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Japanese drumming, or taiko, is something of an institution. But even institutions aren’t immune from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taiko group Kodo was set to stage a nationwide tour from May through September, but the spread of the new coronavirus put an end to that, and has cast doubt on the group’s future performances in the runup to its 40th anniversary celebrations next year.

Kodo has been hit so hard that on April 13 it put out an appeal on its official website asking supporters to make donations and to buy instruments and merchandise from the group to help keep it afloat.

“We believe the world needs taiko,” the statement reads. “Our unwavering desire to continue our activities is based on that belief. In difficult times like these, perhaps the connection taiko offers is more important than ever before.”

Kodo’s appeal page allows people to donate a sum of their choice by PayPal or by credit card, with those who donate ¥500 or more having their names immortalized on the group’s website. Meanwhile, Kodo’s online store is offering DVDs, CDs, socks, accessories, drumsticks and cymbals. The group is also asking for audio and video equipment to help keep it running.

Before the pandemic had really ramped up, The Japan Times spoke with Yuta Sumiyoshi, 28, one of Kodo’s main soloists and composers as well as the troupe’s musical director for its latest major stage shows, “Meguru” and “Nova.”

“I grew up in a place where I had many chances to see taiko performances … during local traditional festivals,” he says. “Then when I was about 8 years old I joined a taiko group. I’ve always liked the fact that taiko has a wide musical range, from tiny, quiet tones to booming sounds, and you can achieve this without electric amplification. It allows you to express a wide range of feelings in a very simple, direct way.

“To put it simply, I love the physicality of the instrument: Hitting the drum and being hit in turn by its sound wave just makes me feel good.”

Sumiyoshi entered the Kodo Apprentice Centre, located on Sado Island off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, in 2010 after finishing high school.

“Actually there are no particular prerequisites to join,” he says. “Everybody has a chance as long as they are between the ages of 18 and 24. During the audition, more than musical skills they check your physical strength, stamina, kiai (fighting spirit) and communication skills.”

Those who pass this test move to the Kodo Village in Sado and live communally at an apprentice center for two years. During that time they learn taiko, bamboo flute, song and dance, along with other traditional arts such as noh and kyogen theater and tea ceremony.

“Those who pass another audition at the end of these two years are selected as probationary junior members and spend one additional year training on the job,” Sumiyoshi says. “However, only those who pass the final audition become full-fledged Kodo members.”

Sumiyoshi admits that surviving the troupe’s grueling training program is not easy, and being admitted as an apprentice doesn’t guarantee success.

“In my case, 22 out of 25 aspiring trainees passed the first audition, but only seven of us progressed beyond the first year,” he says. “Out of these seven, four became junior members. Three more have quit along the way, so I am the only one of the original 22 trainees who is still with Kodo.”

Hard graft: Yuta Sumiyoshi says drumming in Kodo takes great physical strength and training. | OKAMOTO TAKASHI
Hard graft: Yuta Sumiyoshi says drumming in Kodo takes great physical strength and training. | OKAMOTO TAKASHI

Sumiyoshi says Sado Island’s rugged beauty left a strong impression on his younger self.

“Sado is the kind of place where you get to experience nature in a very direct way,” he says. “It’s a harsh environment, for sure, with very hot summers and frigidly cold winters, but it’s a beautiful place to live. The sea is wonderful, and you can actually see the stars shine in the night sky. There are no filters between you and the natural phenomena happening around you, so they leave a stronger, more vivid impression. Then, after living there for a while, you also start noticing its somewhat dark side — the violence with which the roaring waves hit the rocks, the deep dark caves.”

Sumiyoshi says the island offers a unique setting.

“Coming from Shikoku, the first time I saw the snow in Sado I was so happy. Then you get to see it every day, and after a while you just pray for the snow to go away,” he says with a laugh. “Apart from that, more than the differences I appreciate the fact that both Sado and Shikoku have retained much of their traditions — the local festivals, the music.”

Kodo has been based in Sado since it began, and to this day retains a strong bond with the island.

“Most people in the Kodo entourage come from other parts of Japan, but we have all become active members of the local community,” Sumiyoshi says. “We are inspired by Sado’s natural environment and its rich cultural traditions. For example, the group trainees take part in the festivals of neighboring villages, and learning the annual rite of demon drumming (ondeko or onidaiko in Japanese) from the locals has become part of their curriculum.”

Kodo is famous for collaborating with various artists and musicians, and this year the group came up with a new project called “Nova,” created with Canadian film and stage director Robert Lepage.

“We first met when Lepage was in Niigata to present one of his projects and visited us in Sado,” Sumiyoshi says. “Apparently he has been a fan of our music for many years, so we quickly agreed on doing something together. Lepage came up with the show concept while we took care of the music.

Sumiyoshi says the work is based on the idea of the birth of the universe.

“In astronomy, ‘nova’ means ‘new star.’ This work is based on the idea of the Big Bang… with the appearance of the first living creatures, followed by mankind,” he says. “People create communities, but this leads to disputes, and wars cause destruction. Finally, destruction is followed by rebirth and the cycle starts all over again. It’s a sort of philosophical work.”

Sumiyoshi was particularly excited about the technological innovations in “Nova,” but for now the destruction of the global COVID-19 pandemic has put the show on hold. Preparations were still under way when shows began to cancel.

As of the time of writing, the group plans to hold its annual Earth Celebration festival, which is scheduled from Aug. 21 to 23, as an online event with no physical audience. But what happens for that all important 40th anniversary remains to be seen. Perhaps, though, the cyclical spirit of the production will prove true and, with the support of the public, Kodo could be in for a rebirth.

For more information, and to contribute to Kodo’s appeal, visit https://www.kodo.or.jp/en/call-for-support

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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