ROCK / Sado, but no suggestion of masochism

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SADLER'S WELLS reverberates to the sound of cultures in collision. The majestic beat of the Kodo Drummers is all but drowned by the collective sucking-in of decadent Western stomachs. No wonder so many male critical voices dwell on the austerity of the drummers' communal lifestyle (on the helpfully named Japanese island of Sado), rather than the joyful noise that grows out of it. You don't have to count the women in the audience whose tongues are hanging out to know that these guys are a sexual threat.

Why else would so many cliches of Oriental sameness (Taut Sinew] Men Machines] A Well-Behaved Workforce]) be called into service, when the real joy of Kodo is the way the drummers' discipline enables them to express their individual personalities - the smiles and shouts of encouragement, the way they respond so differently to the extraordinary demands they make of themselves. The man who beats the giant 800lb O-Daiko drum has muscles on his back that look like a family of fieldmice trying to escape, but Kodo are not muscle-bound - they are muscle-freed.

They approach their drums not with sticks but with baseball bats, swung round their heads into the impact with a grace and self-assurance Babe Ruth would have been proud of. The quieter passages, particularly the start of 'Monochrome', where seven small drums build a steady pattern into an extraordinary sensurround, are every bit as powerful as the all-out assaults, and it's not all thongs and thwacks. The precision of the movements invokes martial arts and kabuki theatre traditions, and the company's lone female member performs an eerie dance with a straw hat. Other non-percussive diversions include bamboo-flautists serenading each other from the stage to the upper circle, and an amusing man with a bamboo banjo who plays a five-minute John Lee Hooker solo.

Echoes of other musical forms are impossible to miss. The drummers of Burundi, Trinidadian steel bands, marching Orangemen, and even the Bronx human beat-box could all hear themselves here if they wanted. This is not (well, probably not) because the drum is the primal life-force which shadows the world's heartbeat from cradle to grave, but rather a tribute to the receptivity of the drummers of Kodo. They aren't just preserving Japanese traditions, they're spicing them up with all sorts of additional flavours picked up on their travels. Whether or not your mind is open to the undoubted spiritual charge of the results; on a good-night-out scale of one to 10, this rates at least a 12.

From Sado to Sade. 'Where've you been for the past few years?' she asks her audience at the Albert Hall. 'I've been all around the world trying to find you.' Given that this is the only British date of a massive world tour, there is an element of pathos in this Homecoming Queen proclamation which the echo of Lisa Stansfield only heightens. In America and elsewhere Sade tops charts and packs out stadiums, but here her pop-soul clothes have been well and truly stolen.

How could Sade have got so closely bound up with the Thatcher Zeitgeist - her domestic currency now trades at the level of the wine-bar and the leg- warmer - when she seems like a perfectly decent human being? Well, the luxurious trappings in which her music has always been swathed (even her album titles, from Diamond Life to the recent Love Deluxe, reek of conspicuous consumption) have never encouraged people to appreciate the fact that it might have soul. And if she hadn't had the misfortune to start out as a model, maybe people would have paid a bit more attention to her voice.

When Sade finally gets on stage, none of this matters. She puts on an impeccable show - swishing and crooning her way through a well-paced set, from boom-time standards such as 'Smooth Operator' to more thoughtful recent material. Her singing is all supple restraint until the very end, when she throws back her head and tacks on an extraordinary last note to 'Is it a Crime?'. With the second encore of 'Paradise', and a costume change from sequinned two-piece to old-style, Spanish riding-school outfit, the crowd finally starts to warm up. It would be good if Sade could take the time to play somewhere less formal - a week at Ronnie Scott's perhaps - because there is an elegance about her performance that ought to be timeless.

Kodo Drummers: Sadler's Wells (071-278 8916), tonight, Tues to Sat.

(Photograph omitted)

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