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Arts: Hit and run squad

The instruments cost up to pounds 90,000 and the training is hard labou r. The Kodo drummers are back, and they mean business
Not all of Japan is plunged into recession, readying the self- disembowelment gear as it awaits the latest economic statistics. An enterprise known as Kodo, for example, holder of the 1994 Japanese Foreign Minister's Commendation award for export performance, is romping through the 17th year of its existence with an expanded apprentice intake, brisk building programme and buoyant morale.

Kodo's products are percussion, basically, and spectacle - a touring show of manic intensity and precision, centred around loin-clothed drummers flailing at oversized specimens of great traditional taiko drums, of which the largest, the odaiko, measures four feet in circumference. It consists of a single, hollowed Cameroonian keyaki hardwood log capped with the hide of a 11/2-ton Holstein bull, and costs up to pounds 90,000 to build and pounds 4,500 to re-bead, the odaiko equivalent of a 50,000-km service. Traditionally used as an adjunct of Shinto religious ceremonies, Noh theatre and rural folklore, the taiko drums fell into disuse after the war, being associated with the discredited and defeated imperial culture. Twenty years ago, Kodo started a re-evaluation and modernisation of the instruments, which has turned the taiko into a hobby or a cult for thousands of young Japanese and has made stars, and a successful business corporation, out of the 40-strong Kodo troupe.

To visit Kodo's HQ, you take the bullet-train west from Tokyo to the rice and sake city of Niigata, and thence a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride over the Sea of Japan to the rain-lashed island of Sado, where, in my case, a demure young Kodo marketing lady (ex-Nissan) in a white Mazda sports car is waiting.

Why Sado? Because it is a historic centre of gold-mining and traditional arts, explains Nobuko Yamada as we drive through terraced hills of persimmon orchards. The mine-owners and feudal landlords paid for the numerous Noh stages, 30 or so, that dot the island, and there is still much traditional ceremony to study.

Down a winding, forested drive lies the Kodo Village: a series of long, white buildings with sweeping, tiled double roofs and wooden walls, paths and houses under construction. Takashi Akamine, the manager, shows me the antique wooden beams and sliding paper partitions of the administration building, created around a remodelled farmhouse, and the great rehearsal hall. Sleek, lacquered taiko with ornate brass carrying-rings gleam at one end. At the other lurks the wooden bulk of the huge, lantern-bedecked cart used to wheel on the odaiko in Kodo's piece de resistance.

Kodo began in 1981 as an offshoot of another group, Ondekoza, formed in the Seventies on Sado. The original inspiration was to create something new with the traditional percussion used at Shinto shrines, but also in harvest ceremonies, even to scare birds away in the fields. This was the first time taiko music had been put on stage as performance, and the other interests of the Kodo founders - jazz, Western rock - dictated the non- traditional elements of the product: self-conscious virtuosity, solo improvisations, drama and spectacle. Pure Japanese temperament, it seems, dictated the extraordinary physical and mental dedication that suffuse both the Kodo's performance and its organisation.

Which brings us to the apprentice scheme. Back into another Mazda MX5, and we head round a winding and squally coastal road to a spartan wooden schoolhouse on a hill. Here, in the original Kodo HQ, are based the 18 young Kodo apprentices who, after a rigorous selection process from among hundreds of applicants, pay pounds 200 a month to undergo a training programme that would have an average Western teenager seeking legal advice and trauma counselling in double-quick time.

Up at 4.30am, a 10-km run along the coast road, classes and housework all day, bed at 9pm, Sunday off to go into town and look at bookshops. "Why?" I ask Yashaki Oi, the avuncular if ascetic-looking head of the apprentice centre. "It's necessary to make good citizens of potential Kodo members," he says, "as well as give them the stamina for performance."

At six the following evening, the Kodos prepare for one of their annual concerts for the local community. Their performance is as impeccable as usual, and as unmoving. Squatting quintets of cymbal-players create multiple cross rhythms, succeeded by squads of martial athletes thrashing low-slung drums, dancers with swords and ponytail wigs, wispy flute pieces and plangent shamisen interludes. And taiko literally by the cartload: big, medium and small, deep and shallow, rope-tensioned and tack-headed, climaxed by the great mobile odaiko with its black and white swirly-patterned drum head, beaten with two small fence posts and immense theatricality by its loin-clothed drummer and applauded warmly, if politely, by the Sado audience.

But what is it with the Japanese and snoozing? Throughout, the audience nod off, heads slumped neatly at 45 degrees, as they do on the Metro, and as, indeed I feel like doing. Do people often sleep during Kodo performances? I ask afterwards. "Ah yes, they feel very comfortable - the drum beat evokes the beating of a mother's heart to a foetus." Meanwhile, the Kodos go off for a post-show celebration of orgiastic proportions for them - noodles, beer and a singsong.

Viscerally hypnotic or a touch monotonous, modern taiko music has taken a powerful grip in Japan, where thousands of amateur taiko groups and dozens of professional ones - led by Ondekoza, Kodo's mother group and rival - now exist, rescuing the once failing traditional instrument industry. Led by its three-man board, operating on five-year plans, Kodo forges ahead of the pack, organising annual drum festivals on Sado, and outreach education projects, writing Hollywood soundtracks (The Hunted was the last, in 1995; another, secret as yet, is under way), rejecting cigarette adverts and accepting beer ones, creating a taiko act for the Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, and taking orders from new converts for specially commissioned drums at every concert. (More than 100 taiko groups have now been formed in North America.)

Tonight, Kodo are back in London for the eighth time. With the yen down at 230 to the pound, there's never been a better time to splash out on an odaiko.

The Kodo drummers are at the Royal Festival Hall tonight only with Evelyn Glennie, and then until 16 Aug. pounds 15-pounds 25. 0171-960 4242