In what once was an abandoned schoolhouse on misty, mountainous Sado Island, young apprentices diligently train for a spot in Kodo, Japan’s most elite taiko ensemble. Stripped of cell phones and access to the Internet and steeped in the nuances of slow-changing seasons, they live communally for two years and learn drumming, dance, and song in between long-distance runs. The graduates — and there aren’t many — then spend eight months every year touring the world with performances that blend the earth-rumbling bellows of massive taiko drums with taut group synchronicity.
On February 4, Kodo will fill the Granada Theatre with its legendary “wall of sound,” a layered acoustic formula developed in Japan in the 6th century CE (not by rock producer Phil Spector in the 1960s). But for its One Earth Tour 2015: Mystery appearances, Kodo — whose name means “heartbeat,” specifically the sound and feeling of a mother’s heartbeat on her child in the womb — has morphed from mostly loin-clothed men rhythmically attacking their instruments to a sharper focus on Kabuki-inspired visuals and theatrical performances.
For this tour, Kodo brought on artistic director and Kabuki star Tamasaburo Bando, who was recently declared a Living National Treasure in Japan and is one the country’s best-known onnagata, an actor specializing in female roles. With starry-night-sky set decorations, glowing lanterns, dream-like costumes, and, of course, the thunderous dynamics of the drums, Bando and company explore the beauty and charm of worshiping myriad gods and revering nature, things that have been tradition in Japan since ancient times. The performance, somehow both primal and evolved, unfolds like a book of short stories where scenes are flipped through until the final climax.
“In the folk arts that have been handed down across Japan, there’s sacredness, an air of mystery within prayers,” said Bando. “The drums express this, and I’d like for the audience to feel it. I like people to enjoy darkness — the beauty of something you come across lit by candlelight, a sense of something vague yet marvelous.”
Yuta Sumiyoshi, one of Kodo’s 29 performers, admitted Mystery is a departure from the 40-year-old group’s typical approach, but he said that’s a good thing. “First-timers would say, ‘This is a refined, comfortable production,’” he explained. “[But] our fans that have followed Kodo for years would often tell us, ‘Kodo has changed.’” That change, he said, is progress.
Performer Eri Uchida is also excited about the ensemble’s new direction. Until now, she said, they created productions from a taiko player’s point of view. Bando’s new vision is developed from a viewer’s perspective, “which I think allows an even wider audience to enjoy our performances,” she said. With taiko’s roots in feudal warfare and Kodo’s big, tough-guy splash on the American scene in 1975 — when its members ran the Boston marathon then performed at the finish line — this year’s tour is progressive on another front.
Female performers play a big role in Mystery, Uchida said. “Many of our scenes are comical, so I think the audience will enjoy some light relief when we appear onstage. While we play taiko as much as the male performers do, the roles are completely distinct.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Kodo in One Earth Tour 2015: Mystery at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Wednesday, February 4, at 7 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.