Performing in Boston on their One Earth Tour, Kodo is a percussion group dedicated to preserving and invigorating the taiko, the traditional Japanese drum. But with Kodo, the word "percussion" must be qualified. In Symphony Hall the stage is set with drums of massive proportions-one type, the miya-daiko, carved from a single tree, is four feet across and weighs 800 pounds. Other huge drums dot the stage, soon to be attacked with mallets the size of baseball bats.
One does not just play drums this enormous-to approach them is a discipline. Kodo is formed by a community of artists living on Sado Island in the Sea of Japan. While their perfect synchrony and physically rigorous technique approaches the martial arts, the group expresses an infectious playfulness and joy. Kodo reveal a childlike approach to drumming in the Japanese characters of their name, which can mean either "children of the drum" or "heartbeat," the original rhythm of the mother's heartbeat as first heard in the womb.
The power of these unique drums can be felt from Kodo's first entrance on the stage. Beginning their performance of dazzling technical mastery with the piece "Zoku," Kodo fills Symphony Hall with a patterning of drums that literally makes the floor vibrate.
Much of Kodo's performance is visual; beauty of style and sound meld in "Yae-No-Furyu" and "Yamauta." In the latter, one performer approaches a drum measuring eight feet across, elevated on a platform strung with lanterns. Accompanied only by a mournful flute and finger cymbals, the drummer slams his mallets into this colossal drum, invoking not only the sounds, but the surging rage of the sea.
Other pieces are remarkable in the intricacy of their patterns and contrasts. Kodo ended their performance with "Yatai-Bayashi," in which the obvious joy of the musicians and the insistency of their drums made it almost impossible to sit still. Kodo's immense rhythmic power and beautiful artistry make them welcome ambassadors of this traditional Japanese musical form.
Since Kodo leave their island to tour every decade or so, their albums are a good way to keep them in reach. Best of Kodo (Sony/TriStar) is a nice sampling from Kodo's previously released albums. Almost capturing the power of Kodo's live performance, these songs illustrate Kodo's range from the meditative to the sublime. Kodo: Sai-So-The Remix Project (Red Ink/Sony) is a funked-out, intelligent dance album that maintains the ritualistic feel of Kodo's drumming while sampling them into styles as different as disco-house and ambient.