Evolution in Creative Arts: Thoughts After a Kodo Performance

Kodo TourI saw the latest touring performance by Kodo last weekend, the “One Earth Tour 2015: Mystery.” This is the fourth time I’ve seen them and the performance was – as usual – remarkable and stunning. It was also very different from their earlier programs.

Kodo is one of the finest taiko troupes in the world. They have embraced the traditional drumming of Japan and their power, skill, and precision has been celebrated for many years. Now they are under the guidance of a new artistic director, Tamasaburo Bando, a Kabuki actor who has been named a National Treasure in Japan.

On their website, they say: “Exploring the limitless possibilities of the traditional Japanese drum, the taiko, Kodo is forging new directions for a vibrant living art-form.” That was exactly what I saw last weekend.

The first two times I saw Kodo were in Washington, DC, once at Constitution Hall, where the power of their drumming defeated that building’s dreadful acoustics, and once at the Kennedy Center. My memory of those events is of powerful drumming and incredible precision. The highlight was the playing of a huge drum by one of the top performers. I recall that even from the back you could see all the muscles in his back as he struck it.

The members were in superb physical shape. I was told that they ran a marathon on the day of the performance. For those who haven’t seen Kodo or other taiko troupes, let me assure you that the physical effort required is immense. It is the combination of that effort with the timing required to play complex rhythms in a group that makes the performance so wonderful.

The third time I saw them, in Austin about five years ago, there were some women drummers as part of the troupe. They were not very obvious; clearly they were blending in. Since taiko has been considered a male art in Japan, I suspect the women who joined Kodo were exceptional drummers who were willing to look as much like their male counterparts as possible.

While this can be presented as being gender neutral, when it involves women becoming part of an activity that has traditionally been seen as male, it means that the women are expected to look and act like the men.

Any woman who has chosen to participate in activities labeled male has run into this. I’m familiar with it from my years in the University of Texas Longhorn Band and my years in martial arts. For that matter, I ran into it as a lawyer, if not in matters of dress, then in matters of attitude.

And if you’re a woman who wants – passionately wants – to play drums or study martial arts, you go with it. In my case, I was never particularly interested in much of the feminine culture that I was supposed to follow, so it was easy for me to accept that semi-male role. The unspoken rule is that women can belong, so long as they don’t try to change anything.

But the presence of women in activities once restricted to men does change things. And this latest Kodo performance demonstrated that. There were four women performers on the stage, all playing taiko. In a couple of the pieces, some wore flowing skirts while playing. And in one group performance, one of the women was the lead drummer, with many solos.

The performance itself included several little plays, a couple with dragons who looped around themselves, and one that involved a dance between monsters and three women. All this had the feel of Japanese folk arts – though done with more spectacle – but some of the pieces done by the women seemed to me to be bringing some of the traditional female side of the folk culture to the stage. Given that the new artistic director is known for playing female roles in Kabuki, this may be in part due to his influence as well as to the interests of the women members of Kodo.

The show also included other dance-type spectacle, and several humorous pieces, including one where a group of drummers kept experimenting with making different sounds on their drums. Sometimes the rest of the group joined in. At least once, one of the drummers was unable (for artistic, not technical, reasons) to make the sound. In another, one of the performers threw away a small device she was using on her drum and the rest of the group followed, some eagerly, some reluctantly.

The humorous pieces required every bit as much technical drumming skill as the more traditional serious ones, plus the timing required to make comedy work. While I have noted the increased participation of women, the changes in Kodo were about more than gender. They represented an expansion of the traditional art to include other things from the culture.

It didn’t feel like a modernization to me, though I am no expert on Japanese folk arts. The incorporation of other arts into taiko drumming may be a modern idea, but the performance seemed very rooted in the traditions of Japan.

And that left me with the thought that it is possible for any creative art – including writing – to expand what it does by broadening the culture on which it is based. Kodo still represents a very Japanese art, but it is showing us much more of the culture from which taiko came.

Most science fiction writers came to the field because they were fascinated by such things as space exploration and the possibility of other life in the universe. Even though many (not all) of the early stories reflected a white, male, western culture, not everyone drawn to it came from that world.

Today we have an explosion of science fiction by people of all genders and many different racial and ethnic backgrounds. And the field is richer for it.

I suspect that all the creative arts can draw a lesson from the changes Kodo has made over the years. Expansion of the base from which art is drawn helps it evolve into new forms while still keeping faith with the purpose at its core.

After all, Kodo’s drumming remains magnificent.

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