Forty-five kilometers (28 miles) off the coast of Honshu in the Sea of Japan lies an island the size of New York City. Mountainous and sparsely populated, Sado-ga-shima preserves a rural lifestyle nearly gone from the urban mainland.
Drawn by this setting, a group of idealistic students moved here in the 1970s to found a school of traditional Japanese performing arts. Hoping to raise funds for their project, the students formed a touring taiko group. Calling themselves Kodo, which means both “heartbeat” and “children of the drum,” they debuted at the Berlin Festival in 1981.
Since then, the group has given more than 3,000 performances, gaining domestic and international acclaim. Despite traveling for two-thirds of the year, Kodo remains faithful to its geographical roots. Performers and staff members live on Sado Island, where they find inspiration in the local culture.
In early February, Kodo will bring its unique blend of traditional and cosmopolitan influences to the Bay Area. Company manager Jun Akimoto spoke with Nichi Bei Weekly about what to expect in these performances, and what sets Kodo apart from other taiko groups.
Nichi Bei Weekly: Kodo will be in Berkeley the first week of February. Can you tell us about the performances that will take place there?
Jun Akimoto: This year is our 30th anniversary. Our oldest member is turning 60, and our youngest is 20, but we are bringing the youngest ones, mostly. This year is going to be the youngest generation of a touring group ever in Kodo’s history. This doesn’t mean that we’re losing our roots or standard expression of Kodo; we are trying to add some kind of fresh elements which were created by younger generations of Kodo.
Specifically speaking we are releasing a new CD with this tour, and we have several types of new compositions and we are including some new repertoire in the tour program. This is trying to find a nice blending of traditional styles and new trials. The new elements are interesting in terms of exploring new rhythmic expressions which were under the influences of many other cultures. Some of the younger members were very active with collaborating with other artists these past two or three years. They tried to incorporate those elements.
NBW: Who did they collaborate with specifically?
JA: Specifically, we collaborated with some contemporary dance choreographers from India and Belgium. We worked with Akram Khan — he’s based in the UK. We also worked with another dancer choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. This guy has roots in Morocco, and his father was married to a Belgian lady. So he’s half Belgian. He tries to incorporate both traditional and contemporary styles. He also tries to incorporate many other nationalities, and also the fine arts. We also collaborated with the Paris Opera Ballet. It was a production called “Kaguyahime,” or Moon Princess. The ballet invited us to be musicians. This was last year in Paris.
We learned many things from this collaboration, and we hope that this kind of interaction will result in some sort of development in our own creation.
NBW: Do these collaborations take place on Sado Island or in Europe?
JA: They all came to Sado Island several times to rehearse with us because they felt it was very important to know what Kodo is all about — not only what our music is about, but also our lifestyle, [which] is very interesting for them. Because our music comes from our daily life — this is what people see on our stage. What people see on our stage reflects how we live communally on our island. So they came to spend some time together with us. They came to know how small elements of music came out of our daily life. It was an honor for us to have [these] important artists come to visit us. We’ll try to continue this kind of thing. [The visiting artists’] productions were already international — they had Turkish music, Spanish music, Irish music. Our main character is still traditional Japanese music, but this way Japanese traditions can be more international.
NBW: What is life like on Sado Island?
JA: We have a village called Kodo Village, which is the headquarter of Kodo in the middle of the mountain. It is very isolated from other cities. The advantage is that we can spend most of the time together, from the morning to the night. Life starts very early in the morning. Our apprentices start at 4:30 by running 10 kilometers [6.2 miles]. Then they cook breakfast together and eat together. We practice from 9 to 12. Then of course we cook lunch together. Then we rehearse until 6 together. In the evening it is private practice time.
Staff members work next door to the rehearsal room. It can get pretty loud because we have to open all the windows in our rehearsal space — we have no air conditioning in the rehearsal facility.
We have several types of activities throughout the year, like harvesting festivals, or visiting guest musicians/collaborators. We have a digital recording system in the rehearsal hall — that’s how our new CD was recorded. We have a rice field, a vegetable field… It’s a whole mountain, so it’s quite huge.
NBW: What are the living arrangements in Kodo Village?
JA: We have both dormitories and houses. Apprentices live together in an abandoned schoolhouse. Their facility is more isolated… It’s really isolated. Youngest members of Kodo live in a small dormitory in Kodo Village, but whoever is coming into their third or fourth year we will eventually force out of the dormitory because of limitation of rooms. They rent houses or buy houses or even build houses.
NBW: How long do people stay in the group?
JA: It depends. Some members decided to stay for over 35 years. The oldest members have stayed 40 years. But some people leave early.
NBW: How many people are in the group?
JA: We have 25 performers and 25 staff members. And 20 apprentices.
NBW: How does the apprenticeship program work?
JA: We have several auditions for them, and they have to pass at least three auditions to become regular members. Sometimes only one or two apprentices will make it. Apprenticeship is a two-year program, and once the apprentice year finishes, they have to spend one more year as a probational member… It’s like a final audition year.
NBW: Does everyone go on tour?
JA: We have limited numbers of tour company managers, so generally one or two managers travel with the group, and other staff members work in the office. We have local activities like workshops or school groups, and we try to have social activities. Now we have a facility owned by Sado City where people can visit the whole year round. This facility offers everybody a chance to experience a touch of Japanese drumming.
We also do school workshops. While one ensemble does an international tour, we have another small ensemble touring Japan. It’s the same percentage of priority for both tours. We take turns — if someone goes on Japan tour one year, maybe they will go on international tour the next. Our idea is that performers should experience both.
NBW: How has Kodo changed since it started 30 years ago?
JA: This is my 10th year, so I don’t know what it was like 20 years before. As far as I know, I think there is more sameness than changes. But I think that compared to other types of musical heritage or tradition, Kodo’s history is very young. Things like jazz or baroque have a longer history than us. We are trying to develop our own traditions. We think that we are not only preserv[ing] or conserv[ing] tradition, but we also try to change and refresh ourselves once in a while. Tradition has to change in order to survive, but at the same time we have to keep the core traditions unchanged. It’s difficult to keep a balance between those two. We try to be honest with whatever regions we have learned from. But we have to have kind of an arrangement on top of it. This is a very intricate and sensitive process. We have to be very honest to the local community but we also have to entertain people in the international market. This balance changes time to time. I don’t see radical changes but time to time we have to adjust to the contemporary world.
NBW: Can you clarify what you mean by “local communities”?
JA: What I was trying to say is that our performance/repertoire was learned from local communities in Japan. So rather than bringing the original thing onto the stage we make some kind of arrangement.
NBW: How does the learning from local communities take place in Japan? Does Kodo visit communities, or do the communities come to Sado Island?
JA: The learning in Japan happens in both directions. In the beginning, of course, we visited them and then spent one or two months learning from the local people and living in the community. So that was the initial relationship, and it has continued a long, long time. Often we go there still, and sometimes the people visit Sado Island to spend some time together. But we have more and more tourists now, so it’s very difficult to find a longer period of time to learn. We try to find as much time to explor[e] interesting local communities which have attractive performing arts style. That’s how we developed relationships with local communities.
NBW: Do different communities have different styles of taiko drumming?
JA: Japanese drumming does not stand as itself. It always comes with dance; it’s part of a ceremony or festival. So often whenever we learn drums we learn choreography at the same time, and it’s quite natural that we learn dances before learning the rhythm. Then the drums and dance and songs become one form. Most of the Kodo performers are accustomed to dance at the same time as drumming. It’s so interesting to see — even though the taiko drums are very similar, the performances they do are so different. It’s amazing to see how different communities have different imaginations.
NBW: How is Kodo different from other taiko groups?
JA: Kodo has been creating their own repertoire from traditional folk performing arts, but other Japanese drumming groups are centered on drumming only. Often they compose their own music from scratch, not from their learning process from specific local communities from Japan. … So I think this is a huge difference.
NBW: How many different traditions will be represented at the Berkeley performance?
JA: For this tour, at least 10 different types of performing arts elements are incorporated. To be more exact, if we counted every small piece, it would be many more.
Kodo will perform at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on Feb. 3 and 4. Shows begin at 8 p.m. For tickets and additional information, visit www.calperfs.berkeley.edu or call (510) 642-9988. Kodo’s 30th anniversary album, “Akatsuki,” can be purchased from the group’s online store at http://kodo.shop.multilingualcart.com.