Earth Celebration 97 Review

By Dan Frio

The old man onstage leapt about with the vigor of men years his junior, like those drumming behind him, watching his cues. The men were his sons from several wives back in Senegal said one rumor. And indeed when someone slacked off the beat, he shot back the angry glance of an exasperated father. He busied himself far more, however, with dance and drum, hypnotizing the audience with the rhythms of his youth, his manhood, his death.

Perhaps Doudou N'diaye had not fathered all the drummers but was simply a rigorous bandleader, a Senegalese James Brown were he a master drummer. The demands paid off; these men were as precise as the best marching band yet grooved like a hundred well-worn soul albums. This was music for both dancing and stroking your chin deep in thought. For a moment you felt like an onlooker at an African festival when, torn from your reverie by surrounding applause, you realize this is Japan.

This is Earth Celebration, an annual gathering of musicians and music lovers on Sado Island in northern Japan. Hosted by KODO, the festival turned ten this summer and to commemorate, they invited crowd pleasers from past years, including musicians from Ireland, Indonesia, Senegal and the Caribbean.

Since their 1981 debut, KODO have played on every continent and met the world's music makers along the way. Earth Celebration began as a way to host these performers in the lush environs of KODO's Sado home and has since grown into an extended weekend of workshops, fringe events and memorable concerts. Appearances by American jazz great Elvin Jones, the Drummers of Burundi, African master Babatunde Olatunji and several European, African and Asian dance and drum ensembles have highlighted past festivals. With it's mix of jazz festival appreciation and weekend reggae party goodwill, Earth Celebration is possibly Asia's hippest summer musical happening.

Irish musician / producer Donal Lunny and the Renegades Steel Drum Orchestra from Trinidad and Tobago began this year's festival with performances steeped in groove. Few sat during their shows and all agreed on the brilliance and mastery of both artists. Following the Renegades proved tough for pianist Yosuke Yamashita, guitarist Kazumi Watanabe and former KODO drummer Leonard Eto, though. Their set met with mixed opinion; many were lost by the trio's avant-jazz explorations while others thought it bold and engaging.

Saturday evening unwound to the lilting island melodies of Suar Agung, a bamboo xylophone ensemble from Bali, Indonesia. Perhaps too relaxed, the audience's attention strayed until members of KODO joined for a few numbers and set the stage for the Doudou N'diaye Percussion Orchestra.

Confident and comfortable in loose outfits with shoulder-slung drums, the Senegalese drummers wound through nearly an hour of mesmerizing rhythms using only a thin, balsa-like stick and a hand. Sprinkled with acapella singing, their sound both soothed and disturbed. These rhythms, rumbles of both tranquility and war, penetrated the mind and the gut. "Fierce," said a fellow writer. An amazing performance.

Sunday's finale featured short sets from KODO and Ghanian percussionist Aja Addy and encores from Suar Agung and the Doudou N'diaye Rose Percussion Orchestra. Yamashita also had a solo spot before a duet with KODO, highlighted by a haunting dance / drum piece and Ravel's "Bolero." The pianist's dissonant and distracting contributions to the traditional "O-daiko," however, should have stayed in the rehearsal room.

A jam with all and sundry capped the festivities as Japanese and Senegalese traded drums over Suar Agung's rhythm, Balinese ladies danced in amusement to Doudou N'diaye Rose's lusting face and the crowd demanded two encores before agreeing that, yes, it was a brilliant festival as usual.

Nothing less is expected of KODO and their ability to deliver time and again (despite the brevity of their performances) speaks greatly of their professional integrity. Like great entertainers everywhere, time and money spent to see KODO is never wasted. Behind the music and show, though, is a group of individuals largely responsible for taiko's growing popularity at home and abroad.

An unofficial 2,500 people came to Earth Celebration '97. Visitors included a Hawaiian taiko group, members of San Jose Taiko, and a large contingent of non-Japanese folks living in Japan. KODO's popular taiko workshops sold out slightly less than instantly. With over 4,000 taiko groups in Japan and increasing numbers in North America and Europe, people are exploring Japanese drumming with an unmatched zeal.

KODO bear some responsibility along with the talented group from which they split years ago, Ondekoza. More so than Ondekoza, though, KODO have brought the taiko to hundreds of concert halls, thousands of stereos and millions of people through tireless touring. KODO spend about eight months a year performing in Japan and overseas.

Many taiko groups find inspiration in KODO's sound, described by artistic director Motofumi Yamaguchi as "straightforward, simple, clean and pure, without decoration." Groups may be too inspired, though, as one KODO staff member mentioned at a recent Los Angeles taiko conference. Yamaguchi is both flattered and concerned about "KODO clones."

"Copying KODO is okay to start with but groups have to take the next step," he said. "It's not enough to just copy KODO. Groups should use and tap the influence of their own culture."

Important as it is for groups to chisel out distinct identities, so too is it important for KODO to experiment and resist stagnation. Their current goal is to develop their music, and their lives, around the drum.

"When we started, there was no example for KODO to follow," said Motofumi Yamaguchi, KODO's artistic director. "Every step is a new step. We want to create a different style, a different lifestyle. It's not just about drums."

Earth Celebration moves to May next year, in part to allow KODO time for a European summer tour and also to stem the popularity of the event, strange as it may seem. One needed only to see the accumulated trash around bins in Ogi, the small port city which serves as Earth Celebration headquarters, to realize that perhaps the event is outgrowing the city's capacity to handle it.

Whatever the future holds for Earth Celebration, KODO and the taiko, it's not likely to be boring.

"I'm looking forward to new groups creating new styles," Yamaguchi said. "I'm sure the next 10 years will be an exciting time for taiko."

Special thanks to KODO staff member Johnny Wales for translation.

Copyright 1997 by Dan Frio, used by permission.

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