Primeval, beautiful, visceral, explosive, bone-shaking, spine-thrilling, mind-freezing… just how many overblown adjectives will it take to show that you must grab whatever fleeting chance you get to see the Kodo drummers as they sweep across Europe on their 2014 tour.
The Kodo group first hit the world stage in 1981 with their traditional drumming performances from the remote Japanese Sado Island. Their blurb says they have ‘a vision that extends beyond music into movement and costume’. What with drums, flutes, singing, chanting, bright fabrics and colourful masks, this is certainly true – but there’s more to it than this.
Try to describe the experience to people afterwards, and they’re bound to say you’re being pretentious. But honestly, something about those drums and the men (and one woman) who play them makes everything onstage whirl into one engulfing swathe of sound and sights. Shivers start crawling up and down your backbone from the first gentle patter of the drums as spotlights come up on two groups of drums on the stage. Then begins the first scene, Monochrome – and all at once you’re swept up into the wash of noise.
The performers are so in time with one another that it is almost frightening, yet there’s no sense that this is forced or mechanical. They move seamlessly between different drums and a gong, the volume rising and falling and the rhythms weaving in and out of one another. Some parts are so quiet that your ears ache trying to catch them, while at other moments, the beating of the drums seems to shake the whole audience. Silence becomes another musical tone
The movement that grows out of their performance is more like an elegant martial art than a ‘dance’. Much of it comes from the men themselves, who seem to be made entirely of muscle – and you can see why, with all that drumming.
The highlight of the second half is the appearance of a vast, double-sided drum on a wheeled platform. Two drummers, clad in what is best described as a cloth jockstrap, stand on either side of it, ‘draw’ their drumsticks like a bow and arrow, and let rip. In some scenes they’re joined by breathy flautists who play gentle music, the drums still rolling in the background. Another scene has drummers clad in shiny, Quality-Street-wrapper-like trousers and Japanese masks, seemingly doing battle across their drums.
It’s like a Rorschach inkblot test in musical form – stories form themselves in your mind as you watch, and then you start to judge yourself inwardly on what your mind conjures up. I had a swarm of beetles at one point, and a bickering married couple at another – wonder what that says about me? The Kodo drummers do seem to reach something that is very deep, beyond words.
It’s perhaps best summed up in that huge drum in the middle of the stage. The worn patches where it has been beaten over performance after performance look like a pair of wings – or a pair of lungs. It seems a testimony to the weirdly ethereal, other-worldly effect that their music has that gets right to the bottom of – pretentiousness pushed to its limits here – your soul.
European tour: January 29 – March 31 2014 – check website for details