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'Music is a dialogue between all the members of the troupe,' Kodo, Japanese drummers in Cairo

Since the appearance of the troupe in 1981 at a festival in Berlin, Kodo has been spending about a third of the year overseas

Reham El-Adawi , Saturday 24 Feb 2018
Kodo drummers perform at the Cairo Opera House (Photo: Ayman Barayez)

In the presence of Japanese Ambassador Takehiro Kagawa, nine drummers in traditional black-and-white costumes applied themselves to the unexpectedly athletic business of playing taiko drums at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall on Sunday 11 February, having performed in Alexandria on Friday 9 February.

The sound they produced was remarkable.

Kodo means both “heartbeat” and “children [ko] of the drum [do]”. The sound of the huge taiko drum is said to resemble a mother’s heartbeat as the baby hears and feels it in the womb; and members of the troupe want to play simply and from the heart, they say – like children.

Kodo is the best known taiko troupe in Japan, having popularised Sado Island’s drumming tradition with over 6,000 performances in 49 countries – not counting Egypt, the first Arab country on the troupe’s tremendous, ongoing One Earth Tour, which started all the way back in 1984.

The Japan Foundation, directed by Yoo Fukazawa, organised the two performances in collaboration with the Opera House, as well as free interactive workshops for students at El-Sawy Culturewheel and the Jesuit Cultural Centre in Alexandria.

Kodo held free interactive workshops for students at El-Sawy Culturewheel in Cairo and the Jesuit Cultural Centre in Alexandria. (Photo: Ayman Barayez)

In 2001, Kodo members became the first Japanese artists to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo, Norway. The following year, Kodo was featured in the official anthem of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, and performed live at official World Cup concerts.

In 2003, worldwide acclaim for the Chinese film Hero drew even more attention to Kodo for its work on the motion picture soundtrack. In 2006, Kodo collaborated with legendary Kabuki artist Tamasaburo Bando in Amaterasu, a musical based on a Japanese myth.

This performance served as a catalyst, propelling them towards new forms of percussive expression, and paving the way to extra performances on even more influential stages, including Tokyo’s iconic Kabukiza Theatre.

The troupe made up of two women and seven men performed 15 tableaux using ethnic instruments – a flue ‫(which included a solo recital), a small harp and large castanets – as well as taiko drums, the biggest of which (as one troupe member explained to the audience) costs as much as a Japanese luxury car at US $500,000.

Kodo's most expensive drum (Photo: Ayman Barayez)

Taiko drums can only be made from a single piece of wood and cow hide, and this particular specimen used up a 180-year-old tree. The grand finale was a solo performance by one of the two women that prompted an intense ovation.

According to Kodo’s artistic director Mitome Tomohiro, “The troupe members including me didn’t expect the warm welcome we had from the Egyptian audience whose reactions, specifically the Cairenes, were very rapid as they didn’t even wait till the end of the show before they started whistling and clapping, something we hadn’t experienced before with any other type of audience in the many countries we toured.”

The workshops too managed to convey the intended message: that everyone can be drummer.

“The troupe was established under the dream of Living, Learning, and Creating,” Tomohiri recounted.

“It is dedicated to performing various theatrical genres from all over Japan on its tours around the world, not to mention creating and sharing unique innovative forms of artistic expression. Exploring the limitless possibilities of the traditional Japanese drum, the taiko, Kodo is inventing new directions for a vibrant living art form.

Kodo drummers perform at the Cairo Opera House (Photo: Ayman Barayez)

Since the appearance of the troupe in 1981 at a festival in Berlin, Kodo has been spending about a third of the year overseas, a third touring in Japan and a third rehearsing and preparing new material on Sado Island.”

Everything is meticulously planned: “Kodo strives to both preserve and re-interpret traditional Japanese performing arts. Beyond this, members on tours and research trips all over the globe have brought back to Sado a kaleidoscope of world music and experiences which now exerts a strong influence on the group’s performances and compositions. Collaborations with other artists and composers extend right across the musical spectrum and Kodo’s lack of preconceptions about its music continues to produce startling new fusion and forms. Kodo’s future plan for 2020 is to perform with world-renowned acrobatic artists at a unique and prestigious circus in Canada.”

Tomohiro explained that the philosophy behind taiko resides in the silence that emerges from the clamour of the drums thanks to the drummers’ dexterity: “The smaller drum produces a sharp and penetrating sound while the big one’s sound is loud. Music itself is a dialogue conducted between all the members of the troupe even if we don’t speak. In Japan, the drum is not only a percussion instrument but also part of the religious rites used by people to ask the gods for their demands and for peace in war. A drum is a living creature made of natural elements and dealing for a long time with drums has made me feel it has a spirit.”

Kodo drummers perform at the Cairo Opera House (Photo: Ayman Barayez)

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 


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