Earth Celebration: Taiko drums and communal life on a remote Japanese island
In comfortable, convenient, modern Japan, there are some who are willing to drop everything for a communal life on a remote island where they will begin each day before 5 a.m. with a hard run, followed by hours of housework and drum practice.
The island, Sado Island, is best known for the kidnappings of Japanese citizens by North Korea. But for Yuichiro Funabashi, artistic director of this year’s mid-August Earth Celebration -- the Kodo drummers’ annual festival -- it's all about “being face to face with the drum.”
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Celebrating connections to the Earth
“I first became fascinated with taiko in college, and ended up devoting myself more to drumming than to my studies,” the 36-year-old originally from suburban Tokyo says in an interview at a hilltop stage before this evening’s concert. “Of all the taiko groups I saw, Kodo impressed me the most with their simplicity, and I decided to apply to their apprenticeship program.”
After two years of rigorous training, the soft-spoken Funabashi, whose unremarkable appearance belies his true strength, became one of a select few tapped to join the 26-strong troupe. His favorite drum is the massive, two-meter odaiko. “It presents the biggest test of the individual -- you can’t ‘lie’ to the big drum,” he explains. “The feeling of hitting it is indescribable.”
Given ancient taiko’s traditional place in religious festivals, it’s natural to use sacred language to describe the bond between Kodo and their drums. The fulfillment they get from playing the taiko becomes evident in the expressions of intense focus and bliss that fill their faces in the outdoor concerts that are the highlight of the three-day Earth Celebration.
Commune life on a distant island
Kodo formed 30 years ago as part of a postwar rediscovery of Japanese traditions that saw taiko emerge from temples and shrines onto the concert stage. Over the last three decades the company’s tightly choreographed displays of drumming prowess have traveled the world.
Since 1988 Kodo have invited musical guests and fans to journey by ship to their commune on Sado Island for Earth Celebration, one of the planet’s more unusual music festivals. The trip involves a train ride across the mountainous spine of the Japanese mainland followed by a ferry ride to Sado, a depopulated, rural island once used as a place of exile for political prisoners.
On Sado, visitors choose from accommodations that vary from fading hotels to tiny inns to campsites on uninhabited beaches backed by verdant rice fields.
Each year a different guest joins Kodo. This summer they have invited Corsican traditional vocal group A Filletta to perform. A Filletta’s other-worldly harmonies contrast starkly with Kodo’s spirited drumming, but both groups strive to preserve cultural traditions now put at risk by modernity.
Climbing to the hilltop venue through the grounds of a shrine, one seems to leave the realm of the profane symbolized by the village below and pass into a sacred space where, despite their cultural distance, one finds the medieval Christian polyphonies of A Filletta and the earthshaking rumble of Kodo’s drums emanate from a common sense of devotion.
A Filletta dress in black and use only their voices, whereas Kodo’s intricate staging includes drums that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But both groups draw on ancient forms of spiritual music that evolved on distant islands and are now in danger of extinction.
The crowd of several thousand -- including many foreigners who’ve traveled long distances to Sado -- welcomes the experience ecstatically. Earth Celebration, which predates big Japanese music festivals like Fuji Rock by many years, offers the hopeful message that through the discipline of drummers like Yuichiro Funabashi, people can remain moored to their roots and not be swept away by technology and cultural homogenization.
“I’ve never felt like quitting or that this life is too hard,” Funabashi says. “Ten years is a turning point when many decide either to leave or stay with Kodo for the rest of their lives. This year I became artistic director -- I feel like there are still many challenges awaiting me.”