If the seminal ’80s sitcom Diff’rent Strokes taught us one thing it was that the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum. But there’s no denying that the world does indeed move to the beat. From the first moments of consciousness in the womb to the dying seconds of the soul, the omni present sound of the heartbeat is with us. The Japanese word Kodo embodies this experience, translated as “heartbeat” but also meaning of “children of the drum”.
Like a Japanese version of Riverdance, the taiko drumming troupe have been touring the globe since 1981, bringing their stylised veneration of the drum to the masses. The performance opens up with ‘Kaden’, a piece centring around traditional Japanese wooden flute and this segues into the second piece, ‘Monochrome’ and manned by a total of six drummers. As the developing rhythms build, morph and dance around each other the performers interchange and swap places with incredible preciseness and accuracy. The troupe operates with a singularity not seen around these parts since Piccard last battled the Borg.
As they move through the night’s program the rhythms swell, increasing and decreasing in intensity. One drummer’s emphasis on a beat sounds out across the auditorium like a shot. The accents pinging around the room like electrons firing around the Hadron collider. The volume of the drumming moves from pin-drop quiet to eardrum shattering loudness in the space of a few bars. The level of control and coordination on display is staggering and the mind begins to ache when it starts to think about the amount of weeks, months, years and blisters required in rehearsals to achieve this level of Zen like unity.
After the interval the second part of the night’s performance begins. It’s during this segment that the o-daiko drum that has been keeping watch over tonight’s ceremony gets its first airing. Made from centuries old trees, this mother drum has been resting on its elevated podium, hanging over the stage like a heavy and full harvest moon. Two drummers in traditional loin-clothes are tasked with bringing this behemoth to life and as they awaken the sleeping giant the beat reverberates around the National Concert Hall like the wakening heartbeat of Mother Earth. The skin of the drum is worn from previous performances and the outline of this ware appears like angels wings on its surface. There is no escaping the feeling that tonight we’re watching a very ritualistic worship of the drum with the disciples of the taiko performing a millennia old sacred ceremony.
We’re treated to a less formal number for the encore. The bigger drums are abandoned as the players gather onstage carrying their drums and cymbals. The audience join in, clapping along with them as they perform in a manner more akin to samba band than the monastic like performers we witnessed earlier. An inevitable standing ovation follows and the patrons of a sold out NCH are freed from Kodo’s spell.
As a spectacle Kodo is pretty unique, whether or not it’s to everybody’s liking is a different matter. Two hours of drumming is a lot for even the most ardent fans of percussion to sit through. If you struggle with Bonzo’s solo on Zeppelin’s ‘Moby Dick’ then Kodo probably isn’t for you but on the whole it is a rewarding experience. Visually it’s a theatrical work of understated beauty and grace. The physicality of the drummer’s performance juxtaposed against their economy of movement is worth the price of admission on its own. Some of the pieces play out like a Steve Reich composition where the cross rhythms move in and out of phase with other. There are a few moments tonight where the beats on display could have been easily dropped into a Four Tet or even a Factory Floor track and not seemed out of place. World music? Isn’t everything?