(Featured in Modern Drummer Magazine, February 2002)

The Kodo Drummers of Japan have become renown for their athletic taiko performances worldwide.  The common image that sticks in the mind is the ferocious performance of a sole drummer, bound in loincloth, furiously bashing a massive odaiko drum with a skin nearly his own size using arm-length sticks.  In addition to their world proselytizing of taiko, every year Kodo host a festival on their quiet island of Sado in the Japan Sea where percussionists and musicians from around the world gather for three days filled with performances and workshops.  This year's guests were Zakir Hussain, master of the Indian tabla drum, and his Taal Ensemble consisting of Ustad Sultan Khan on the Indian cello Sarangi, TH Vinayakram on the Ghatam (a clay pot with a single mouth which is played against the belly) and V Selvaganesh on the kanjira (a hand-sized frame drum of lizard skin which is wet to give a deep bass tone).

Tabla is associated with meditative calm and complex rhythm cycles of up to 16 beats, which the audience counts out with hand clapping to anticipate the merging of rhythms that the musicians overlay on the basic measure.  If there is a thesis to tabla it would be the combinations of rhythmic phrases within the measure and the consequent departures and returns to the sam beat (pronounced "sum"), which is the alpha-and-omega first beat of a measure.  Because a standard measure can last over ten seconds, the departure and return creates a strong sense of anticipation in Indian music.  Drummers delight the audience in playing hide-and-seek with the sam by diverging two rhythms on cyclic paths that spin as if they were two gears out of synch until they merge on a common beat.

Motofumi Yamaguchi, Kodo's Artistic Director, explains that taiko's aesthetic is based on "sei" or stillness.  While the beat is strong, it serves mostly as a frame for the empty space between the beats referred to as "ma."  Taiko is as much gesture as music.  When the drum isn't being hit it's fixin' to be.  Heavy strikes are emphasized visually by dramatic gestures away from the drum in the preceding instant.  Kodo bases its style of taiko on everything from the gestures of farmers planting rice to regional Japanese dance movements.  While Kodo keeps a strong connection to the traditional roots of taiko, they have also incorporated influences over the years from their guests from different musical traditions.  Yamaguchi believes that any tradition has to interact and be infused with new influences if it is to remain vital.  Visible influences on Kodo are drum strikes that are borrowed from Korean and Okinawan traditions.

Zakir had previously collaborated with former Kodo member Leonard Eto on tour with MegaDrums.  His first session with Kodo took place at Mickey Hart's studio in March where they came together to record a CD combining tabla and taiko for the first time.  From then until days before the Sado concert, Zakir has been exchanging notes on the songs they were to perform.  Naturally with Indian music rife with improvisation, the two ensembles left abundant room for spontaneous creation, with many of the pieces only taking final form during the performance.

The first faceoff of the concert starts off with Kodo led by Musical Director Ryutaro Kaneko on a surging 7 beat piece, sho-nanafushi.  After the exposition Kodo quiets to a gentle thudding on beats 1,3,5 and the upbeat of 6, giving a sense of urgency and imminence as if an animal were crouching to pounce on prey.  The Indian percussionists next take the focus playing rhythms in unison.  Vinayakram's fingers rink sharp treble cracks on clay.  Selvaganesh matches Zakir's tabla bols (short beat phrases) by striking chest-reverberating rounded tones on the kanjira.  They dice up the measure into bite-sized chunks.  With fluid rolls they stitch it back together.  Eyes locked, they spill out bols that might have seemed random were they not perfectly synchronized between them.  Like a Blue Angel breaking out of formation, Vinayakram next takes the rhythm hostage in his ghatam.  Accents bubble off a steady roll of fingers answered by exclamations of alternating drums from the Kodo members who are still reciting the fundamental mantra rhythm.  Kaneko comes in playing both sides of a small taiko in Korean Chyanngo style, first tripping then skipping syncopation off the phrase.  After each member of the team has had a chance to spin rifs off the theme, both ensembles join together for a final recitation on the fundamental accents, coming to an abrupt halt on the sam beat.

Zakir is next left onstage to dizzy us with patterns on two tablas tuned to a third interval.  Slowly the massive 1000 lbs. odaiko is rolled onstage with Yoshiaki Fujimoto, Kodo's most senior odaiko player, standing poised to attack the drum.  When Zakir's fingers reach a steady blur on the tablas, Fujimoto enters with a single body-writhing slam.  The stillness of Zakir's smooth barrage of finger taps is contrast in juxtaposition with stillness between contemplative strikes by Fujimoto.  Strikes on the rim of the odaiko dispel the roaring echo that resounds between the opposing 1.5-meter diameter skins of the odaiko.  With occasional "kiai" screams, Fujimoto gradually builds up to a rolling tempo, pulling different timbres of the skin from various nodes.  The whole drum shakes the audience with a low pitch growl, sounding like Tibetan monk chants.  Gradually Zakir loosens his fingers which seem to blossom from a silence as if they had never stopped tapping.  The tablas, played into microphones, match the roar of the odaiko with accents bouncing off the blurred flutter of fingers.  Zakir gradually starts to deconstruct the fluid flow of beats down to a slow pace.  Fujimoto re-enters and Zakir starts a regular beat as if he were accompanying Fujimoto on the rear of the odaiko, mirroring his accents, then filling their intervals with trills, then spilling out permutations of bols that fit the intervals, then finally following Fujimoto's hesitation to the final climactic scream "Wasah!" Boom.

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Pictures of Kodo

Pictures of Zakir

Pictures of Vinayakram

Pictures of Selvaganesh

Zakir Interview
Kodo Earth Celebration 2001
Zakir Hussain's Taal Ensemble