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An interview with Kodo's 'sound maker'

An interview with Kodo's 'sound maker'

Off the western shores of Japan lies Sado Island, a land mass about the size of Martha’s Vineyard. About a third of the year, living among the island’s rocky cliffs and former gold mines, is one of the country’s greatest musical treasures: the internationally-acclaimed drum ensemble, Kodo.

Since their debut in 1981, Kodo has performed for over 6,000 audiences in 50 countries. And this Friday, February 22, the group will make its way to Rochester for a show at the Mayo Civic Center’s Presentation Hall.

Kodo’s shows are choreographed to take audiences on a journey through the limitless possibilities of the traditional Japanese drum, the taiko. In Japanese the word “Kodo” has two meanings: “heartbeat,” the primal source of all rhythm that the taiko is said to resemble; and, read in a different way, the word can mean “children of the drum,” a reflection of Kodo’s desire to play the drums simply, with the heart of a child.

Yuta Sumiyoshi is one of the primary composers of “Evolution,” the theme of their current world tour. Yuta started playing taiko in his second year of elementary school, and became a Kodo member in 2013. Despite being a newcomer, Yuta was selected for soloist positions from his very first tour. He is referred to by colleagues as Kodo’s “sound maker.”

Q: Take us behind the scenes of one of your performances. What does it take to put on such a dynamic show?

Yuta: We start by coming into the theater at 10 a.m. on performance day. We load-in and set up our own instruments, tuning the drums to our own desired sound. Then, our tech team works on lighting and focus, and we begin warming up and practicing on our own in the afternoon.

Since we don’t get as much practice time as we do when we’re at our home ground on Sado Island, this is a very precious time for us to work on improving our performance. From 3 p.m., we begin our rehearsal and sound check. Since we don’t use any sound system for our performances, PA checks are unnecessary, and we focus on adjusting the reverberations and tone ranges to each venue we visit, in search for the perfect sound.

You mention a “dynamic show,” but I think that dynamism isn’t just about making a loud sound. By carefully playing the small, quite sound on our instruments, we aim to maximize the volume range, making the bigger sounds even bigger, and the  delicate sounds more delicate.

Photo courtesy Kodo

Photo courtesy Kodo

Q: with performers and staff, there are at least 100 members involved with Kodō. Can you speak to the teamwork that goes into traveling and performing?

Yuta: We all work together for a common goal of making our audience members enjoy our performance. This is something we all keep in mind at all times, whether you are a performer or staff.

We put our utmost effort in aiming for this single goal through every performance, and I believe this leads to our fundamental teamwork within the company. We also make sure to always improve and strive for the better, by giving feedback to each other after every performance. Doing this helps us maintain a fresh feel, and drives our ambition.

Q: As a group, you perform for audiences all around the world. What role does music play in breaking down language and cultural barriers?

Yuta: The music we play, comes from a basic action of “hitting.”
I feel that this motion of “hitting” is something instinctive for a human being. Therefore, I believe that approaching this instinctive action, rather than approaching knowledge, experience, or memory, is something that helps us overcome language and cultural barriers, helping us in causing empathy within one another through our performance.

Q: With the Kodo Cultural Foundation, your goal is to share your passion for music with others. Can you talk about the work being done by the foundation?

Yuta: Kodo Cultural Foundation was established in 1997 in order to increase the range of activities Kodo could engage in on their home of Sado Island. Its primary mission is to carry out non-profit activities focused on social education and the notion of giving back to the local community.

Photo courtesy Kodo

Photo courtesy Kodo

The Foundation runs the Sado Island Taiko Centre (Tatakokan) located near Kodo village, to give taiko workshops to the general public, and creating a place to gather for the community. Exadon is one of the leading programs that is being developed by Kodo Cultural Foundation, which helps the wellness of the body and mind through playing taiko.

Kodo Cultural Foundation also works together with our U.S. non-profit organization, Kodo Arts Sphere America (KASA), which promotes intercultural exchange and communication through taiko around the world by holding workshops and gathering events.

Q: From what I read, Kodō Village on Sado Island sounds like an extraordinary place. Can you give me a sense of what it is like there? What inspiration do you get from being there?

Yuta: Sado is first of all, very rich in nature. The sun setting in the ocean, and the stars you see while lying on the beach is absolutely beautiful.

But being ‘rich’ in nature is not always pleasant either. The winters are grueling, and there are days where I don’t want to leave the house. Sado is such a place that makes us confront nature, even if it’s not all that glorious.
And this nature, is what nurtures us so greatly, far beyond humanity.

I often go see the sunset on my days off on Sado Island. Not necessarily to seek for inspirations of new music, but it helps clear my mind when I am troubled with any challenges. Resetting my mind like this and feeling neutral, lets me face music and taiko once again, to create new pieces and ideas.

You can watch Yuta and the rest of Kodo take the stage this Friday night at the Mayo Civic Center’s Presentation Hall. Tickets can be purchased online, by phone, or in-person at the Mayo Civic Center box office. More info available here.

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