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Sado Beating

The Kodo Drummers are bound by neither musical tradition nor onstage attire.


In the 1970s, a group of people in Japan who had become disillusioned with society decided to remove themselves from urban centers. "I hate to say 'drop out' because that makes them sound like a bunch of hippies," says Daniel Rosen, speaking on behalf of the Kodo Drummers, who perform at Lawrence's Lied Center on Tuesday. Nonetheless, this band of nonhippies started living communally on Sado Island, near Japan, with the idea of forming a traditional craft school. Originally conceived as a way to raise funds for the school, the free-thinking refugees' taiko performances -- in which they pound massive drums with mallets the size of baseball bats -- were so powerful that they became the islanders' primary focus.

Although the drummers are musicians who put out CDs and go on tour, their performances are usually covered in the media by dance critics because the shows are so carefully choreographed. One New York Times critic commented that the musicians created "waves of percussive sound that seemed to turn Carnegie Hall into a resonant cavity covered with animal skin." And fans have labeled them the "Olympians of drumming" because of their athleticism. Rosen says the loincloth-wearing drummers are "rooted in Japanese tradition but they're not bound by tradition." The second volume of Best of Kodo illustrates his point: After eight songs performed on the taiko, accompanied by a variety of traditional wind instruments, the ninth track is a house remix.

Collaborating with DJs isn't an uncommon approach for these drummers. While some of their pieces are interpretations of traditional dances and beats, many of their selections are original compositions by band members. In fact, DJs were borrowing Kodo's original beats so freely that the drummers finally went to New York City to work with the spinners directly, a meeting of the minds that culminated in an album called Saiso, meaning "rebirth."

"Everybody was eager to see how their music had been interpreted," Rosen recalls of the day the album arrived in Sado. "One performer whose tracks had been remixed commented that it was like looking in a mirror."

It may seem to be a stretch to call a New York DJ's house beat a mirror image of Kodo's taiko sounds, but those are the kinds of cultural barriers that the group wants to smash. Using the primal nature of drumming to reach people on a universal level, the drummers call this tour the One Earth tour (it's called "one earth" phonetically in Japanese too). Since their official debut in Germany in 1981, the musicians have performed in 38 countries. The drummers also invite fans to a yearly spring festival on Sado Island, where people from around the globe listen to drums, enjoy the scenery and stay up into the wee hours exchanging ideas. But it's easy to talk about leaving doors open when you live on an island far from the rest of society. Rosen admits that "living on Sado has given them a lot of freedom that they couldn't possibly have found in most other places."

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