SADO ISLAND, Niigata Pref. — Step one: right leg forward, left leg back.
Step two: arms extended, chest out.
Step three: shake all you got.
Not exactly the kind of instruction usually heard in junior high school gymnasiums on Japan’s remote Sado Island, but there they were — middle-aged women, tattooed hipsters, office-lady types, hippy chicks and their children — all wiggling and giggling to the sounds of Romanian brass.
This Gypsy dance workshop was one of many classes offered during the Earth Celebration festival, a three-day world music event held Aug. 20-22 in the town of Ogi, on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture.
Instruction in samba, flute-making and hula-dancing was also on the menu but, as it is every year, the main attraction was the performance of the event’s hosts — Kodo, the world-renowned Japanese taiko ensemble — and their foreign guests. This year it was Fanfare Ciocarlia, a Romanian Gypsy band specializing in the dizzying party tempos of Eastern Europe.
Gypsy music mingling with Japan’s big drums certainly held promise, but on EC’s first day, its execution was in doubt. The previous evening, a typhoon savaged the main venue, an outdoor stage built on a hilltop in Shiroyama Park. Most of the roof was shredded and the lighting fixtures were dangling dangerously. As hosts, Kodo are responsible for nearly every aspect of EC. The group built the stage just the week before; now they would have to repair it. That meant postponing — and possibly canceling — their only rehearsal with Fanfare. It also meant Kodo’s Friday night performance had to take place inside a gymnasium packed with 1,500 people.
The sky was clear and blue the following afternoon when I met Kodo’s managing director, Atsushi Sugano. Collaboration, he told me, is the festival’s most essential element, even more important than ticket sales.
Now in its 17th year, EC had nearly quadrupled in size by its 10th anniversary: from 2,300 tickets sold in 1988 to more than 8,500 in 1997. Moreover, the feature of one international guest had grown to five guest acts. Most promoters salivate at numbers like this, but Sugano says that he and the Kodo performers decided to scale back. Earth Celebration had become too big. “The stage and the audience were too far from each other,” he says, “and Kodo had no time to share and collaborate with their guests.”
As a result, in 1998, EC was held in spring instead of the summer, and with only one foreign act on the bill. Fewer than 5,000 tickets were sold, but the intimacy and communal spirit were regained. Kodo was pleased.
With this in mind, it’s easy to understand the significance Kodo placed on sharing the stage with Fanfare for Sunday’s finale. Without it, the event would have seemed incomplete.
Most EC returnees I spoke with came for music, but also for escape from the chaos of urban life. Daniel Rosen was one of them. An American potter, he has worked with Kodo intermittently since 1996, and his eyes sparkle when he speaks of the journey to Sado, which he considers a “pilgrimage” of sorts. Roughly six hours away from Tokyo by shinkansen and ferry, Ogi’s remoteness, he says, is both physical and psychological.
An EC novice myself, the idea of a weekend without the Yamanote Line, crowded sidewalks and that damn Bic Camera song in my head was quite appealing. As we stepped off the ferry in Ogi’s port, time seemed to slow. No 7-Elevens, no big screens blasting J-pop singles. Only heat wafting off tile roofs and the sound of cicadas chirping along to distant drumbeats as I strolled through town.
The sound of drumming was everywhere at EC. Most performances centered on percussion, and eight of the 16 workshops taught either how to play or dance to some of Japan’s regional drumming styles, often finishing in the streets, matsuri-style. And the most prominent items for sale in the festival’s flea market? You guessed it: all manner of items to be struck, slapped or shaken.
Drumbeats also resonated throughout the day at Ogi’s Kisaki Shrine, home to most of the free “fringe” performances, including those by a flamenco guitarist, belly dancers, Hawaiian hula dancers and a “didgeree-duo.” The shrine’s woodwork looked old and weathered, like it would crumble if you touched it, but that didn’t deter numerous taiko groups from rattling its timbers.
Fanfare Ciocarlia’s hilltop performance was scheduled for Saturday at 7:15 p.m. The stage repairs — which necessitated a ferry-ride back to the mainland to retrieve last year’s roof — were completed around 4 p.m. When I spoke with Ioan Ivancea, Fanfare’s clarinetist and eldest member, he said that they had yet to practice with Kodo. Helmut Neuman, the band’s manager and interpreter, said that they had only received CDs of Kodo’s music a few months ago.
Ivancea didn’t look worried, though. He and Fanfare Ciocarlia (which includes three of his sons) are used to thinking on their feet. The 12-piece band spends most of their time playing venues around the world or weddings, baptisms and other ceremonial events near Zece Prajini, their village near the Romanian-Moldavan border. And which do they prefer, I ask: touring or playing for home crowds? “Actually, we prefer touring because the honor is much bigger,” Ivancea says. Back in their village, he explains, it’s nothing special to play 12 hours a day, several days in a row. On top of that, people have requests, or want to hear a particular number played faster or slower. “Here we play two hours and we’re treated like stars,” he says, flashing a silver-plated smile.
Indeed, when they hit the stage, those seated erupted into hooting and hollering, while the sides of the stage throbbed with frenetic movement. The loudest cheers were for Fanfare’s dancer and workshop instructor, affectionately referred to by her bandmates as “Miss Romania.”
Dancing to Fanfare’s frantic pace takes superhuman effort — even clapping along proved to be a challenge for some. But standing still was more difficult. Unlike the string-centered Taraf de Haidouks, another well-known Romanian Gypsy act (coming to Tokyo next month), Fanfare are a horn band, playing loud enough to be heard as far as our inn, a 20-minute cab-ride away.
You would think that a party this wild — and the people who throw it — would have their share of detractors. “I think [the locals] might have been a bit worried [about Kodo], at first,” says Rosen. “Perhaps they thought, ‘Is it a cult or something?’ ” But nearly two decades on Sado have ensured Kodo a place in the community. The group participates in Ogi’s own summer festival, and members are involved in town issues (Sugano was once president of the PTA).
Rosen calls Kodo a “reverse import.” Only after worldwide fame did the ensemble get recognition at home. But a global fan base has not changed the work ethic ingrained in them. Kodo apprentices live communally, waking before 5 a.m. to run and prepare for the day’s rehearsal. Usually one to three of these become junior members who travel with the group. After a year, they’re invited to become full-fledged member, to do another probationary year, or to leave the program. Everyone plays a part on tour, Rosen says. “You don’t join this group to see the world,” he says, “because everyone spends the entire day building the stage, rehearsing and then performing.”
This spirit could be seen when everyone — from first-year apprentices to the managing director — repaired the stage. After that, it was time to hoist and position a huge 700-kg drum, measuring 1.8 meters in diameter.
Despite all the preparation, every Kodo member I saw performing that day (they popped up everywhere) seemed relaxed. They joked around and spoke to the audience like they were guests in their home. And why not? They were at home. “Sleeping in our own beds and using our own equipment makes a big difference,” Sugano added.
After ascending Shiroyama Park’s steep, lantern-lit path for Sunday’s final concert, we found a considerably larger crowd. Both seated and standing areas were packed and the crowd seemed ready to explode.
They would have to wait. Kodo did not enter with the Romanians. Instead, yukata-clad dancers took the stage for several slow, dramatic numbers. The flicker of torches lit Kodo’s o-daiko (giant drum), set on a rolling platform backstage. Kodo exited when Fanfare took the stage, playing nearly the same set list as the night before. Not a good sign, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind. They cheered Miss Romania and tried hard to mimic her undulations.
After an intermission, the big drums were rolled out. Fanfare had left the stage, and it was nearly 9:45, the official ending time. It’s over, I thought, and prepared to leave.
Then a spotlight cut through the sky to a place near the exit. There were the Romanians, horns glinting in the glare, with the Kodo drummers marching through the crowd toward the stage. Miss Romania appeared in flowing orange, flanked by fan-bearing Japanese dancers. The chest-rattling taiko beats provided a perfect framework for the Romanian’s brassy tendrils to wrap around. Hearing them together made complete sense, as if it had always been this way. The festivities continued until 11.
The next morning, a gray shroud of drizzle tickled our faces as we boarded the ferry back to the mainland. I stepped on deck and there was Miss Romania, along with the rest of Fanfare in a crowd craning their necks over the ship’s railing. On the dock were around 10 Kodo performers, waving flags and performing a farewell number — in the rain. The boat lurched forward, and we all waved goodbye like some bizarre episode of “The Love Boat.” Kodo slowly faded out of sight, still playing.
Best of the EC ‘fringe’
Yukiai: Kisaki Shrine as a backdrop added to the spiritual nuances of Cheiko Kojima’s dance performance. Flutes, drums and multiple costume changes made this one of the most memorable events of the weekend — even though it shouldn’t even qualify for this section, as it was one of the four concerts that charged. But it was worth every yen.
Akaoni Daiko: This predominantly foreign taiko troupe flaunted a bit of Western hot-doggery. A turn-off for some, perhaps, but anyone who bends over backward (quite literally) to entertain earns points in my book.
Voice Circle: Kodo member Yoko Fujimoto’s workshop involved an expanding and contracting ring of voices projecting an ethereal drone onto anyone standing in the center. New Agey types might call this “channeling energy.” I call it mesmerizing.
Hawaiian Hula: Taking a break between workshops, hula luminary Ed Collier brought his own dancers out in front of the shrine to perform, and their traditional garments and call-and-response routine made for an engaging afternoon set.
Kodo with the Sado Brass Band: This mobile party snaked through the streets, finally settling on a seaside stage. Everyone got their groove on — from a hyperactive tambourine player to the high-school clarinet section.
The Beer: Sado’s excellent persimmon-laced Hokusetsu lager sells in fancy bistros like Nobu for around 1,500 yen a bottle. I found it at a mom & pop shop for 450 yen.
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