Earth Celebration '96 Experience

by Peter Hacke

Kodo's music festival, known as Earth Celebration, is a week long series of workshops concerts and other attractions which takes place every August. This past summer, I went to Sado island for the whole week to live the Earth Celebration experience to its maximum potential; well, almost. As a taiko player myself, I gravitated towards the taiko related activities and performances and skipped most of the rest. It is with the taiko enthusiast in mind that I concentrate on three points in the following text. The following includes reviews of the shows - especially those of Kodo; the workshops, especially "Kodo Juku Special" in which I participated; finally, some details of the Kodo apprentice program for the initiation of new members, and some observations and opinion about the "Kodo Way". While I hope this text is useful to those who may want to participate in a future Earth Celebration or simply curious about what goes on, there isn't much here in terms of practical directions (how to get to Sado, facilities, prices, the weather). One can get such information and questions answered through Kodo.

The Shows

Kodo gave two full performances, one to open the festival on Tuesday, August 19 taking place on the Noh Stage in Hamochi, the second was the festival finale at Shiroyama Park in the town of Ogi on the 25.

The Noh stage of Kusakari shrine in Hamochi village located not too far from Ogi was the site of Kodo's opening performance. Spectators sat on the grass and straw mats outdoors around the stage. Atmospheric lighting was accomplished with wood burning fires. The number of spectators was limited so it was possible for most to sit very close to the stage. The performance might best be visualized as "Kodo live - unplugged" Starting out with performers seated, variations on pieces usually reserved for the encore, Akabana and Irodori with embellished roles for the yoko fue could be heard. Many Kodo standards adapted for the smaller Noh stage followed including a superbly performed Chonlima, Sankan shion, the fan and sword dance Kenbai, and Miyake. The big hira-daiko (the one that is sometimes played with the baseball bat) was not put on stage, but on the ground next to it. It was put on its side for Mr. Fujimoto's Odaiko solo which was unaccompanied on the back of the drum.

The smaller audience and the intimate atmosphere of the shrine provided an enjoyable ambiance. I have seen Kodo in the nosebleed seats in the balcony of large auditoriums and thinking somehow I missed something. This time, sitting close to the stage, close to sweat and the pounding was everything that I could ask from a Kodo concert. Of all the times I have seen Kodo, I enjoyed this one the most.

There were three other evening concerts. Friday night was Irish Music with Donal Lunny, Sharon Shannon, Nollaig Casey, Davy Spillane. I did not attend but I heard it was quite good; however, it rained during the show and spectators got wet. It ended with Irodori assisted by some Kodo members. Saturday night was Dance Hall Night with musicians such as Kazumi WATENABE and others (including Kodo members). I inquired about the show to numerous people. Most people I asked forwarded fairly negative opinions about it. One analysis was as follow: "Too many musicians playing thickly layered sounds, who knows what, too loud, and very tiring. Some Japanese spectators were close to the stage bopping too the music whereas the non Japanese were generally standing around the side of the room looking around and wondering 'what is this'?.."

The Final concert was Kodo. This performance was somewhat different from your typical Kodo concert. Generally speaking, Kodo's final concert of the Earth Celebration is more carnival like than the typical noh-like stoic Kodo display, and things are arranged a little differently. At the beginning of the play list was the Odaiko piece, the front man this time was Motohiro MITOME. As far as I could tell, it had all the key moves of the Kodo standard Odaiko solo that I can remember since Fujimoto performance circa 1992. He seemed to me to play masterfully, with confidence, and tirelessly. A piece that I was very happy to see which is not played very much anymore is Lion, which they did a portion (trivia: Mr. Saito and colleagues sewed up their own costumes). Yatai was performed by drummers on a rolling platform which was being dragged around the stage to whistle plowing and a policeman's lantern flashlight commanding the direction. There were some sequences in the performance which seemed out of place. For example, at one point about a eight members came on stage dressed in various costumes like beach wear, silly outfits reminiscence of Japanese TV baka bangumi (stupid programs). There was a small segment in the samba style which didn't seem to me to quite fit right. Mr. Fujimoto didn't grace the Yatai platform, but we were not to miss his head gyrating yatai performance as they dragged out a drum to proscenium so that he could do a round of Yatai solo at the end. The performance was standard length including Miyake, dance by Chieko KOJIMA, finalized with what seemed like a short version of Zoku. We actually got two encores out of them; first was a sit down version of Akebana a la tropical island paradise done with a variety international instruments including Kalimba and rain stick. The second was a slightly shortened Irodori.

The Kodo Juku Special And Other Workshops

The Tuesday night concert on the noh stage of Kusakari shrine (described above) was included in the 40000 yen fee of the Kodo Juku Special. After the show, we were brought by a chartered mini van to Iwakubi middle school - the recently converted school bought by Kodo as the training center for their apprentice program. Application for the Juku involves simply sending in a postcard with your basic personal data including age, sex, occupation. However, as there are more applicants than spots, there is drawing for selection - but the organizers to try maintain a certain distribution of participants. There were ten women and ten men ranging from high school age on up. Most were in their twenties.

The English portion of the Earth Celebration pamphlet doesn't say much about the content of the Juku; one might imagine that as a "Juku" it is an intensive taiko course. That is not case. The Japanese description says roughly: "For expression of the body as theme through jogging and stretching, and slowly going to the drums. With differences in each persons physique in mind, we aim at drumming for feeling good. In the middle of the nature of Sado, all kinds of people come together for playing learning, and physical activity."

Thus, it is important that Juku be approached from the perspective of a having a fun time rather than to learn the taiko drumming style. Going with the intention of picking up tips on improving your Yatai Bayashi will definitely be a disappointment.

Lodging, meals, and practice all take place at Iwakubi chugakkou - literally translated to Rock Neck Middle School. The number of grade school children in rural areas such as Sado has fallen off dramatically as people move to the cities in search of high paying jobs, and the consolidation of school districts has left this school building for Kodo to take over for use in their apprentice program and Juku. It is a nice old wooden building in a very pleasant location. The men and women are separated into two large rooms for sleeping.

The staff the of the Kodo Juku Special was made up of Kodo players, Kodo staff and volunteers. The head of the program and main instructor was is the dynamic Kodo player Eichi SAITO. As far as the Kodo Juku experience goes, Mr. Saito is the key man, the spiritual center. He was assisted in the practice sessions by player Takeshi ARAI and in the kitchen and other domestic affairs by the new female player Aya ONIZAWA (gotta love that name: Demon Swamp) There were a number of other Kodo staff members helping in various ways. These staff members included people who work with the training apprentices and those in the Kodo administration.

Good meals were prepared by staff and volunteers. The volunteers being people who participated in the Juku previously that kept in touch with the staff and perhaps developed a reputation for being good cooks. They came back as helpers. Breakfasts were generally western in style while lunches dinner were a mixed bag, but there was always plentiful variety of very good food.

With exception for the first and last day, the morning started with wake up at 6:00, some morning calisthenics, a very pleasant walk down the hill from the school to the coast followed a run back up the hill at your own pace - most people gave it their best, and it was generally fun. Then came breakfast, then chores- with members separated in teams of five. Some of these chores like wiping the floor are typical of what Japanese grade school children do.

The AM practice session begins at 9:00. Every session begins with some serious stretching. On the first day, the stretching last almost two hours. Mr. Saito describes the stretching routine, and at first it seems kind of long, but in subsequent sessions, he no longer needs to describe it and it proceeds much faster. The stretching has some yoga in it, and it becomes quite relaxing. I felt it nice to give attention to and feel my own body.

Okedo-daiko are used - those that are strung up with cord and placed on a stand so they are upright. On the first day we learned how to string up the heads - having had never done that at the time, it was very interesting for me.

Instruction on drumming style lasted about two minutes - how to hold the bachi, and the general arm motion. The theme that was impressed upon us was "akatuki wo omou" roughly translated as "think passion - think energy" for the goal of having fun with taiko. The participants were in a semicircle. There are number of drumming activities and a few other activities that take place:

1) Practice entering into an already playing piece, accomplished by passing a simple rhythm (dokodoko) around the room, where sequentially each person begins playing four beats after the person next to them until everyone around was beating out dokodoko.

2) Practicing slightly more involved rhythms around the room on top of the dokodoko basic rhythm, as above.

3) Memorization playback - kind of like the game simon says: Mr. Saito sequentially developing a rhythm which gets longer and longer, which everyone plays back at each step of its development.

4) An introduction to the concept of memorization of rhythms using mnemonics: potato chips (=dokodon), (cocacola=dokodoko, I think); he told us that Kodo sometimes uses these in their pieces to memorize longer sequences (Takadanobaba: at train station in Tokyo= dokodondokdon, maybe) This activity was pretty tough for non-Japanese (i.e., me) because sometimes household Japanese words don't come as naturally, and English words like ice cream are broken down in Japanese as a-i-su-ku-ri-i mu which you need to know to assign proper rhythmic weight to each kana. Anyhow, an interesting concept.

5) Dance. Two lines facing one another - men and women separated by about 12 m. Each person was given an opportunity to lead a particular body motion as an example for others in their own line to follow, dancing up to the opposite line, then back again -anything goes. Perhaps the most memorable, which even got Mr. Saito favorably commenting, was one woman who danced in the classic genre of a bar stripper, finger high in the air and gyrating hips. Maybe you had to be there.

6) Perhaps the most important of the activities, was learning and playing three fragments of the Kodo piece, Toki no Koe, an Eichi SAITO original which is on a CD released in late '96. . A fun piece that is known as the Kodo Juku Song. Mr. Saito plays conductor, directing portions of the group to play certain segments of the piece, how load, and when.

Everyone who participated in the Kodo Juku had fun I think. Most people in the group had already done taiko before, and some people quite a bit. Regardless, there is enough variety to be fun for anyone.

There were three non-Japanese in the group of twenty participants when I was there. After the Juku, I got a consensus from the other two as to how important knowledge of Japanese language was. It might best be summed up as - you don't need Japanese abilities, but the more ability you have, the more fun you will have. Mr. Saito, although he speaks a few English phrases, doesn't really speak English. On the other hand, some participants of the Juku did happen to have some grasp of English.

Although the Kodo Juku Special is the grand-daddy of the programs during the weak of the Earth Celebration in that it is the longest and most involving (all meals and lodging are included and all together), there are a number of other programs that run concurrently. At the end of the programs, there is a big get-together at Shiroyama Park for all the groups to display what they have done. It was interesting to see what they did. Here is a summary of them:

"To be free through dance" Taught by Toru IWASITA, the participants of this program gave a performance of modern dance to the background sounds of Ryutaro KANEKO. The Dance started with everyone lying down, then some fidgeting, then some rolling around on stage, then after about ten minutes, some standing and falling again, then finally people waving around like willow trees in a gale - sometimes falling and rolling. I was pretty ambivalent about the performance. It looked like one could get something out of actually doing it; but what turned me off was the program instructor's style; he was dictating into the PA system what the participants should be feeling and doing at all times during the performance. It didn't look "free" as the name of the program implies. Again, it looked like the participants got something out of the experience, however.

The following programs were shorter, 1.5 days and 2 nights involved.

Bamboo Rock. This group made percussive bamboo instruments, some played like a xylophone, but primarily large bamboo tubes - one held in each hand - hit against a rock on the ground. Bamboo music is based in Southeast Asia and picked up by members of Kodo. It sounded good, but it seemed that they did not have quite enough time to get comfortable with their pieces for performance. The sheet music was put up on a big hand held billboard for the players to see during the performance, and sometimes sheet music was pasted to the back of the player in front. It seemed like a lot of fun. Because you have two or three tones (bamboo tubes) in your possession, there is strong interdependence between the players holding the other tones to produce a piece of music. Six Kodo members including Tetsuro NAITO and Motohiro MITOME (as I recall) taught the program. There were many more female participants than male. I recall waiting for the ferry home on Sunday night at the market area, a few girls of the program with their bamboo tubes were playing the piece they had learned - it was cool.

Brazilian Samba. This group lead by Ryo WATENABE also put together some of their instruments - mostly percussive. It seemed like a good introduction to Samba-style music. Considering the short time they had, I was impressed by the pieces they played. Mr. Watananbe seems like a very dynamic person; they were joined on stage by ex Kodo player Michiko CHIDA (maiden name).

Sado living and play. This program teaches some traditional skills and games of (but probably not unique to) Sado. For example, simple toys are made and the way of using them is learned; musical instruments are made of bamboo, a song or two is learned, and I think they made some straw slippers, or things like that. This program is lead by a few women Kodo performers and staff members (including Chieko KOJIMA) and Ogi inhabitants. It looked like a nice, fun, relaxed country style program.

Ogi Okesa folk dance. First the Ogi teachers of the program gave a little performance - these were people of all ages and very enjoyable to watch, then the participants of the program showed the dance they had learned, then, most everyone in Shiroyama Park joined in to dance in a big was nice. And that marked the end of the gathering of the workshop participants.

There are several two hour hands-on taiko workshops given by Mr. Fujimoto during the festival as well. People may freely watch it in progress, so I went to see one of the sessions. Mr. Fujimoto taught a piece in the Hachijo form during this Earth Celebration, but judging from pictures of previous years, that changes. There were people of all levels participating. I had a neutral impression of this workshop. It is a very good opportunity to try taiko in a group for the first time, I thought; but being so short, it lacked the group spirit and fun socializing with other participants and Kodo people. Perhaps it is good for those who cannot participate in taiko elsewhere, and feel a desire to try it out on Sado. There were also short African dance workshops with Aja Addy of Ghana, but I did not see them. Aja Addy is a charismatic performer, however.

Finally, an important part of the Kodo Juku is that you can get a good feeling for what Kodo is about, what shall we call it...the Kodo way. Mr. Saito and the other staff members have meals and party with all the Juku participants, so it is a good time to talk and ask questions. This of course can be taken to extreme groupie behavior, as some do.

While Kodo enjoys star status, they maintain a unique relationship between their audiences. I got the feeling that Kodo is successful at maintaining something like an "extended family." Some volunteer during the Earth Celebration or at concerts. It works very well for both for Kodo and fans to have those that follow Kodo closely do something fulfilling and constructive for Kodo.

Apprentice Program, Kodo Staff, Kodo Way

For those that the Kodo spirit looks so appealing that they want to be come a part of it, to become a Kodo player, there is the apprentice program. A system of weeding out the strong from the weak in mind, spirit, strength. A program which has been extended from one, for those that survive, to two years. The following information about the program is hearsay from a number of sources.

Kodo's concert programs often announce the policy allowing anyone up to 25 years of age to try out for the apprentice program. Perhaps in sync with the tradition of the Kodo founders who lacked direction before they found the Kodo way, there are no school records nor prior musical experience necessary for application. Those that go to Sado in the middle of winter for the audition will undergo a day long examination, after which ten apprentices for the first year of the program are chosen.

Many of the activities in the audition apparently parallel what takes place at the Kodo Juku as written above, with the exception of item no. 6. The rate at which the activities are introduced is much faster in the audition. Additionally, there is an exercise which examines the ability to recognize a tone then reproduce it vocally, and a singing examination with a song in an African language. There is a written and/or oral questioning of each applicant to try to judge such things as reasons for wanting to join Kodo, general maturity level, and ability to get along with others.

The ten chosen ones are then invited to come to Iwakubi chugakkou for the one year program. Participants must pay a fee of 30,000 yen per month to cover the basic costs of their stay. It apparently was free at one time, but a fee was instituted in part to cover Kodo's losses should a trainee use the program as a course for their own purposes rather than to eventually join Kodo. The members get individual cubicle type rooms divided from a larger room, but without ceilings.

The staff of the facility didn't seem like musicians, but more military in style. A number of people in Kodo's staff have gone thought the apprentice program aiming to be a performer, but as with some staff members, the powers that be (probably the Kodo artistic director) chose a different destiny for these people. The duty of the apprentice trainers and staff includes that the table is set correctly, that the apprentices hold their chopsticks with their left hand (or-non dominant hand) and to enforce discipline and practice among the apprentices.

Wake up is before dawn, calisthenics are followed by a run (I forgot what the figure was; 10 km?), breakfast, practice, lunch, practice, dinner, bath, sleep. Incidently, the running is not required of Kodo players, only the apprentices are required to run as one of the rites of initiation, it appears.

Two pieces, Yatai Bayashi and Mikake, are the core rhythms that are done for the whole year. There is some singing practice, dance, tea ceremony as well. The rhythm of Miyake is just a 15 second sequence, whereas Yatai is more involved - a 2 minute chudaiko sequence with a three minute shime sequence. This is basically the drumming that goes on for a whole first year of the two year program. Tea ceremony training to develop attention to detail, as it is done in the authentic style and at the Kodo training center, involves sitting almost motionless is seiza style for around 30 minutes, after which blood circulation and feeling is cut off from your legs. You cannot stand afterwards, even if you want to. The apprentices also do chores like stuff envelopes for the Kodo mailings and assist in the Earth Celebration program. The year long program permits almost no vacation away from Sado. There is no positive feedback for apprentices, its nothing but "wrong, wrong, do it this way it that way."

Menus and food are prepared by the apprentices themselves and the quality is extremely variable. Young male apprentices, often just out of high school, have no cooking experience as the mother usually does all the cooking in the typical Japanese household. Thus, unlike what healthy gastronomic visions may be associated with the image of an Earth Celebration, items like hot dogs and ketchup spaghetti are on the Kodo apprentice plate.

The age limit to enter the apprentice program is 25. This is probably not because after 25 you cannot hope to play taiko well, but because of the structure of the Kodo society. As in many Japanese institutions, a strong senpai-kohai system exists. You obey your elders, speak politely in deference to them. The system does not work when putting an older person into an lowly apprentice position. As in Japanese society in general, in Kodo, you are limited in what you can and cannot do based on your age and sex.

As the members of Kodo changes, the performance evolves. It can evolve for better or for worst. Up to this point in time, I think that the Kodo performance was at its best around 1991-92 (I first saw Kodo in '92). For example, people who have been around the Taiko scene longer than I tell me that in those days, when Kodo played the most physically grueling piece, Miyake, there was a solo at every drum. Some of the very same members came out right afterwards for the next piece. In today's performance, there are usually just one or two solos done at the center drum.

Perhaps an issue in Kodo's evolution is the senpai - kohai relationship, and it is an issue that I see when watching Kodo players, staff, and Japanese social structure in general. A good kohai is one who fits the image that the senpai has for the kohai. Usually, the elder senpai has a pretty good idea that he thinks he knows best, and he relates this by giving instructions to the kohai. In this situation, the kohai has very little incentive to be creative, do things differently, or try for more than what the elder thinks is appropriate. This can lead to stagnation in creativity and spirit.

Although there was shamisen in the early part of this decade, there are presently a surprisingly large number of pieces in today's performance which deviate from what most people imagine Kodo to be: masters of taiko. There are pieces like the hat-with-veil dance performed by Chieko KOJIMA, Ryutaro KANEKO's Jang Gwara with the chapa, the sit-down version of Akebana-a-la-tropical island paradise. There are also some fairly coolly received segments based on Brazilian rhythms I saw at Kodo's earth celebration final concert. There are also the Kodo rain stick segments. Each of these certainly have their musical or performance value, but look at it this way - can you imagine a whole Kodo concert of nothing but chapa games, Kalimba pieces, and hat-dances? One long time Taiko player and Kodo fan stated to me that he felt cheated after seeing a concert this year loaded with quite a bit of that, added to the fact that the total performance time of a Kodo concert is not particularly long either.

Kodo is rather amazing success for an evolving group of musicians, performers, and staff going on for about 15 years. Kodo is about 38 people, 18 or so of them performers. That is not such an easy thing to accomplish. It is amazing that a group of only about 14 members or so touring at a particular time can provide the public frontage for such a large member of support personnel which do teaching, practicing, marketing, tour managing. More so than most other touring groups, the Kodo personnel do most of the work themselves. Some staff activities are profit centers in themselves - tour paraphernalia, taiko retailing (Otodaiku), and the Earth celebration workshops, for example. Also, Kodo maintains a domestic fan club. One year membership carries a 10,000 yen price tag (US$85), for which one receives a monthly newsletter keeping members up to date on the happenings of Kodo and some fan privileges such as early opportunities to buy tickets.

Certainly, the organization of Kodo, the style of management has been very successful for Kodo. A number of people who participated in my group of Kodo Juku program were very attracted to the lifestyle. It is not unusual for urban dwelling participants in the Kodo Juku program to audition for the apprentice program, or become groupie-volunteers hoping to find a role in the staff for themselves in Sado paradise. Of all of Kodo staff, there is only one Sado-native.

As far as non-Japanese in Kodo, I read about one half-Japanese, American born person by the name of Bob Ward who went through the apprentice program but was not selected to be a performer. Instead, he did go on to do tour management for Kodo in the late 80's. A number of other non-Japanese (or non 100% Japanese Nikei) have tried to become Kodo players, but to my knowledge, none have ever been selected. I have read and heard of some Kodo people saying that foreigners, including Japanese raised abroad are generally too stiff in their playing and somehow move differently than Japanese. On the other hand, Kodo continues to occasionally accept non-Japanese into their apprentice program. The fact that they are willing to invest places in their apprentice program for these non-Japanese indicates that there may be some receptiveness to the possibility of non-Japanese in Kodo; whether it be the Kodo stage is not clear.

When I was at the Earth Celebration, I met an American who was contemplating auditioning for the apprentice program. We did quite a bit of talking, sharing what we had knew about Kodo. From my perspective, auditioning for Kodo didn't seem like the right thing for him to do.


Should you go to the Earth Celebration? I recommend it, if you have the time and money. Should you try to participate in a workshop? Yes, but command of Japanese Language will make it a lot more interesting. Should you try to become a Kodo player? As a non-Japanese, probably not.

This review was written for posting on Rolling Thunder and is copyright by Peter Hacke. Mr. Hacke is currently living in Tsukuba-shi, Ibaraki- Ken, Japan, and plays with the amateur taiko group "Tsukudon." Rolling Thunder accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of the information contained here, in fact, neither does the author. This text may be distributed freely only in its entirety (including this paragraph). Any corrections, additional information, or comments are welcome; send to

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