Weatherbeaten and remote, the fishing port of Ogi hardly seems like a cultural magnet. Yet the unassuming little community on the southern peninsula of Niigata Prefecture’s Sado Island has achieved worldwide renown as the site of Earth Celebration, a music festival with a twist.
While most other summer festivals pull out the stops to entertain largely passive audiences, Kodo’s annual salute to rhythm is one of those events where what you get out of it depends on what you put in. Kodo, the globe’s best-known taiko drummers, wouldn’t have it any other way. The give-and-take exchange they seek extends beyond artist and audience to include the host community and even the island as a whole.
Now in its 20th year, the three-day event, to be held Aug. 17-19, gives new meaning to audience participation. The action isn’t just on stage, but all around you: workshops, exhibitions, arts and crafts, bus tours, cycling, swimming, impromptu jam sessions — the list goes on. Perhaps that’s why organizers have managed to increase attendance while also reducing the number of performers.
The frictions that sometimes plague other events seem blessedly absent from Earth Celebration, which is jointly staged by the nonprofit Kodo Cultural Foundation and local authorities. “You get this real flavor of an international scene. People here really enjoy it,” says Marcus Soto, a native New Yorker and 17-year Sado resident, who runs Ogi’s Oasiss restaurant with his Japanese wife and four children.
EC — as it’s affectionately known to fans — inspires a devotion that brings many visitors back year after year, despite the hassles of getting to the event’s remote location in the Sea of Japan, a 2 1/2-hour ferry ride from the mainland. That devotion is also evident among the performers. Of the seven guest acts who’ll be sharing the stage with Kodo this August, four have appeared before. Among them is veteran jazz pianist Yosuke Yamashita, who performed at the first Earth Celebration and at its 10th anniversary in 1997.
“It’s such a different feeling playing in the open air under the stars,” Yamashita, speaking by phone from Nagoya, says of performing in Ogi’s Shiroyama Park, the hilltop site of the festival’s three main outdoor concerts. “I feel wide open, and I can sense there’s real excitement in the audience.”
Joining Yamashita on this year’s bill are Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain, Puerto Rican percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, French Guianese tap dancer Tamango, the dancers of Okinawa’s Ryukyu Geino-dan, the drummers of Miyakejima Geino Doshikai and singer Mio Matsuda.
The man entrusted to get all of those performers on the same page is Kaoru Watanabe, a nine-year Kodo veteran. In his third year as Earth Celebration’s artistic director, the St. Louis, Missouri-born Watanabe is using the occasion to highlight Kodo’s evolution.
“I’ve invited these guests from past Earth Celebrations to show the new face of Kodo,” Watanabe says by phone from Brooklyn, New York, where he is pursuing a musical career after leaving the group last autumn. “They’ve changed a lot in recent years. By re-exploring these collaborations, the players themselves can see how they’ve developed.”
The past that Watanabe and the musicians will be delving into stretches back to 1971, when Ondekoza, the seminal taiko ensemble that spawned Kodo, was formed by the late Tagayasu Den, an activist who sought to revive interest in traditional Japanese performing arts and found an ally in Sado schoolteacher Masahiko Honma. Ondekoza helped popularize the kumidaiko style of group drumming for which Kodo is now famous; contrary to commonly held belief, that style is far from ancient, being a postwar creation that’s only about 60 years old. By 1981, differences of opinion over the group’s direction caused Den to leave the island, taking the Ondekoza name and all of the group’s drums with him. The musicians who would reorganize themselves as Kodo soon set up shop in an old schoolhouse about half an hour’s drive up the coast from Ogi. They debuted at the Berlin Festival in 1981 and in 1988 they opened Kodo Village, which now includes administrative offices, a rehearsal hall, a library and living quarters for some members. The same year the first Earth Celebration was staged.
Ogi restaurateur Marcus Soto well remembers the way things were back in the festival’s more loosely organized early days, when guest musicians would follow up their main concerts with free ones elsewhere.
“I’ve seen it change. It’s been incremental because they know they have to keep some of the ambience of the original Earth Celebration. Before, it was like they didn’t even have a stage — they just pitched a tent and did it in all these different parts of the island. They’d be jamming all night, and that kind of got out of hand. People were like, ‘You got to put a time limit on it.’ “
In recent years, Soto credits Kodo with organizing a “greener” festival.
“There used to be tons of garbage,” he recalls. “But they’ve managed that really well. They’re really gung-ho about making things go smoothly and getting people together. They’ve lifted the level of professionalism but kept it grass-roots. They’ve walked that fine line.”
The festival’s organizers have compensated for recently eliminating late-night indoor gigs by adding more free daytime performances at the Harbour Market, a tent city in Ogi’s waterfront park that’s also home to vendors selling arts and crafts, clothing and food and drink.
Atsushi Sugano, the festival’s managing director and a nonperforming group member since 1982, says there is talk of adding more tradition-inspired acts with youth appeal to the “fringe” stages, where those who’ve registered can share their talents with festivalgoers.
“We also want to collaborate with scholars who study the anthropological aspects of traditional cultures related to dance, music and performance around the world,” he adds.
To that end, Sugano says special emphasis is being placed on a series of takigi (open air, bonfire-lit) noh performances to be held Aug. 11-13 in three communities elsewhere on the island prior to the festival.
“Zeami, the founder of noh theater (in the 14th century), was exiled to Sado Island (after insulting the shogun), so we’re now trying to utilize the island’s cultural tradition,” Sugano explains, adding that the decision to hold the events at scattered locations, in cooperation with local communities, was deliberate. “We are trying to get people to see more of Sado,” he says.
Although there’s plenty to do in Ogi between workshops and performances, the organizers want festivalgoers to explore farther afield. New this year are bus tours that take in local landmarks, including Shukunegi, a magnificently preserved collection of old wooden homes. As always, a shuttle bus links Ogi with Sobama Beach on the other side of the peninsula. Kodo Village, which is open the rest of the year by appointment only, throws open its doors to the public on the final day of Earth Celebration. And Sado Island Taiko Centre adjacent to the village, which opened in April, offers an overview of taiko drumming.
“Kodo have been active in projects to revive tourism on Sado Island, and we hope to create new experiences for visitors,” Sugano says.
Though brief, Earth Celebration delivers an economic shot in the arm to the hospitality industry during the key summer season, according to businesspeople like Soto.
“A large portion of the profit that you’ll make for the year comes during that time,” Soto says of the peak months of July and August.
Like other rural communities, Sado must contend with a changing economy and, in response, Kodo are promoting a cottage craft industry. Earth Furniture, carved from cedar trees planted on the island according to government policy, makes use of a neglected resource.
“We’ve been trying to create a movement to use the trees in a way that will save the forests and the ocean, and we’re trying to introduce these ideas into environmental education at local schools,” Sugano explains.
Despite such integration, very few Kodo members — past or present — are Sado natives. At the moment, just three members and one apprentice hail from the island. Like Watanabe, many eventually follow their dreams elsewhere. Unfortunately, many of Sado’s young people also feel compelled to leave the island, in part because it has no college or university.
“Many young people here would like to experience city life, but statistics show that about 50 percent of Sado young people who go to college on the mainland would like to come back if they can get a job that utilizes their education,” Sugano says.
Despite their efforts to assist their island home in every way possible, Kodo will never be a major employer. Selection is strict, and training is rigorous. But, says Soto, apprentices make their presence felt by participating in community activities, studying music with local teachers and farming.
“And as for Kodo, you notice them more as summer approaches, but by and large people are pretty much aware of them throughout the year,” he says. “They really bridge a gap by bringing the world to this little island.”
Earth Celebration runs Aug. 17-19 in Ogi on Niigata Prefecture’s Sado Island. Pre-events start Aug. 11. Three-day pass: 13,000 yen. Other options available. Visit www.kodo.or.jp for loads of information about transportation, accommodations and activities. English-language assistance is often available at the EC Information Centre during the event.
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