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Za Ondekoza: Japan's Demon Drummers

At the Capitol Center for the Arts, Concord, NH, November 9th, 1997

By Angel

The Company:
Tagayasu Den - Director
Shigeru Yamamoto - Taiko, running
Ryohei "Un" Inoue - Taiko, shamisen
Akio Nakashima - Taiko
Marco Lienhard - Taiko, shakuhachi
Yoko Yokoyama
Taizo Shinoda
Yasuko Takakubo - Taiko-drums, flute, dance
Ringtaro Tateishi - Taiko, shakuhachi, fue
Kohei "A" Inoue - Taiko, shamisen, fue
Kelvin Underwood - Taiko
Akira Yamaguchi - Taiko
Special Guests:
Mami Kawaguchi Koto
Cao Xue Jing
Su Yuhong
Kinuko Hirano

"Drum-Struck" by Ondekoza

Ondekoza, performing for a full house of 1300 at the lovely and newly renovated Capitol Centor for the Arts in Concord, NH, November 9th, was truly a marvelous experience from start to finish! The Taiko (meaning the art of Japanese drumming or "big drum") reverberated within me and through everyone around me, moving us all to a place most of us had never been. It opened our eyes to the music of Japan. This was not traditional Western patterns of music, but something very different.

This extremely loud performance was also incredibly spiritually moving. The performers were so concentrated.. not ever looking at the drums but straight ahead, possibly meditating as they shared their souls with us.

They received three very well earned standing ovations, the first before the show was over, the second one which was taken by the performers and redirected into an audience participation rhythm. Next with the audience still standing, they moved into the presentation of their names painted in sumi ink on scrolls in calligraphy- printed in one side in Japanese and the other in English. The audience continued to cheer, so after this they did an encore which seemed even more inspired and improvised and which I think was the best piece of the whole show. This was followed by the third standing ovation. I thought they could be moved to another encore but to my utter dismay some people started filtering out before the house lights came back on and another was not to be. Perhaps some people can't handle that much energy and power?

A-Un Shamisen was an interesting piece. The shamisen is not an instrument I care for, but definitely one which took virtuosity to make it sing. The twins, Ryohei "Un" and Kohei "A" each played their own shamisen and then one put his down and joined the other so that both were playing one shamisen at the same time. Next they had a little friendly contest trying to outdo one another with one playing a banjo and the other a violin, both with stunning expertise, and finally back to the shamisen to thrill us some more with its unusual Eastern sounds.

I believe Best Performances were given by Yasuko Takakubo and Kelvin Underwood. It is inspiring to see a Japanese female achieve status such as this. In Japanese society women are still second class citizens and Taiko drumming at all is not traditionally something a woman would be allowed to do. Kelvin is an African American man from North Carolina who has clearly come great leaps and bounds to become a member of Ondekoza, also, as he is not even Japanese. Both Yasuko and Kelvin are such incredible virtuosos that is clear they earned this status and are not in any way "token" minorities.

Yasuko plays center/leader of the piece called Ondeko-Bayashi in which "six male drummers surround a drum in the centre and "cheer" until their rhythms eventually converge....The six drummers unite with the central performer who is to lead them into blending into one soul. The piece is played on small drums, or shimedaiko, weighing only twenty-five pounds." (quoted from the programme notes). At some points during this performance, the sounds were light like the pitter-patter of a light rain, rising to a thunder so loud and fast and beautiful. Their drumsticks were literally a blur with Yasuko's seeming to go the fastest and completely filled me with awe. Yasuko also drummed on the larger Taiko and danced elegantly and played the flute.

Kelvin is most adept at the Taiko drumming. He played in nearly every piece that involved the large drums and he is also one of two performers who play the Odaiko. Odaiko is a huge drum which weighs upwards of 700 pounds and has a diameter of four to five feet across. Drumsticks about the size of baseball bats are used to drum the demons out. While all the drummers were extremely talented at this very physically demanding music, Kelvin had a stronger power and fervor to his presentation that made a strong impression.

I was most impressed with the wonderfully authentic Japanese set. The huge Odaiko was mounted on a lovely raised set which had a scroll painting of horses hanging off one end. When the drums were pounding, the horses appeared to be galloping. At one point there was some difficulty with the back set piece painting of Mt. Fuji and it seemed about to fall from one corner. They managed to get it under control by the next piece, however.

Their minimal outfits of blue kimonos, blue pants and white headbands which they later stripped down to the typical loincloth sort of outfit were very appropriate. By the time they stripped down the audience was understanding of the cultural differences enough to be accepting or at least tolerant.. Every one of the Ondekoza performers is in top physical form, probably due in combination to the demanding performance as well as their long-distance running which is part of their regular routine. Ondekoza is known for their three year (1990-1993) tour of the U.S. on foot which consisted of running the perimeter of the continental U.S., a voyage of 9,500 miles and 355 concerts.

I found it most interesting that the program didn't give bios on the performers but instead described about the pieces they were performing and the instruments that were used, including the shakuhachi, the koto, the shamisen, and the huge odaiko drums. I did find the bios on their webpage and discovered that most of the performers have been members of Ondekoza for nine years or longer.

I was inspired enough by the show to purchase the CD, but it doesn't do the music justice at all, nor would watching it on TV I suspect. There is nothing compared to the live show with the sounds and power building and building. You can't turn it down and you can't turn it off- unless you leave, but why would you want to? You're a part of a magical wonderful experience. The power surrounds you and draws you in. It's like being inside a thunderstorm. You feel it all around you reverberating and bouncing against the walls. You see the incredible concentration on the faces in the bodies of the performers and you can feeling the energy and the empowerment, the entire audience silent in total amazement at the thunderous performance. We were entirely "drum-struck" by Ondekoza, and Wow! I loved it!

Angel (

Angel is a theater reviewer for Sceneplay Website, where this review first appeared. Used with permission.

copyright 1997 by "Angel", used by permission.

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