Lis­ten Up

WE ARE THE WORLD: KODO AND DERVISH

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - James M. Keller

Re­views of Kodo and Dervish

The term “world mu­sic” is in­dis­tinct enough to not mean much. In its broad­est and fairest def­i­ni­tion it might re­fer to any and all mu­sic in the world, in which sense one could dis­pense with the “world” part and call the stuff just “mu­sic.” It is more likely to con­note any mu­sic in the world that is not part of the Western art tra­di­tion. Eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gists have been known to re­sist the term be­cause of the cul­tural bias it seems to con­vey; its im­plicit view­point, they find, is from wher­ever the Euro­pean art tra­di­tion reigns, and it may ac­cord­ingly be taken to de­mean mu­sic from else­where in the world by re­duc­ing it to “other.” In its most wide­spread us­age, how­ever, world mu­sic has become associated with fu­sion or cross­over pieces that draw on as­pects of dis­parate folk or na­tional tra­di­tions to cre­ate a new, in­ter­na­tion­al­ized form of pop mu­sic. Mer­riam-Web­ster de­fines it as “pop­u­lar mu­sic orig­i­nat­ing from or in­flu­enced by non-Western mu­si­cal tra­di­tions and of­ten hav­ing a dance­able rhythm.” The “dance­able rhythm” bit seems per­haps not ger­mane, but it does cat­a­pult the whole con­cept to­ward a dance club with cross-cul­tural as­pi­ra­tions. The def­i­ni­tion put for­ward by Ox­ford Liv­ing Dic­tionar­ies also wants to in­volve that idea of first-world pop: “Tra­di­tional mu­sic from the de­vel­op­ing world, some­times in­cor­po­rat­ing el­e­ments of Western pop­u­lar mu­sic.”

Much though I love many mu­sics that have noth­ing to do with Western art mu­sic, I tend to be gun-shy of cross­over mu­sic of most sorts. I find that when mu­sics of vary­ing tra­di­tions are fused to­gether, the re­sult tends to em­pha­size the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor in each. Pre­sent­ing a duet for si­tar and Trinida­dian steel pan or drop­ping an alphorn into the midst of a Ja­vanese game­lan may cre­ate a fris­son of ex­otic en­counter; but, apart from that, such com­bi­na­tions can rarely hope to of­fer much aes­thetic plea­sure be­yond the merely sur­real, even if un­der­scored by a techno beat. They never seem to com­mu­ni­cate what makes, say, si­tar mu­sic re­ally great. This sort of thing has proved pop­u­lar with gen­eral lis­ten­ers, nonethe­less, and I un­der­stand the ap­peal on a so­cial level. There is some­thing heart­warm­ing about mu­si­cians from op­po­site ends of the world find­ing com­mon ground through a jam ses­sion. But for the most part, mu­si­cal tra­di­tions have de­vel­oped idio­syn­crat­i­cally within their own cul­tures, of­ten with a level of de­tail that can be ap­pre­ci­ated only through long ex­po­sure and at­ten­tive lis­ten­ing. Cer­tainly there are cases where mu­si­cal cre­ators have drawn in­spi­ra­tion from mu­si­cal tra­di­tions that are not their own — Steve Re­ich learn­ing from Ghana­ian drum­ming, for ex­am­ple, and go­ing on to in­vent phase com­po­si­tions. But a case like that is not born of non­cha­lant in­ter­ac­tion. It in­volved Re­ich sub­sum­ing prin­ci­ples of a for­eign art into his own cre­ative fac­ul­ties, and mak­ing orig­i­nal works born of his ex­panded sen­si­bil­i­ties. That’s not the sort of ca­sual en­counter we usu­ally find in what is pur­veyed as world mu­sic.

In the past week-plus, the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter hosted two evenings that might con­ve­niently fall un­der the rubric of world mu­sic: On March 23, Kodo, a drum­ming en­sem­ble from Ja­pan; and on March 26, Dervish, an Ir­ish folk-mu­sic en­sem­ble. They were won­der­ful, soul-fill­ing evenings. In both cases, the per­form­ers hewed closely to “pure” tra­di­tions. As a re­sult, both had a fla­vor of trans­port­ing lis­ten­ers to a dis­tant place rather than of su­per­im­pos­ing a for­eign cul­ture onto what would have been here al­ready.

Kodo is a force to be­hold, and be­held it has been. “Kodo has given around 5,800 per­for­mances in over 45 coun­tries on five con­ti­nents,” states the printed pro­gram. “This fig­ure in­cludes 3,900 per­for­mances un­der the ‘One Earth’ ban­ner, a theme that em­bod­ies Kodo’s de­sire to tran­scend lan­guage and cul­tural bound­aries, all while re­mind­ing their au­di­ences of the com­mon bonds we all share as hu­man be­ings.” You no­tice them stray­ing into “world mu­sic-speak” there. The group was formed in 1981, but in fact its roots go far­ther back since its found­ing mem­bers had be­longed to a sim­i­lar drum­ming group named Sado no Kuni On­dekoza, formed in 1969, which splin­tered be­cause of dissent within the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Kodo and a group called just On­dekoza (born of the same break) con­tinue to this day. The more fa­mous is Kodo, which (in var­i­ous con­fig­u­ra­tions) tours in­ter­na­tion­ally from its home on rel­a­tively iso­lated Sado Is­land off the west coast of cen­tral Ja­pan.

The group is an ex­po­nent of taiko drum­ming, and par­tic­u­larly of kumi-daiko, which is a style of en­sem­ble drum­ming. Al­though it draws on tra­di­tions that go back cen­turies in some cases, the par­tic­u­lar ap­proach of kumi-daiko is a rather mod­ern in­ven­tion, dat­ing only from 1951, when the pro­to­type en­sem­ble was formed by Dai­hachi Oguchi. A Ja­panese jazz drum­mer, he be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing tra­di­tional Ja­panese solo drum­ming and had the in­spi­ra­tion to com­bine a num­ber of solo drum­mers into an en­sem­ble. While solo drum­ming had been an art associated with shrines and fes­ti­vals, he de­vel­oped his new en­sem­ble ap­proach for the con­cert hall, turn­ing it into a tourable per­for­mance spec­ta­cle. Taiko, there­fore, is not in it­self an an­cient art, but it is a dis­tinct form of Ja­panese art mu­sic.

The group that ap­peared at the Len­sic com­prised 14 per­form­ers. All were men, al­though the Kodo group does in­clude women mem­bers in other pro­grams. In fact, the pro­gram Kodo per­formed in here was ti­tled

Dadan 2017, “dadan” mean­ing “men drum­ming.” The key­stones of the en­sem­ble are the drums known as o-daiko, huge in­stru­ments that weigh nearly 900 pounds each and whose cow-hide drum­heads are be­tween three and four feet in di­am­e­ter. Their sound is po­ten­tially thun­der­ous, but be­cause the drum­heads are stretched very tight they re­tain clar­ity of tone. Kodo used three of them in this per­for­mance, al­though one looked a bit larger than the other two, so it may be that shad­ings of ter­mi­nol­ogy should be ap­plied to them. A va­ri­ety of other per­cus­sion in­stru­ments round out the en­sem­ble, in­clud­ing bar­rel drums and small cym­bals, and the mu­sic pe­ri­od­i­cally cy­cled back to a group of four box-marim­bas, whose mel­low tim­bre pro­vided a peace­ful con­trast to the drums. The pro­gram, cre­ated by Ta­masaburo Bando (who just re­cently stepped down as Kodo’s artis­tic di­rec­tor), ranged through 11 in­di­vid­ual pieces by

dif­fer­ent com­posers, but the works were played con­tigu­ously so that each half of the con­cert un­rolled with­out in­ter­rup­tion. The mu­si­cal struc­ture there­fore in­volved a dou­ble tra­jec­tory — the struc­ture of each piece and the struc­ture of each half. In­stru­ments were moved about silently as one piece ceded to the next, yield­ing fre­quent changes in the phys­i­cal set-up of the stage. These vis­ual al­ter­ations were in­ten­si­fied by shifts of stage light­ing. Apart from the chore­og­ra­phy in­her­ent in drum­ming, the mu­si­cians en­gaged in en­ter­tain­ing touches of stage move­ment, in­ter­po­lat­ing oc­ca­sional leaps and turns, twirling of drum­sticks, or switch­ing places at the large drums.

Talk about cham­ber mu­sic: One could not imag­ine one-on-a-part mu­si­cians more sub­tly at­tuned to each other. Their play­ing dis­played uni­son of ev­ery­thing — of rhythm, to be sure, and of rhyth­mic mod­u­la­tion (with the play­ers speed­ing up or slow­ing down in ab­so­lute syn­chrony), but also of melody (for melodies con­stantly emerged from the tuned as­pects of their in­stru­ments) and of artis­tic in­tent. Oguchi viewed taiko in terms of the hu­man body, once stat­ing in an in­ter­view: “Your heart is a taiko. All peo­ple lis­ten to a taiko rhythm, ‘dontsuku-dontsuku,’ in their mother’s womb.” I’ll take that on faith. My mem­ory doesn’t go back that far, and since I wasn’t yet a mu­sic critic in utero, I didn’t take notes that I could use­fully con­sult to­day. I can at­test, how­ever, that Kodo’s mu­sic-mak­ing had a vis­ceral im­pact, even when it was not loud. One of the things I loved most about the group was how it made man­i­fest the Ja­panese aes­thetic con­cept of ma, which refers to neg­a­tive space that is nonethe­less part of the cre­ated ob­ject: in ar­chi­tec­ture, the empty space be­tween the walls; in draw­ing, the white space be­tween the lines; in mu­sic, the si­lence be­tween the notes. Time and again, es­pe­cially with the gi­gan­tic o-daiko, a mu­si­cian with drum­sticks poised above the in­stru­ment would hover in ≥≥a split sec­ond of ten­sion (or of re­lax­ation — let’s say both si­mul­ta­ne­ously), with time sus­pended ever so fleet­ingly be­fore the at­tack — a thrilling mo­ment of ma made vis­i­ble.

Kodo at­tracted a sold-out crowd, but Dervish did not, to my sur­prise. It was an en­gaged gathering all the same, and many in the au­di­ence clapped along or even added their voices now and again, as they were en­cour­aged to do by Cathy Jor­dan, the group’s charis­matic singer and mas­ter of cer­e­monies. She dou­bled as per­cus­sion­ist (play­ing bodhrán and clap­pers) and was backed by five gen­tle­men play­ing in a fine blend of fid­dle, flutes (in­clud­ing pen­ny­whis­tle), man­dola (tenor man­dolin), bouzouki, and but­ton ac­cor­dion. The group was am­pli­fied more heav­ily than seemed nec­es­sary. The re­sul­tant in­crease in vol­ume did not reach ob­jec­tion­able lev­els, but tonal del­i­cacy eroded as part of the process and the bal­ance was thrown awry, with the in­stru­ments some­times over­whelm­ing the singer. If Kodo’s mu­sic had been mostly about rhythm, that of Dervish was mostly melody, of­ten in­toned in uni­son (but with touches of in­di­vid­ual or­na­men­ta­tion) by sev­eral per­form­ers, the tunes sup­ported by sim­ple har­monies and given out in re­peated rhythms. But such melodies! The group’s reper­toire is mostly drawn from folk mu­sic of the west coast of Ire­land, and it wasn’t heavy on stan­dard num­bers, which kept lis­ten­ers from lulling off into over-fa­mil­iar­ity. Dervish col­lected some of the pieces di­rectly from folk singers they en­coun­tered in the course of their trav­els and res­i­den­cies. Jor­dan re­ferred to one, “Eileen Óg (The Pride of Pe­tra­vore),” as a mu­sic-hall song; in­deed it would seem to be that, dat­ing from about a hun­dred years ago, but the tune to which it was set, at least in this per­for­mance, fol­lowed the gen­eral con­tours of the other songs.

This be­ing Ir­ish tra­di­tional mu­sic, the in­stru­men­tal dances were toetap­ping. In con­trast, the songs and bal­lads tended to ex­ude mourn­ful­ness in their sub­ject mat­ter, al­though their tunes were of­ten more chip­per than the words. Our con­stant com­pan­ions through the evening were sol­diers sep­a­rated from their wives, wives mur­dered by their hus­bands, chil­dren foisted off on the neigh­bors due to eco­nomic ne­ces­sity — that sort of thing. Jor­dan re­lated all the grim plots and tem­pered them with a wry com­men­tary that re­vealed her to be a con­sum­mate mas­ter of the vaunted Ir­ish agree­able ban­ter that made one think she’d be the kind of per­son with whom you’d en­joy be­ing trapped in a stalled el­e­va­tor.

Kodo

Dervish

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