With unfettered energy, Kodo upholds traditional art of taiko drumming

Taiyo Onoda, one of the youngest members of taiko ensemble Kodo, says, "When we perform as an ensemble, we’re playing as one. And we’re kind of making a physical and mental connection between all of us."

Takashi Okamoto

Ancient Japanese taiko drumming was once used to expel evil spirits, repel agricultural pests and express thanks for healthy crops at harvest time. These days, the tradition-steeped art form is a source of entertainment and escape for audiences around the world. And when they see it in action, chances are good they’re seeing Kodo

Taiyo Onoda began touring with Kodo five years ago after two years of intensive training at the Apprentice Centre on Japan’s Kodo Island. Now 29, he took up taiko at age 8 while growing up in San Francisco and is one of the group’s youngest members (they range in age from 21-60).

Not long before Kodo’s “One Earth Tour 2023: Tsuzumi” concert March 5 at Symphony Center, Onodo spoke about the handmade instrument he plays, the sounds he makes with it and the audience response that helps keep him going.

Apprenticing for Kodo on Japan’s Sado Island is a long haul, right?

Yes. Our home base is on the island, and the Apprentice Centre is separate from the village where our headquarters is. That’s where we are essentially living for two years, and we don’t really get a chance to get out of that area. We just focus on ourselves and the job.

Were you all quarantined there together during the pandemic?

Yeah. We had, I guess, a self-imposed quarantine, because Japan didn’t really have strict measures during that time. But we decided to lay off from performing, and we tried a bunch of new things that we didn’t have the time or opportunity to try in the past. For example, a lot of us [learned] musical recording. We have a on-site studio that we can use to record music, so we tried to have more Kodo members handle microphones and the cables and learn how to use recording desktop applications. We also learned how to video edit so we can have a better presence online.

Do American and Japanese audiences react differently to your work?

The American audience has a very lively response. So it’s very easy for us to gauge how the audience is feeling about our performance, and it’s also a great feeling to have that positive feedback loop where we’re emitting energy, we’re giving it all out on the stage, and then the audience is giving us back their energy and their reaction to whatever we’ve done. That keeps on growing so we are able to, in the end, really leave it all out on the stage. That’s kind of what we do in Japan as well, of course, but the Japanese audience isn’t as vocal and responsive as the American audience, so I feel like we have to emit even more energy to try to get them out of their seats and get them engaged.

What’s going through your mind and how are you feeling when you’re playing onstage?

When we perform as an ensemble, we’re playing as one. So we’re opening our ears and eyes. And we’re kind of making a physical and mental connection between all of the performers who are onstage. And we believe that that sort of energy, that kind of focus, will translate into good sound and good energy that the audience will catch. The thing that we love about performing is the positive feedback between the audience and the performer.

If something isn’t going well, will you change it up on the fly?

We won’t change what we’re playing sheet music-wise, but we will change mentally — maybe turn down the volume, turn up the volume, maybe play a certain note or a rim shot rather than a loud singular strike. We’ll change the message that the sound carries.

How do you keep yourself in physical and mental shape to play this type of music while you’re on the road?

Everyone has their own routine. Being born and raised in San Francisco, I love my burritos and hamburgers, but I try to eat as normally as possible — three balanced meals a day. I also try to get as many vitamins and minerals as possible, but it’s difficult to get vegetables on the road. The staff is very keen on trying to maintain our diet and keep our morale up. Some of us like to work out when we have the time and stamina left to do so. That being said, usually the performance itself is a good workout. And we train enough before we go on tour so we don’t get sore.

You must tailor your performances somewhat to match the venue. What’s the difference between playing a concert hall like Symphony Center, as opposed to a theater?

I think the biggest difference is that a concert hall was not designed for the full-on sound of taiko drums because it’s designed to catch minute details. So we have to adjust to the environment and try not to overpower the venue that we are in. One of the challenges of touring is to try and grasp what kind of sound the venue is capable of and what kind of sound the venue will create when we emit our sound. But that’s also the fun part.

What repertoire will the group perform in Chicago?

The pieces that we are going to be performing are what we would consider Kodo classics like Zoku and Monochrome. Those two, specifically, are songs that have been with us for 40 years, since the beginning of Kodo. The concept is to kind of break through the old habits and concepts that we’ve held ourselves to and try to incorporate new ideas — things that are in our surroundings, like nature. There is a lot of freedom in our interpretation in a bunch of our pieces. The idea that we want to portray kind of changes with every production, so the team is free to interpret.

Being able to feel the energy that the older members [convey] in those pieces is a very meaningful experience for me.