Kodo, the taiko drumming pioneers from Japan’s remote and inspiring Sado Island, have powerful mastery over their instruments. It’s a power that can be tender or explosive, delicate or thunderous. Since they burst onto the world scene in 1981, the group has roused and moved audiences around the globe, touring for months out of the year and playing thousands of concerts, performing in nearly every venue of note—from Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw to Carnegie Hall, from Disney Hall to Lincoln Center, from Paris’s Palais Garnier to the Berlin Philharmonie. Though steeped in tradition, Kodo turns traditional Japanese music into a stunning spectacle and a vibrant expression of artistic excellence.
Under the artistic direction of Japanese Living National Treasure and revered kabuki icon Tamasaburo Bando, the taiko performing arts ensemble is further refining its carefully considered stagecraft, combining the centuries-old techniques that Tamasaburo has absorbed from a lifetime on stage with the vigorous, joyful vision of taiko Kodo has developed over the decades, a vision that extends beyond music into movement and costume.
Kodo has thoughtfully transformed the percussive music of Japan’s rural festivals and rituals of harvest and renewal. The ensemble evokes the age-old celebrations of the agricultural cycle, yet pairs ancient pieces with new compositions by respected Japanese composers—from jazz pianists to kabuki masters—and by Kodo members. Their vision has inspired performing arts ensembles worldwide, including Blue Man Group, with whom Kodo recently collaborated on a piece that garnered an International Emmy Nomination. Founders of Cirque du Soliel traveled to Sado to learn from Kodo, incorporating elements into their classic piece, “Mystère.” Kodo have worked with musical lights from respected Chinese composer Tan Dun to Corsican vocal ensemble A Filetta, from the Tokyo Philharmonic to the Paris Opera. Whatever the source or inspiration, Kodo devotes long hours of intense rehearsal to each piece, demanding total commitment and profound creative drive.
The group unites this sharp focus with a dedication to a way of life; alongside rigorous rehearsing, members run long distances to train for the physical challenges of drumming. They raise rice using old hand methods, practice traditional arts like the tea ceremony, and build eco-conscious furniture. It is part and parcel of Kodo’s mission: To promote and develop Japan’s vibrant yet sometimes neglected traditions, roots inextricable entwined with an older way of life.
This way of life still persists on Sado. Lying many miles off of Japan’s western coast, the large island was once the destination for exiles, outspoken thinkers and artists deemed politically dangerous to Japan’s rulers. It became a quiet artistic, isolated hub where tradition met the forefront of Japanese culture. Today, it retains many practices of an age lost in modern, urban Japan, from the old ways of brewing much sought-after sake, to celebrations of the harvest with masked dances and stirring drums.
When Kodo’s founders came to Sado in the late 1960s, they were searching for a place to make a new kind of community, a new haven for art. They were swayed by its beauty and by the strength of these roots. They lived communally, worked and played music together, turning taiko from a musical form played at festivals into high and highly athletic art. After the group debuted in Berlin and spent most of the 1980s on tour, its founding members returned to their island home to establish Kodo Village. Now a vibrant arts hub, the village houses the ensemble and its apprentices and plays host each year to an annual Earth Celebration, a music and arts festival that brings together the many sounds and cultures Kodo encounters during its months on the road.
This urge to embrace the world’s art influences Kodo’s compositions and has helped them hone their presentation of their home country’s distinctive roots. It has won them acclaim worldwide, and demonstrated the great flexibility and power of Japanese music and art.