The Japanese Kodo Drummers

As a huge fan of the Kodo drum group, one of whose signature rhythms, Heartbeat, is used as a basis for one of the Talking Drums energisers, it was a real privilege to have a chance to interview their artistic director, Jim Akimoto, on one of their visits to the UK a few years ago.


The UK was recently treated to another visit by Japan’s most dynamic cultural export, the Kodo drummers. Performing a new show at the Festival Hall, audiences were treated to some of the most energetic, dynamic, skilled and downright thunderous drumming ever witnessed. Using an array of traditional Japanese taiko drums the fourteen members of the group play a range of pieces that are as stunning visually as they are aurally.

Formed in 1981, the founding members of the Kodo group located on Sado island in the sea of Japan where they established a community that has grown and flourished in the ensuing years. They have their own academy which has a new intake of apprentices every year, and even have their own line in furniture made from sustainable local sources and a Cultural Foundation which supports the environmental preservation of Sado island and is involved in a host of community projects. The name Kodo is perfect for the group, as in Japan the word has two meanings – ‘heartbeat’ and ‘children of the drum.’

In the 38 years they have existed, Kodo have delivered over 3,100 performances in more than 45 countries, and annually host their own festival, the Earth Celebration. Rhythm caught up with Kodo artistic director and company manager Jun Akimoto after catching one of their UK dates.

Rhythm: The concert was amazing, and the concentration is intense – does having an audience add to the experience of playing together?

Jun Akimoto: “Yes, it does. We are always aware of the audience’s energy while performing. Like with many other performance arts, the performers generate energy and excitement which is absorbed by the audience. The audience then feeds it back to the performers and the whole cycle builds on itself.”

And do you enjoy playing to international audiences?

“One of the great joys of touring internationally as well as in Japan is the continuous diversity of performance venues. We consider ourselves fortunate to be able to play in so many places – the more the better!”

Are audiences different in certain parts of the world?

“There are definitely different reactions around the world. Americans and Europeans tend to be more overt in their enthusiasm while Japanese audiences are more subdued. But one of the most amazing things about the taiko is that it seems to transcend all borders and be instantly accessible to people all over the world.”

The art form is so physical – apart from drumming, how do the performers train and keep fit?

“While apprentices have a regimented training program, Kodo performing members are treated as professionals and training programs are left up to the individual. The group has a history of running, and the apprentices run 10 km every morning at 4:50 am. Some performers continue to run once they graduate to the stage, but it is not mandatory. Otherwise, cycling, swimming, lots of sit ups, you name it. Essentially they train as athletes would.”

What about food, do you have to eat a strict diet?

“Again, this varies with each member. While at home, all members eat at least one communal meal in the Kodo Village cooked by the members themselves on a meal-duty rotation. The group strives to keep all meals in the village as balanced as possible and using as much locally grown food as possible. Otherwise the group eats a pretty normal Japanese diet.”

Do members of Kodo follow a particular religion or spiritual path?

“Kodo is often thought to be a religious group, perhaps because the stage performance sometimes has a ceremony-like quality to it. But while taiko drumming finds its origins in Shinto ceremonies, Kodo is not affiliated with any particular religion and every member is free to practice his or her own spiritual beliefs.”

After applying, how does a person become a Kodo drummer? Are there auditions?

“There are auditions to become an apprentice, and the apprentice program is 2 years long. After that 2 years, between zero and three apprentices are invited to become probationary stage members, and after a minimum of one year as a “Junior Member,” these probationary members may be asked to join the group as permanent members, to continue another year as probationary members, or let go.”

How do you go about learning new pieces of repertoire? Presumably the rhythms are learned before the choreographed moves?

“It depends on the kind of piece. Kodo has three types in our repertoire: Pieces based on folk performances from different regions in Japan, pieces written by outside composers, and pieces written by the members themselves.

In the first case, we try to invite instructors from whatever group or preservation society maintains the folk art in question. For example, the Kodo stage staple “Miyake” is based on a drumming style that developed on Miyake Island, and Kodo enjoys a long-standing relationship with the “Miyake-Jima Geino Doushi-Kai” who are the local authorities on the original playing style.

In the second case, we may have the composer come on board to give instruction on the piece and choreography.

And in the third case, the choreography is often created by the member who composed the piece, and evolves through discussion as the group practices together.”

The penultimate performance in most shows involves one or two members playing the massive o-daiko drum for a piece that is an unbelievable demonstration of power, stamina and passion. Is any member allowed to play this, or is there a hierarchy amongst the players, with junior performers playing smaller drums?

“There is not a hierarchy, but the o-daiko is definitely a special position. If a younger player wants to play the o-daiko, he would first ask his “senpai” (senior members) and perhaps begin practicing on his own. If the member then wished to perform the o-daiko on stage, this decision would have to be made as a group. Right now there are only three members who play the o-daiko: The most senior performing member Yoshikazu Fujimoto, next-generation player Tomohiro Mitome, and current artistic director (and youngest of the three) Mitsuru Ishizuka. As for the other drums, there are really no rules, but younger members essentially play what they are assigned before they get a chance to explore the instrument of their choice.”

How important are community projects, workshops and the work of The Cultural Foundation to the group?

“Very important. Kodo has never been just a performance group. The group is also dedicated to the local community of Sado and to spreading the joy of taiko around the world. Kodo runs the Sado City-maintained “Sado Taiko Center” which offers workshops to hundreds of participants every year. The Kodo Cultural Foundation also hosts “Earth Celebration,” Kodo’s annual music festival on Sado Island.”

Are there many injuries that occur whilst playing the drums? Do you have understudies or substitutes when on tour?

“Injuries are infrequent, unless you consider blisters injuries. The are often Junior Members on tours, but their roles are decided beforehand as opposed to being treated as subs. There are no members who tour as subs, but in the rare case that someone is injured and can’t perform his or her role, the artistic director and stage manager work together to restructure the cast accordingly.”

Finally, and this may be hard to answer, but the power that you create when performing is at times overwhelming for the audience – how does it feel to you when you are all playing together.

“Traditionally taiko involves playing as an ensemble, so playing together as a single unit is an important piece of the art. In the end, when we are all playing together in harmony and we feel the joy and power of the taiko flowing through us, it’s quite wonderful, but actually difficult to describe.”


The Drums

The drums used by Kodo are a mix of traditional Japanese taiko drums. The term “taiko” literally means “fat drum”, quite appropriate given that the largest Odaiko drum, which is predominantly used as a solo instrument, has a head that measures about 180 centimetres in diameter. In the ensemble pieces different sized drums have distinct roles; the bigger drums create a pulse, the smaller shallow shime daikos play a consistent rhythm backing track, known as the Ji, and the barrel shaped nagado drums produce riffs and rhythms to create dynamics and drive the pieces along.

UK Taiko

There has been a growing interest in taiko and a number of groups have emerged in the UK since the 1990s. One of the best known, Mugenkyo, have been going for over 20 years. Kagemusha Taiko, based in Exeter and run by Jonathan Kirby, put on an annual Taiko festival. Both groups have a strong educational ethos, training teachers and holding workshops as well as performing around the UK and abroad. And Tamashii Taiko run workshops and have an all girl taiko group lead by Liz Walters.