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The worldly beats of Kodo

By Oliver Wang

MARCH 1, 1999:  Over the past two decades, "world music" and "world beat" have served as headings for whatever isn't American or British pop. Everything from 13th-century Indian raag to Ethiopian soul jazz is thrown together under "world," where it becomes the equivalent of culture in a (jewel) box -- an exotic sonic commodity à la henna kits and wasabi powder. When you purchase a Ladysmith Black Mazambo CD, you're supposed to feel you're gaining access to the complexities of South Africa's Zulu heritage.

The Japanese taiko group Kodo embody the term "world beat" -- they are, after all, a group of master drummers schooled in the percussion traditions of many cultures and countries. Kodo are at once local and global: their roots in the Japanese taiko tradition are obvious, but they incorporate other beat aesthetics from Brazil to Benin, Detroit to Dominica. And in recent years, they've become favorites of the urbanely hip, cosmopolitan crowd -- cultured enough that you can invite the in-laws out to hear them, slick enough that you can dance to them at the club afterward. Indeed, the newest Kodo CD is a Bill Laswell-produced collection of DJ-style remixes titled Sai-so: The Remix Project (Red Ink/Sony), which hits stores this Tuesday.

At center stage in any Kodo performance is the massive 900-pound o-daiko drum, a traditional instrument carved from the trunk of a giant tree. The group also incorporate a variety of waist-sized barrel drums into their percussive soundscapes. The music invokes aural atmospheres as violent as a thunderstorm and as calming as a placid morning sun shower. It's music that's meant to be heard and felt.

Whatever comes of hearing and feeling Kodo's music, however, shouldn't be confused with a passport back to the mythical world of an idealized feudal Japan. As "indigenous" and "traditional" as Kodo's drumming appears, the group are really part of a modern taiko movement that emerged only in the late '60s and developed, in parallel fashion, in both Japan and America. Kodo's original members squirreled themselves away on Sado Island in the early '70s, just as pioneering taiko dojos in Los Angeles (Kinnara), the Bay Area (San Jose), and New York (Soh Daiko) were being formed. Yet they shared with their American counterparts a penchant for adulterating traditional taiko drumming with percussive practices from across the globe. As a result, you can hear elements of Afro-Cuban polyrhythms, Chocolate City go-go beats, and even British ambient in a Kodo performance.

Not that Kodo haven't been complicit in feeding the misconception that Japan remains trapped in a premodern feudal time warp. From the female performers clothed in demure silk garb to the traditional Japanese lanterns flanking the o-daiko cart to the male drummers flashing big sticks and skimpy loincloths, Kodo's performances are draped in touches of the exotic (and homoerotic). It also doesn't help that Kodo composed the score to the 1995 film The Hunted, a typical Western fantasy in which a white American businessman goes to Japan, sleeps with a beautiful, mysterious Japanese woman, and then becomes embroiled in a centuries-old samurai-ninja blood feud.

Still, if Kodo are a quintessentially Japanese enterprise, it's Japan as represented by the postmodern polyglot of contemporary Tokyo pop culture -- a point that's reinforced by Sai-so. Joined by six artists from around the world, Laswell works to highlight Kodo's mercurial musicality and then build on it. Strobe's "Satori Mix" of "Nanafushi" juxtaposes the acoustic wallop of Kodo's drums with a tinny, Roland 303-inspired house rhythm track. Japan's DJ Krush gives Kodo's drums a hip-hop makeover on "Ibuki Reconstruction," adding a slick, funk edge to the group's driving beats. Kevin Yost's "Deep & Ethnic Mix" is a poorly named but well-executed quiet storm of mellow vibes and synths that duplicate Kodo's own mastery of ambient, naturalist tones.

So, where shall we file an album like Sai-so? Is it world music? Or maybe it fits better into the equally ambiguous genre of dance music? How about new age? Japanese pop? How we answer this question is much less important than remembering to ask it.

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