Royal Festival Hall, London - 6 June 2009

"An astonishing achievement"

Kodo: ekkyo trans-borderReviewing a Kodo drummers performance isn't like your average gig review. In fact, there's nothing average about this Japanese troupe at all. Can't quite remember when I saw Japan's Kodo drummers before but we're talking about a decade or more ago. I recalled having bought a T-shirt first time around and fished it out before the gig - only to conclude that its stretched, faded glory was now more suited to the physique of a sumo wrestler than my somewhat skinnier frame. It went back under the bed from whence it came.

Kodo is a collective of Japanese musicians living a monk-like existence on Sado Island. Their training has more in keeping with the pinnicle of marital arts and the physiques of their leading drummers are frankly astonishing. The cliche 'not an ounce of fat' is entitrely accurate here. The physical ability and stamina of the troupe is head-shakingly impressive. Whilst not all the musical roles demand the elite condition of the main drummers, nevertheless all demonstrate that uniquely Japanese Zen-like attention to detail and drilling. Kodo has wide appeal and tonight's sell-out audience at the now acoustically-improved Royal Festival Hall was testament to that diversity.

Admittedly, not to everyone's taste, but if a union of unsurpassed musical ability, physical fitness surpassing even that of Olympic athletes and a cultural lesson on the wonders of traditional Japan sounds appealing, and you've never sampled this lot live, then that's something you really need to rectify. A liking for percussion would be a good idea too, for although Kodo's reputation has been justifiably built around their astonishing prowess with a dazzling array of drums, ranging from small handheld items to the vast O-daiko drum that gets wheeled onto the stage on the back of a huge wooden float, there more these days to a Kodo gig than a barrage of loud drums (no matter how appealing that actually is to some of us!).

Musically, this latest performance, Ekkyo: Trans-border, is broader than the set I heard Kodo play some 15 or so years ago. The inclusion of elegant, gentle, colourful flute-playing Geisha provides some welcome respite from the potentially incessant drumming, and although the latter instrumentation is delivered in as myriad ways as is possible to squeeze into the 2 hour set, there's only so much textural variation the numerous drums can deliver. So, welcome those these relatively brief moments were, they inevitably only really act as interludes between those amazing drums and drummers that Kodo is some deservedly famous for across the globe.

The male performers are mainly dressed in very little, a sumo-like white cotton thong and matching headband being their trademark uniform. This is both practical, layers of kimono cloth don't lend themselves to ease of performance, especially when it entails the upper body hammering away on tense animal skins, and creates an iconic look which the Kodo marketing understandably focuses on. Images of these lithe, powerful young men standing poised (huge drumming sticks the size of baseball bats at the ready) atop lush green mountainsides on Kodo island are recreated on the open stage of the Royal Festival Hall. As they ready themselves, positioned motionless for what seems like minutes before pummelling out their incredible sound, just to be in the awkward position they are, holding the heavy wooden sticks, is in itself a remarkable physical achievement.

Their Zen-like training regime requiring years to get to the upper levels of the troupe are notorious for the physical and mental challenge they represent and it is indeed an elite few that are even capable of summoning such astonishing levels of commitment, dedication and musical achievement. With such an approach to performance there is always the risk that the music itself, and its ability to connect on an emotional level with the listener, is at risk of being at least overshadowed, if not obliterated. Whilst there will always be a nerdy hardcore who just want to see the massive drums being whacked by small, half naked Japanese men, Kodo haven't managed to earn the global reputation they have today by being so one-dimensional. (Though almost everyone will come away slack-jawed at the incredible sight of the one massive drum/two drummers finale.) This is a lesson in the variety to be found in the technical aspects of drumming as well as the tonal range but with the forays into a wider musical palette the appeal is as much to the heart as it is the intellect. Others have attempted to repeat the formula but they all come up short. There is only one Kodo and they come from the island of Sado and nowhere else. 8/10

Rob Dyer