London - 15 February
unremarkable, embarassing version of what was once truly spectacular"
recently went to see Japan’s, no…, make that the world‘s
exponents of taiko drumming – the Kodo drummers. Or at least I thought
that’s what I was going to see. By the end of the evening I was
left wondering: what the hell has
happened to the Kodo drummers?! They were performing at the Barbican
Centre in London as part of their
35th Anniversary World Tour. I’ve seen them several times before down
the decades and every time has been an unforgettable experience. Respected. Unrivalled. Revered. Like Nothing Else On Earth.
Well, that’s how it used to be. Sadly, not any more it seems.
The Barbican guide referring to Kodo as combining “taiko drumming with
dance, song and kabuki” was at least transparent about
where this is
all going wrong. Kodo is (or was) a professional taiko drumming troupe.
Plain and simple. We constantly hear how change is a good thing. Evolve or die some say.
However, the kind of change I don’t like it that which is driven not by
need but by meddling. And that’s what has happened here.
first sampled Kodo live in the 1990s when I was soaking up all examples
of Japanese culture I could whilst living in the UK. I’d go to Sadler’s
Wells Theatre in London to see kabuki, noh, bunraku and traditional
Japanese dance. And whenever Kodo played in the UK, I’d go to see them.
And it would be a
glorious experience. I’ve visited thier
mysterious home island of Sado off the north coast of Japan – getting a
hands-on tutorial from Shinichi Sogo a former Kodo member at the Kodo
Cultural Foundation’s Taiko Center. I’ve got the (faded and shrunken)
T-shirt and I have the albums. It’s fair to say I fell in love with
However, what I hadn’t picked up on was that in 2012
there was a change of Artistic Director at Kodo. And a rather dramatic
one at that. Tamasaburo Bando, a former kabuki actor, took over and as
so often happens after such appointments, appears to have felt
compelled to change Kodo.
Based on this most recent
experience, what was once the pinnacle of the art form of taiko
drumming, has been reduced to a diluted, theatrical and popularist
shadow of its former self. The resulting cacophony lies
somewhere between Chinese New Year celebrations (complete with fake,
coloured dragons) and Stomp! – the latter directly influenced by Kodo
in the first place.
everything that set Kodo apart and above all wannabes has been
discarded, replaced by popularist nonsense that has no place in a Kodo
performance as far as I’m concerned. The current incarnation of Kodo
comes across as desperate to be liked, when it should be commanding
reverence. Worst of all, the compromises have resulted in an
unremarkable, embarassing version of what was once truly spectacular.
Anyone coming new to Kodo through this current tour will have no idea
what they are missing. But this current imposter certainly isn’t what I
and millions of others know and love as Kodo. Shameful.
friend also in attendance last night was so distraught at what he heard
that he left after just 40 minutes and has requested a refund from the
Barbican. Understandable as at times the programme was downright
irritating (ie Chit Chat).
The second half of the programme
was better than the first, and included two older pieces – but even
those were but pale imitations of their former selves.
The massive o-daiko drum that used to be the centrepiece of the climax
of most Kodo programmes has been discarded for a far smaller one,
requiring less physical effort to play. Whereas before the drummer had
to stand, both arms held high above his head, hammering the drum skin
with sticks that were (and this is no exaggeration) almost as thick as
a baseball bat. This
required an immense amount of strength and stamina – to say nothing of
the technical and musical ability. The drummers were exhausted,
drenched in sweat afterwards. In contrast, its smaller replacement is
on the floor making it far easier for the dummer to use, requiring
nothing like the skill and effort to play.
In the past, the
physiques of the members of the troupe were outstanding, reflecting the
years of training and physical demands required of their
artform. Today, there were just a couple of the troupe (the
two eldest male
members) who resembled the former Kodo. Instead, they have been
replaced by a far more youthful group (one suspects in a patronising
attempt to broaden Kodo’s appeal among a younger audience). I think, without exception, all the changes instigated by Bando are
ill-conceived, resulting in a textbook example of dumbing down culture
to broaden its appeal. Clear evidence, in my view, that not
all change is good. Far from it.
Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that this is just a phase the Kodo are
sincerely hope that it isn’t long before we can look back on this
episode in Kodo’s otherwise honourable history as a short-lived
abhorration, and we once again revel in the unmatched glory of Kodo in
its purest form. Once again at the pinnacle of the expressive musical
artform of taiko drumming. 5/10
A version of this review
was previously published at TheRealJapan.com