Let me take you back, just for a moment, to the winter of 2001. The bubble economy has burst, the world is reeling from the events of September 11th, and perhaps most importantly a friend of mine gave me a CD for Hannukah.
It was a mix CD, which I’ve always liked as much as an official release. They’re one of the mainstays of pop culture. What better way to show appreciation for a friend than to introduce them to the music that holds some sort of sentimental value for you? Perhaps, the thinking goes, this friend will gain even further insights into my psyche.
Or maybe it’s just nice to get exposed to different tunes. In any event, this CD had on it one track from a Japanese taiko group called Kodo.
Ko-do. Simple name. Instant hookage. Once heard, I listened to it over and over and over again, and eventually burned a copy of Kodo – Tataku: Best of Kodo II. The song that hooked me was “Nanafushi,” a combination of energetic chanting and taiko drumming.
When I found out that Kodo hosted an annual festival on an out-of-the-way Japanese island called the Earth Celebration, I knew I had to go. So I went.
It was my first vacation alone in Japan. I had no idea what to expect. Would I need to use only Japanese to communicate? Would it be Yamanote-packed with people? Would I get to relax, or would I be stressed about language or people or some unforseen event ruin yet another vacation?
Fuck it, I told myself as I got on the bus. This is going to rock.
And it did, in a primal and crunchy-earthy and mellow kind of way. I took an overnight bus to Naoetsu and then a sparrow’s ass-crack of dawn ferry to Ogi, a small town at the southwestern tip of Sado.
Sado is shaped inconveniently like a slightly-angled ‘S’. Ogi, the town where the festivities would take place was due south from Sobama-hama, the beach where I was camping. The ferry got in at 9:30, and the next bus to Sobama-hama was at 12:30 or something equally unhelpful. So I started walking up the hill with all of no intention of actually walking over the steep terrain to the beach.
On small remote islands, hitchhiking is the way to go. It took all of 10 minutes for a passing SUV of French expats to give me a lift.
Once on the beach, I quickly determined that paying 6000 yen to camp on mosquito-infested grass above the beach was far lamer than pitching my tent on the sand and paying nothing. The tent was pitched, a quick game of Ultimate Frisbee on the sand and in the water was had, a sunburn was achieved despite the SPF 50 I was using and it was time to check out the town of Ogi.
Kodo had several side stages set up throughout the town, and these Fringe performances showcased relaxing yet upbeat performers. On that first day alone there were two taiko groups, both from Tokyo; one group from San Francisco that showcased African, Japanese and Middle Eastern rhythms; and Aiutao, a.k.a. Kazu, a.k.a. the Love-Song Man.
And then, the main act: Kodo. They performed in a park above the Kisaki Shrine where most of the Fringe performances were being held. Open to the fresh air, a clear night sky with Mars prominently twinkling just above the trees while a susurrus emanated from the crowd.
Kodo – or maybe it’s a Japanese aphorism, I don’t rightfully know – claims that the sound of the taiko drum is the sound of your mother’s heart when you’re in the womb. I can’t vouch for that. Heck, I have problems remember what I had for breakfast somedays, let alone a nine-month soundtrack from a quarter-century ago.
But the drumming is primal and taps into something… instinctual, maybe. Perhaps early hominids spent so many thousands of years listening to the pounding of the drum that it’s as much a part of our genetic coding as hair color or finger length.
Trying to describe the concert would be absurd. Go buy a Kodo CD.
However: there were a lot of drums. Some of these drums were bigger than a handful of people. There were men and women with sticks, and cymbals and flutes and there was much chanting and shouting: the voice is an instrument, too. The show lasted for two hours, and nobody walked away to the beach bonfires and the parties that night without being mightily impressed.
It’s an ancient human custom to take a stick and bash something with it; we’ve all seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, right? Now I hope I’m not being too bold by saying to take that and make music and art out of it is a defining moment in what humanity is about.
(This entry has been post-dated. Duh.)