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Kodo: ‘Mondo Head’

by Steven Shayman

For some, that Kodo is based on Sado Island might encourage the stereotype of the Japanese master taiko drum troupe living and working in splendid isolation fully dedicated to its traditional Japanese art. But what Japanophile types may not realize is that Kodo, perhaps uniquely among its peers, has moved beyond the traditional: touring the globe, sending albums soaring on Billboard’s World Music Chart and, as in its latest project, working with some very untraditional luminaries.

As a prelude to the Oct. 11 release of Kodo’s new album, “Mondo Head” (on the Sony Classical label), produced by the former Grateful Dead drummer and world music enthusiast Mickey Hart, the Sado Islanders are showcasing their old-school taiko chops on the One Earth Tour. If you want to see Kodo in their pure, unadulterated element, this is a good chance.

But if you want a taste of traditional taiko turned on its head, check out “Mondo Head.” Nominally, it’s a Kodo album, but in reality Hart’s vision drives the project — the latest with his Planet Drum retinue of global drummers, vocalists and guest artists. It’s a one-take affair that Hart described during a July visit to Tokyo as “Kodo drumming with other elements of the world to form yet a new kind of taiko; it honors the old tradition but this is how music grows and progresses.”

The collaboration stems from 25 years of friendship between Kodo and Hart, who has made it his life’s mission to seek out, record and promote what he describes as the healing power of rhythm. The production process began last spring with a week of “just playing” at Hart’s California studio with the Planet Drum drummers, including Hart, percussionists Airto Moreira, Zakir Hussein, Giovanni Hidalgo and Michael Hinton. Hart then used his trip to Tokyo to record and overlay Kodo tracks atop it all.

What emerges is nothing short of amazing: There are the tantric choral chants of “Okesa Prayer”; the sinuous melody and rhythm of “Maracatu,” segueing into “Psychopomp”; the quiet contemplation and intrinsic Japaneseness of “Daimajin”; the funky interplay of Charlie Musselwhite’s cool American delta-blues harmonica and the drums, soft bells and vocals on the track “Echo Bells.”

As usual with a Planet Drum outing, there’s a veritable smorgasbord of musical ideas at play, with influences evident from Egypt to Brazil to — in this case — Japan, with Kodo interwoven throughout.