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Kodo: Head Beats and Heart Beats

How does Japanese music express cultural values that transcend borders?

September 14, 2002

How does Japanese music express cultural values that transcend borders?

In a world besieged by the rhythms of European and U.S. pop, the intensity and purity of the Japanese drum ensemble Kodo is startling. The two Japanese characters that comprise the name of the group represent the words “drum” and “child.” It is a word that evokes the balance between simplicity and power in their music.

Creating a spectacle is an essential part of Kodo’s musical magic. Playing the drum is an intensely physical act — and the ensemble turns this act into theater.

Adding to the theatrical element of their presentation is Kodo’s appearance. The band performs in stark and traditional Japanese dress. Thus, the traditions of the instruments that Kodo uses — drum, cymbals, pipes and voice — also become visual.

Yet, on Mondo Head — their new collaboration with Mickey Hart — Kodo has taken many steps beyond their previous reliance on tradition.

They have become true world travelers — combining their own skills with those of musicians from the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Mondo Head literally means “World Head.” On the album, Kodo and Mr. Hart link vastly different musical styles together in much the same way that varying thoughts link together — through intuition and perception.

But there is also a “heart” to the music of Mondo Head. After all, the search for unity through rhythm resembles a heartbeat more than a thought.

The result of this exploration of global rhythm is astonishing and provocative. Imagine weaving the blues harmonica of U.S. musician Charlie Musselwhite and the tabla of Indian artist Zakir Hussain into Kodo’s rhythms. The song “Echo Bells” does precisely this, creating what Mickey Hart calls “a gentle lullabye” that calls no single nation “home.”

Though “Echo Bells,” the ninth track on the new CD — has the most unusual combination of musical influences, all of the songs on Mondo Head find Kodo in new and unexplored waters.

The song “Okresa Prayer” mixes the holy sounds of Tibet (through the Gyuto Tantric Choir) and the cries of the Turkish bazaar and the minaret — through the voice of acclaimed Turkish musician Arto Tuncboyaciyan.

Some of the connections on Mondo Head are more straightforward. For instance, on the song “Maracatu,” Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira finds connections between samba and the Japanese drum. The song “Oya and Ogun” takes already well-established links between African music and Cuban music and stretches them all the way to Asia.

How exactly does Kodo succeed in adapting its distinctly Japanese music to encompass the sounds and rhythms of other cultures?

In the liner notes to Mondo Head, Mickey Hart uses the metaphor of tuning the “Shime Taiko” drum — used primarily to establish a base rhythm — to offer this explanation: “When we tune the Shime Taiko, we always have to team up to tighten the ropes. In tuning the Taiko our spirit and energy come together.”

Thus, the physical act of tuning a Japanese drum becomes a starting point for Kodo’s explorations in wider global sounds. It is a simple beginning, perhaps. But the destinations that are reached on Mondo Head are far from the Japanese port at which they begin.