Rock'n' Kodo Review

By David Leong

Kodo has released their newest video, Rock'n' Kodo, which has them rocking and rolling through some of their favorite taiko tunes. Backing Kodo is a group of rock musicians. While most of Kodo's North American audience may be surprised at the group staging such a colaboration, Kodo has a long history of interesting joint performances. Kodo has released several recordings of such performances: Kodo vs. Yosuke Yamashita, Live (Denon), which has Kodo playing with the famous jazz pianist; Monoprism (Sony), with the New Japan Philharmonic; and Gathering (Sony), where Kodo plays with Yamashita again, as well as a trumpeter and a gospel singer. They also have the opportunity to play with many artists from around the world when they stage their annual Earth Celebration on their home island of Sado.

While I find the previously mentioned collaberations to be a natural fit for Kodo's skill and musicallity, with Rock'n' Kodo the effect is more jarring. I found myself wishing I had heard the music by itself before I had seen the video, as my preconceived notions of of the group sometimes interfered with my enjoyment of the music. Seeing Kodo on stage in casual clothes, with disco lighting flashing all around the stage took a while to get used to. Especially in comparison with the quiet, subdued, yet powerful mood they set with their last US tour, this video is loud, flashy and rauctious.

However the video works well for freeing Kodo from their own style - a well constructed prison if there every was one. The normally precise form is loose to the point where some drummmers are hunched over their drums and look awkward and slightly grotesque. On the other hand, there is a interesting casualness that is lacking in most other Kodo concerts, and the performers look like they are having a tremendous amount of fun. It is also an interesting shift in perception to see a Kodo member wearing shades on stage.

Rockin' Kodo teams Kodo with drummer Kiyohiko Semba, who also produced the new video. Mr. Semba was brought up in the Kabuki tradition of drumming, but has gone on to work with musicians from all over the world. In this video he blends the power of Kodo's taiko drumming with a rock ensemble consisiting of two guitars, a singer (on selected songs), and Mr. Semba on drumkit, with mixed results. Some of the songs work well with the rock backing, others are interesting but less successful musically.

Zoku must be a favorite song for Kodo, as they have recorded it no less than three times on studio albums, with two variations being on Ibuki, their latest CD. But on this video version, the driving beat is lost beneath the howling guitars. The female vocalist also seems out of place with her low and fairly monotone voice adding a somewhat gloomy and funeareal feel to the normally jubulent feeling song. To be fair, her low voice is powerful and does cut through the tremendous sound being generated by the rock outfit and Kodo, but the vocals never seem to mesh with the music.

Some of the songs uses the unique combination on stage very well, and the driving pulse and odd meter of Nanafushi combine very satisfactorily with the guitars and drumset. To accomodate the added layers of complexity, Kodo has had to relegate some of their own playing into the background, but the huge beat of the song acts as a spring board for the band, and pulls the song together tightly. Both the rock group and Kodo really mesh on this track, and both groups get to rock out. I think that this song is the most successful blending of Kodo's music and the rock band on the video, and it is a tremendous amount of fun.

Jang-Gwara also works well with the the focus being on Kodo members with their flashing chappa. Textured guitars accompany the chappa, but the guitar players are hidden in darkness and add a swirling background for the bright sounds of the chappa to punctuate. This song is at once moody and intense.

Yatai bayashi (rock version) starts out traditionally, if you ignore the flashing lights and strobes. As Fujimoto-san starts his solo, the band launches into a wash of sound, reminiscent of older Pink Floyd. Just when you are starting to get used to the rock music, they cut out to allow Kodo to move into the shime passage of Yatai. I would have prefered to have the band continue to play; the stop and start feeling of the song leaves you feeling jerked around. Also, there is little feeling of collaberation with this song, as Kodo plays Yatai traditionally enough, with the rock band filling in spots here and there.

In keeping with the rock feel, the pacing of the video is faster, with quicker cuts than on previous Kodo videos, The lighting is also fast and frenetic. Overall the video has the feeling of something you might see on Music Television. The sound mix often seems to favor the guitars over the taiko, but overall, the sound quality is excellent, as we have come to expect from Sony records.

They mix some of their favorite elements in to some of the songs, for instance the shishi mai deer dance that I have seen performed by itself in Japan, and that has show up in the song Irodori, now makes an appearance in the song Orekama. The traditional costumes are gone, but the characteristic low stance of the dance almost has a hiphop flavor in this version.

However, one of the guest musicians seeem strangely static in comparison to the lively energy of the Kodo members and the rest of the band. One of the guitarists is shown always sitting hunched over his quitar, looking strangly placid, and his mellow demeanor cools the energy level of the whole song.

Kodo's continuing emphasis on experimentation and working with guest artists converge full force in this video. While Kodo purists may blanch at the thought of Kodo muddying their art, I applaude them for being willing to push taiko into new frontiers and being willing to take chances. If you can get past some of your preconcieved notions of what a Kodo concert should be, the there is some interesting music on this video. Some songs do not work as well as others, but it sets the stage for more collaberations of this nature to come. If Kodo can capitalize on the success of the rock versions of Nanafushi and Jang-Gwara, I wouldn't mind seeing Kodo rock out more in the future.

December, 1997

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