Kodo Drummers,Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

I once had the luck to visit Kodo, in the days before their superstardom, at their lair on the bleak island of Sado, historically the Siberia of Japan. This was where political prisoners were sent to cool their heels in the 15th century, and where Noh theatre - that most exquisite art of renunciation - paradoxically flourished.

Kodo - meaning either "heartbeat" or "children of the drum" - were a quasi-religious group who had taken the ancient taiko drum, traditionally a solo instrument, and made it the basis for an ensemble. They were happy fanatics who flaunted their ascetic lifestyle and the extreme rigour of their training.

This was drums, first and last. They carved their own sticks. Six men were needed to hoist the great o-daiko into position - six feet in diameter, it was hollowed from a single block of wood. It took two men 20 strenuous minutes to tighten the ropes on the small but sharply resonant shimedaiko. Unlike Western drummers, who operate from the wrist, these men drummed with their whole bodies, often in punishingly unnatural positions. They ran six miles before breakfast: they were terrifyingly fit. And their music was electrifying.

At the Royal Festival Hall, 12 years later, they are still recognisably the same: the demonic-looking Yoshikazu Fujimoto hammers his great o-daiko with a martial ecstasy unsoftened by global success. The show has acquired more women, and some pretty costumes for the folk dances that interleave their percussive extravaganzas. But drums - offset by flutes - are still the means by which this company maintains its edge over the competition from other Japanese ensembles. Their music is still magnificent.

It's a balletic ritual, with the men stripped to the waist and poised to strike, then assaulting the big drums with battle cries as their sticks make circles over their heads. But in sonic terms it's astonishingly austere: pure texture - from the infectious excitement of the shimedaiko to the o-daiko's heaven-shaking sound - and also an exploration of multiple pulses. You wouldn't think that six men playing small unpitched drums in perfect synchronicity could hold you spellbound - or one man playing pentatonic scales on a flute, while another answered with a warble - but such is their acoustic magic.

Meanwhile, the Purcell Room was hosting an event to raise funds for the earthquake victims in Bam. After a documentary film showing the city before and after the quake, the Iranian tar-player Majid Derakshami and his ensemble presented a musical melange, in which cello and sax offset the sound of ancient Persian instruments, while poems were declaimed by a rather actorish Englishman. There were some lovely moments as soloists were given their head, but this fusion was more dutiful than inspired.

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