Kodo ensemble turns drumming into art

Chad Berndtson

It’s the rumble that gets you: the thumping, thunderous sounds of the taiko drums that are both unsettling and more than a bit exhilarating. For Kodo, one of Japan’s premier taiko groups, that rumbling is as deeply spiritual as it is dramatic – really, a window into an entire Japanese subculture flush with rites and history.

The current Kodo group, which performs at Symphony Hall on Sunday afternoon, is more than two decades old. Its forerunner developed on the island of Sado, off Japan’s northwest coast and near Okinawa, which had long had been a refuge for exiles and intellectuals, a magnet for gold diggers (gold was discovered there during the Edo period) and, later, a de facto artist colony, thanks to an influx of students in the 1960s and 70s.

The tight-knit artist community gave birth to a touring drum ensemble – an extension of the intense percussion sounds that have been a part of Japanese music for centuries. The first version of the group, called Ondekoza, debuted in the 70s, and the first Kodo was formed by several of the Ondekoza musicians in 1981. While the contemporary Kodo group draws on a number of styles, taiko drumming remains the core characteristic.

“Taiko is not simply percussion, and for that, it’s very fortunate for Kodo that we’ve had a chance to perform at Symphony Hall,” said company manager Jun Akimoto, who was preparing for what will be the group’s second trip to the hallowed concert hall. “We bring this experience to a broader audience, and to bring it to classical music lovers and jazz lovers and lots of different kinds of backgrounds gets it to people who appreciate music most.”

The Kodo musicians – there are 50 – still live on Sado and harvest rice, run an apprentice program and exist in the same communal fashion as their forebears and the island’s historical inhabitants. Musically, they continue to involve more modern Japanese sounds along with the ancient pieces that form the repertoire. Over the years, Akimoto said, Kodo has attracted former rock drummers, young composers and women.

“We have come to know that female drummers have different ideas than male drummers,” Akimoto wrote in Kodo’s press notes. “And because our different physical characteristics influence how we play, we are finding techniques and styles which male drummers never imagined.”

Akimoto said he wished the group had more time to spend in Boston, but Kodo will most certainly return. Next time, he said, he would like to broaden the visit to include other cultural activities and provide more perspective on Kodo, Sado and the taiko drum’s cultural importance.

“There are many Japanese groups that use taiko drums,” he said. “Kodo is not the same thing as taiko. Kodo is a community.”

The Patriot Ledger