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Kodo pounds out the planet's heartbeat

The vibrant Japanese percussion troupe's One Earth Tour packs a

February 11, 2009|John Payne

A misty mood of old Japan filled the Walt Disney Concert Hall as dim blue light shone on several ornately designed taiko drums, including an elephant-sized one on a lamp-strewn platform. Nine members of the Kodo percussion troupe, hailing from Sado Island in the Sea of Japan, slowly took the stage and, in perfect synchronization, began to play in a measured way, gradually building a percussive edifice of enormous power.

The renowned troupe brought its newest generation to the L.A. stop of its One Earth Tour, with a Sunday evening show that benefited greatly from the sheer youthfulness of the company's players, who gave the tradition-based compositions an exuberantly contemporary feel, even modernizing the rhythms with hints of swinging jazz and rock. Somewhat amusingly, several oldsters in the crowd held their hands over their ears, as if suffering the blows of an over-amplified rock concert.

The coed company's tightly arranged pieces are designed to illustrate themes of nature, Japanese custom and worldviews, or to tell the story behind the instruments by demonstrating their purely musical qualities. In "Miyake," seven players struck the heads and outer shells of small, carved drums in a rattlesnake call-and-response that also simulated digital delay effects; the drums were set very low, in visual reference to the seven volcanic islands of Izu, south of Tokyo. In "Jang-Gwara," six players used small hand cymbals to clang out complex polyrhythms in startlingly precise symmetry.

Perhaps most intriguing was "Monochrome," performed by several players on the roped shime-daiko drums. This piece extended the traditional range and phrasing styles of the shime-daiko by laying out devilishly complicated rhythms that wove regular patterns into irregular patterns, and then corkscrewed into ever-rising gales of intensity, perhaps evoking the vagaries of the changing seasons' atmospheric conditions.

That a 90-plus-minute concert, performed almost entirely on drums (a few pieces were augmented by chanting vocals, fue bamboo flute and the stringed biwa), can maintain musical interest owes to the spectacle's highly stylized visual component. The movements of the performers are dramatically choreographed, right down to the dance-like arcs of their wallops on the drums; even the way the equipment is removed and replaced is done with visual flair, as if one were watching a painting reconfigure itself within its frame.

The troupe knows the value of comic relief too, as when three Kodo members performed "Koi-koi Fusha," a slapsticky routine that mixed comedy, dance and amazing technical facility; each player, with a drum slung over his shoulder, moved his hands across the drum skin to achieve varied tonal effects, then copied the effects on the drum of the player standing next to him.

In Japanese, the word "kodo" can mean "heartbeat," the source of all rhythm, and that image was evoked when the massive o-daiko, a 900-pound decorated instrument carved from the trunk of a single tree, was wheeled forward and two loincloth-clad men hopped aboard, taking their places with heavy wood beaters. Their strikes on the giant drum filled the womb-like room with deep, reverberant tones, as if to suggest that we and they were one and the same.


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