea of Japan. The Los Angeles-based Wright performed as the lead singer of the gospel group Love, Joy & and Peace. This was followed by a Kodo concert in Tokyo in 1992 featuring, among others, Wright and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Both Wright and Kodo manager Takashi Akamine are confident that this thoroughly unusual musical blend will win over Angelenos. (The Wiltern dates are the only shows on Kodo's current U.S. tour to feature the singer.) Apparently, Wright and Kodo had little trouble whipping up fevered crowd responses during their joint performances in Japan, which is not an easy feat given the usually reserved nature of Japanese audiences.

"On Sado Island, they had me on this 40-foot tower outside between two mountains," recalls Wright, who has also worked as a back-up singer for such rock acts as Bob Dylan and Fleetwood Mac. "As the sun was setting, we started performing. I did a lot of up-tempo gospel stuff and the people went crazy. They were jumping up and screaming! It was a lot of fun."

"The reaction (at the Sado Island and Tokyo performances) was something I have never experienced," Akamine agreed. "It was a very positive and open reaction. We got standing ovations, which is unusual to see in Japan."

The two sides prepare for their joint performances, in large part, by exchanging rehearsal tapes through the mail. Kodo sends tapes of its percussion pieces to Wright, who then creates melodies and lyrics that capture the spirit of each song. Usually, face-to-face rehearsals don't begin until about week before the performance. Even though they're an ocean apart, Wright says the two collaborators have managed to develop a highly fruitful and intuitive creative relationship.

"Only God knows how we create away from each other," marvels Wright. "For the upcoming performances, they sent me a tape for a song called 'Hae.' I wrote some lyrics about the wind and the trees. When I sent the lyrics back to Japan they were, like, 'Yes!' I didn't know it at the time, but it turned out the Japanese word hae has to do with the elements. So it's a real interesting bond we have."

*

Kodo--which formed in 1971 under the name Ondeko-za--has a long history of intriguing collaborations with musicians of varying backgrounds. It has performed with jazz drummer Max Roach, classical orchestras, a steel drum ensemble from Trinidad and a number of other ethnic musicians. At this summer's Earth Celebration on Sado Island, the group is planning joint performances with a group of Venezuelan musicians and a percussion unit from Korea.

Wright also thrives on taking musical risks. She'll perform a traditional gospel song with the help of a backing choir at the Wiltern shows but with other vocal numbers, Wright is planning to incorporate some jazz elements into her gospel delivery. "I'll be using jazz riffs, improvisations and a lot of scatting within gospel music," she reveals.

Wright's warm and outgoing personality--which seems to reflect gospel music's jubilant spirit--might seem the perfect counterbalance to Kodo's severe image of regimented musicians who play and live with an intense mental and physical focus. For years the group seemed to be as well-known for its early morning 10-kilometer runs and disciplined, communal lifestyle as it was for its sometimes thundering and hypnotic music.

But Wright says the 14-member group isn't nearly as rigid as some people believe.

"They take their work very seriously and they're on a strict work schedule," Wright said. "But off schedule, they sit around and laugh, sing folk songs and dance. They're very down to earth."

Akamine says Kodo has become a much more informal unit since Motofume Yamaguchi became the group's musical director in 1990. "Things have changed a lot," he says. "(Yamaguchi) encourages more individualism and individual musical creativity. He leaves it up to each member as to how they look after themselves. Now some members run, some don't."

Wright says she's in awe of the drummers' uncommon rhythmic ability.

"These aren't big guys, yet they play these 900-pound drums with precision," Wright says. "Then they do the sounds of the rain with the small drums and nobody misses a beat. It's phenomenal. There aren't many people who could do that.

"It has a lot to do with discipline and concentration. They have a meditation that goes on between them and they have a way of bringing the audience into their vibration."

* Kodo and Wright will appear at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Saturday through Wednesday at 8 p.m. (Sunday's show begins at 7 p.m.) Tickets : $13-$32. Information: (213) 380-5005.

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