Drum and Drummer

Japan's celebrated Kodo drummers thunder into St. Louis

The spectacle of a muscular Japanese man clad only in a loincloth and beating a 900-pound drum is hard to forget. However, that is not the chief memory you will carry from your evening with the Kodo drummers, Japan's highly disciplined taiko superstars.

Critics have called Kodo concerts "primal," "spiritual" and "theatrical." The unique 24-member ensemble of drummers, flutists, singers and dancers brings traditional Japanese arts from its artists' compound on Japan's Sado Island to the rest of the world on annual eight-month tours. The tribal rhythms they pound out in unison have been known to shake foundations and quicken pacemakers. Memories of their power and finesse resonate like the skin of o daiko, the giant drum that requires eight men to lift.

The Powell Hall concert serves as a homecoming for the newest Kodo member, 25-year-old Kaoru Watanabe, the son of St. Louis Symphony Orchestra violinist Haruka Watanabe and Symphony harpist Ayako Watanabe. Kaoru, an accomplished jazz flutist (yes, you read that right), plays the bamboo flute with Kodo and also drums and sings. He cut his teeth with a St. Louis taiko group and has played the annual Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Garden many times.

Each new Kodo member serves a two-year apprenticeship on Sado Island that teaches him a variety of skills and reinforces a disciplined routine. "As an apprentice, all you do is just stay on the island," says Watanabe. "You wake up at the break of dawn, you run six miles every morning, and it's like communal living, and you just drum or dance or sing all day."

And about that loincloth: "It's like what a sumo wrestler would wear," he explains. "Everyone in Japan used to wear that under their clothes, almost like underwear, and in the traditional Japanese culture, wearing that and also the headband, and tying the headband very tight, it focuses your concentration."

The ladies in the audience would probably agree.

 
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