In 1969, the young, idealistic communist Tagayasu Den formed a commune of taiko drummers on Sado Island off the coast of Niigata Prefecture called Ondekoza. Den became an increasingly dictatorial figure, obsessed with fitness and drumming. “Everyday, just running,” recalls original member Eitetsu Hayashi ruefully. “Wake up at 4 a.m., no newspapers, no TV, just running.” In 1981 Hayashi and others formed a breakaway rebel group called Kodo. Ondekoza, would continue, Hayashi would later turn solo, but Kodo have ever since remained on Sado Island and have become Japan’s premier taiko drumming group.
Since then, they have helped to spawn scores of similar taiko groups not just in Japan, but around the world — some good, some, frankly, not. As well as raising the profile of Japanese music around the world with groundbreaking albums and shows, they’ve probably done as much to create a new stereotype of Japan as well — There was no tradition of taiko drumming groups until Ondekoza arrived. Nevertheless, Kodo are probably still the best of them, consistently putting on spectacular shows.
Every year Kodo perform their “December Concerts” in Japan in order, they say, to look back and forward and combine the old and new. This year there’s added pertinence as they are celebrating their 25th anniversary and the release of their new best of Kodo album, the excellent “Heartbeat.”
Why does taiko drumming have such worldwide appeal? According to Hayashi, “The Japanese drum doesn’t have any tune, just noise and overtones, and when a baby is inside its mother it hears such sounds. Small babies always sleep deeply during taiko drumming, that’s why I called the group Kodo, meaning “heartbeat.” Don’t expect to be lulled into sleep though. Rather, come prepared to be stirred by their pure energy and to witness the thunder of huge drums in one of the most visually stunning shows Japan has to offer.