Our Interview with Kodo’s Jun Akimoto
Photo: Kodo in performance. Photo by Takashi Okamoto.
Kodo perform in Hill Auditorium on February 15, 2013. With over twenty visits to Ann Arbor over the years, Kodo return with a brand-new performance that includes new visual flair alongside its high-energy percussion, elegant music, dance, and the striking physical prowess needed to sustain a precise yet powerful sound.
We chatted with Jun Akimoto, the group’s company manager, about the power of taiko drums, Kodo’s mission to represent the living folk performing arts of Japan, and what they’re looking forward to in their upcoming visit to Ann Arbor.
UMS: Could you talk about the choreography of Kodo performances? What does it mean to be a part of sharing this rich Japanese tradition?
Jun: Our artistic director Mr. Tamasaburo Bando, is responsible for the artistic direction of Kodo, and he has been working with us for 12 years. Actually, it does not seem to sound appropriate for us to call the movements of Kodo “choreography” since the company’s focus is Japanese drumming, not dancing. Having said that, Mr. Bando, is a renowned Kabuki actor and dancer. His rich and profound philosophy and knowledge and technique of “body” have inspired Kodo immensely at the deeper level. Body movement techniques generally used in many of the Japanese performing arts have something in common beyond the different forms and styles, so the performers of Kodo often feel a kind of cultural synchronicity in Mr. Bando’s comprehension about “body.”
UMS: Can you share your experience about the Kodo Village? How does living there enhance your craft?
Jun: Sharing time and place during the daily life in the Kodo village surely influences what the each member of the company thinks and creates. Particularly, Kodo is known for the collective beauty and unity of the performance. This unity comes from how members of Kodo live at the headquarters of Kodo on Sado Island.
In Japan, I think this sort of mental/physical connection has been cherished and inherited from the traditional way of life in the Japanese feudal societies of the past, which were mostly supported by agrarian communities. Sado Island is one of the rural regions that still retains the traditional ways of life. Kodo owes so much to Sado and the local people, because living there constantly reminds us that folk performing arts are an important part of the life of a community.
UMS: What are the different types of drums that will be used during the performance? What do some of the drums represent?
Jun: Japanese drums, or taiko, have a very simple structure, but they are also seen as the communication tools used between the gods and the people, nature and the people, and people and people. Taiko is a very popular instrument in Japan and is often found in most shrines and temples.
Some types were originally imported through China and Korea. Kodo uses several types and sizes of taiko on stage, but we always feel that the simple but beautiful (and very strong) instrument acts as a door that opens us to the nature. These drums are made of a wood trunk with animal skins tacked to the drum body. It is said that the gods reside inside the taiko and the harder the drums are played, the more pleased the gods become. And, most importantly the drums are the symbol of community and unification.
UMS: Your music is a powerful reflection of both the history and the future of Japanese performing arts. How to you hope Kodo will evolve in the years to come?
Jun: The history of taiko as part of the commercial performing arts is still young and in development when compared to other established Japanese professional performing arts with hundreds of years of history, such as Noh, Kyogen, Bunraku, Kabuki, etc.
Kodo prioritizes the direct connections with the actual living “folk” traditional performing arts found in many regions in Japan (often in countryside and unknown to outsiders). These folk performing arts solidify a community through ceremonies, festivals, and rituals. In the years to come, Kodo hopes to not only continue as a commercial performing arts ensemble, but to be true to direct voices of living folk performing arts.
UMS: What cultural message do you hope will resonate with the audience of Ann Arbor?
Jun: We are very fortunate and honored to have had a long relationship with Ann Arbor. As generations shift both in Ann Arbor and in Kodo, we truly hope that Kodo will continue to refresh, develop, and keep our good relationship between the people in Ann Arbor and Kodo. We are looking forward to performing “Legend” (our new production) in Ann Arbor very soon!
Ask an Artist: Jun Akimoto, Kodo member
The traditional Japanese drumming ensemble Kodo was last in Ann Arbor in 2008. The group was a hands-down hit with audiences of all ages. Kodo returns to Hill Auditorium next Wednesday, February 23 with songs from their January 2011 release, Akatsuki. When we asked Kodo member Jun Akimoto if he would be game for responding to fan questions prior to the performance via umsLobby.org, he was more than happy to connect directly with UMS audiences. Read on for his outstanding responses to fan questions, submitted from Kodo enthusiasts via email and the UMS Facebook page.
Fan #1, Diane Antczak
Q. How did Kodo start?
A. Kodo started in 1971 with the idea of a college on Japan’s Sado Island that teaches younger people Japanese traditional craftsmanship and culture. The drumming was one of the means to earn money to realize this dream. In present day, the drumming has become main stream of the activities of this group.
Q. Who orchestrates the moves and music?
A. Normally we work together, even when an artistic director was chosen from the Kodo performers. When a director is from outside Kodo, he or she often has more individual leadership.
Q. Is Kodo popular in Japan?
A. It is not as popular as pop musicians or entertainers, but quite known as a Japanese drumming group.
Q. How are potential performers selected?
A. We have a two-year apprenticeship and anyone who wants to become a regular performer of Kodo is required to accomplish the program and pass several auditions.
Q. Do Kodo members have groupies?
A. No, unfortunately (fortunately?).
Q. Are there age restrictions – is retirement encouraged at a certain age?
A. There has been no retirement age yet, even though the oldest performers are now 60. We look forward to seeing them how far they can go. Apprentices need to be 18 and above to apply to the apprentice center.
Q. Do players rotate performances?
A. In many cases, yes. But some styles have limited accessibility such as “O-daiko (biggest drum) or certain type of dances and songs.
Q. How many players belong to the group?
A. We now have about 25 performers.
Fan #2, Mary Orr
Q. I would love to know more about what communal life on Sado Island is like. Is it like living in an ashram or a monastery?
A. We do not know anything about an ashram or a monastery, so it’s very difficult to give you a right answer. But it should be different because Kodo is not a religious organization, but a commercial musical/performing arts group and our lives on Sado Island is a cradle of creation which will be our main resources of imagination vital for Kodo’s performing arts. Our communal life is very important to maintain a good relationship amongst the Kodo members, not only in daily life but also in performing ensemble on stage.
Fan #3, Lisa Bee
Q. Are the drummers in your group solely professional taiko drummers or do they have a separate profession in addition to their drumming?
A. Kodo is a professional group and all the performers and staff make a living with 100% commercial income from performances and other related activities.
Fan #4, Keisuke Tanabe (4-years old)
Q. Hi my name is Keisuke. I saw you guys on YouTube and I think you’re SO COOL! I have a question. Is the BIG drum bigger than me? I’m 3ft 4in(102cm) tall.
A. The big drums are about 120 cm in diameter at the edge of the body, but the body is a round-shape so the center area should be much bigger.
Fan #5, Jackie Beauchamp
Q. How many hours of practice a week does it take to get good at what you do? Then how much work is it to maintain that level of performance?
A. Normally while we are not touring, the performers practice together from 9 till 18:00 everyday except Sunday. After 18:00 till 22:00 is time for individual practice. When we are on the road, they practice, rehearse and perform all day on the days of performances.
Fan #6, Chris Voge
Q. Do you make your own drums?
A. No, we have used drums manufactured by Asano Taiko for nearly 40 years.; they are one of the leading taiko makers in Japan. They have 400-year history and their drums are in highest quality in terms of exquisite art of work, great durability and sound design, best materials. This is traditional and professional craftsmanship and we are unable to learn or develop.
Fan # 8, Annemarie Schoennemann
Q. Has anyone been injured playing with Kodo? If so, what was the nature of the injury? What kind of physical training is required of members to avoid injuries?
A. Small accidents happens quite often such as hitting their faces with sticks, bleeding from blisters on their hands, etc., but major injury is rare nowadays. In the past, some performers hurt their backs and not much since we have developed more practical physical treatment, such as warm-up / cool-down appropriately, stretching, icing, etc.
Fan # 9, Archer Horner (7-years old)
Q. How do you listen to the beat?
A. They not only listen, but also feel the beat of each other. Beat is the means of communication and they always try to find a right spot and sequence or groove in order to keep the beat right. This is a collective teamwork, so they try to feel what the others say, then feel and understand in order to work together to produce the beat together.
UMS Living Archive Interview: Paul Bianchi, Volunteer Usher
When we launched the UMS Lobby last February, we set out to create a space that could capture our community’s response to what we experience at UMS. With this post, we’re beginning a new journey into what we’re calling the “UMS Living Archive,” which will feature stories from patrons and others about the impact UMS has had in our community. Over the summer, UMS staff members began to collect video interviews and turn them into the short vignettes you’ll see here. We’re looking forward to the living archive growing over time and supplementing our historical archive.
This first interview features Paul Bianchi, an Ann Arbor community member who has been a volunteer usher at UMS (and other arts organizations in Ann Arbor) since 2008. Paul talks about how volunteer ushering has been a very meaningful to him, especially since he’s recently been unemployed, giving him a great connection to the arts. Paul talks about the importance of UMS to the jazz community now that the Bird of Paradise and other local jazz clubs have closed. He also reminiscences about his very first Messiah experience.
Additional UMS 10/11 Events
UMS is pleased to announce additional concerts in the 10/11 season that are not part of our genre-specific packages. These events are all part of UMS’s popular Monogram Series, which allows audience members to select at least five events and receive a 10% discount.
Rosanne Cash: The List
Saturday, September 25 | 8 pm
When Roseanne Cash was 18 and on the road with her father, the incomparable country music superstar Johnny Cash, he became alarmed at the number of songs that she didn’t know. As the tour progressed, he developed a list on a legal pad — “100 Essential Country Songs” — and gave it to her with a thinly veiled admonishment that she needed to do her homework. Now, more than 30 years later, Cash has selected a dozen songs from the syllabus presented to her by her father and has recorded her first album of covers, filtered through her own unique, sophisticated perspective. The List presents Roseanne Cash like you’ve never heard her before, as she embraces her heritage and sings for the pure love of these songs that have shaped who she is as an artist.
Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán
Saturday, November 6 | 8 pm
With a history that dates back to the late 1890s, the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán was founded in a small city near Jalisco by Don Gaspar Vargas. This band basically invented the modern mariachi, and five generations later, are still playing today. The group spent its formative years defining their sound and experimenting with different instrumental lineups. Today the group is comprised of two harps, one vihuela, one guitar, one guitarron, two trumpets, and six violins. The songs they sing cross over from one generation to the next, making their performances appealing to both young and mature audiences. Recognized as “el major mariachi del mundo” (the greatest mariachi in the world), Mariachi Vargas are the masters at melding the old world style of mariachi music with new innovative pieces.
Stew and The Negro Problem
with Heidi Rodewald
Thursday, November 18 | 8 pm
Friday, November 19 | 8 pm
Saturday, November 20 | 7:30 pm & 10:30 pm
“Stew’s endlessly inventive music draws on rock, gospel, soul, and blues…A winning tribute to the diversity of the black musical experience.” (Hollywood Reporter) Songwriter Stew’s career took an unexpected turn in 2006. After a successful career fronting his critically acclaimed bands, Stew and The Negro Problem, he transformed his life story into the rock musical Passing Strange. The show, co-composed with Heidi Rodewald, earned him the 2008 Tony Award for “Best Book of a Musical” and attracted the attention of Spike Lee, who produced the film, which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and airs on PBS’s “Great Performances.” Compared in the same breath with Kurt Weill, Burt Bacharach, and Jackie Gleason, Stew’s concert performances are coveted for their literate precision, sly humor, and deep emotional resonance, hovering between the divergent worlds of rock and theater. “Something hipper for the hipper…Stew is a very genial and lovable guide through the common travails of life. Like a lot of fine writers and musicians, he has the ability to layer reflexive self-doubt into his music and lyrics…very witty, very smart.” (Chicago Tribune)
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Friday, December 3 | 8 pm
“Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition but we are modern musicians,” says Justin Robinson, a member of the popular bluegrass band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The group’s name is a tip of the hat to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, who lit up the music scene in the 1930s. Inspired by old-time fiddler Joe Thompson, at whose home they jammed every Thursday night during the summer and fall of 2005, the CCD starting playing anywhere people would listen — town squares, farmers’ markets, and ultimately festivals and concert halls, where their foot-tapping music linked the deep tradition of the past with “dirt-floor-dance electricity.” (Rolling Stone) Their sellout shows at the Ark last year reinforced how far they’ve come in a very short time. “This striking North Carolina trio brings a modern sizzle to the legacy of classic African American stringbands…sparking an electrifying ruckus.” (Spin)
Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra and UMS Choral Union
Jerry Blackstone conductor
Saturday, December 4 | 8 pm
Sunday, December 5 | 2 pm
The Grammy Award-winning UMS Choral Union (2006 Best Choral Performance for William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience) launches the holiday season with its signature work, Handel’s glorious oratorio Messiah. An Ann Arbor tradition in the beautiful surroundings of Hill Auditorium, these performances are ultimately the heart and soul of UMS, connecting audiences with the talented people on stage, but also with the friends and family who attend each year. Those who have been coming for decades say that the chorus has never sounded better.
Sunday, January 23 | 4 pm
One of today’s most revered Native American singers and songwriters, Joanne Shenandoah is a Wolf Clan member of the Iroqois Confederacy, Oneida Nation whose Native name, Deguiya whah-wa, means “she sings.” The singer/songwriter has performed with such legendary entertainers as Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and has won more Native American Music Awards (Nammies) than any other artist. The daughter of two talented musicians (her father, a jazz guitarist, played with Duke Ellington), Shenandoah was an architectural systems engineer before forging her successful career as a musician. “From my office window I saw a tree being cut down and knew that I, too, had been uprooted and needed to follow my natural gift,” she says. Shenandoah’s original compositions, combined with a striking voice, enable her to embellish the ancient songs of the Iroquois using a blend of traditional and contemporary instrumentation.
Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concert
featuring Big Head Todd & The Monsters
David “Honeyboy” Edwards
and Lightnin’ Malcolm
Thursday, February 10 | 8 pm
Straight from the heart of the back country, Blues at the Crossroads has a direct connection back to Robert Johnson (1911-1938), among the most famous of Delta blues musicians. Johnson’s landmark recordings in the 1930s displayed a remarkable combination of singing, miraculous guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced generations of musicians, including Eric Clapton, who called him “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” This concert picks up the thread of Johnson’s legacy in Mississippi at the junction of US Highways 61 and 49, the very crossroads where, as legend has it, Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil, giving up his soul to write the most incredible blues the world had ever heard. The concert features Big Head Todd & The Monsters, as well as David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who at 94 is the only living person to have played with Robert Johnson before his untimely death at age 27 — believed to have been caused by poisoning from a bottle of whiskey that was laced with strychnine.
Wednesday, February 23 | 8 pm
In ancient Japan, the taiko drum was a symbol of the rural community, and it is said that the limits of the village were defined not by geography, but by the furthest distance from which the taiko could be heard. With its “One Earth” tour, Kodo brings the sound of the taiko to people around the globe, transcending barriers of language and custom and reminding all of our membership in that much larger community, the world. “In this age of exploding populations and lightning-fast communication, it is more important than ever that these diverse cultures learn to recognize and accept each other so that all may share our increasingly shrinking planet in harmony,” according to Kodo’s primary philosophy. The Japanese characters of the company’s name convey two meanings: “heartbeat,” the primal source of all rhythm, and “children of the drum,” a reflection of Kodo’s desire to play their drums simply, with the heart of a child.
Tony Allen’s Secret Agent
Saturday, April 16 | 8 pm
The drummer behind the late Nigerian bandleader Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Tony Allen is probably the most highly-regarded African drum set player to emerge since World War II, with drummers and other musicians of all backgrounds marveling at his polyrhythmic style. Kuti is largely considered the most influential African popular musician of the post-colonial era, and Tony Allen was his crucial collaborator in the synthesis of jazz, funk, and highlife that resulted in the style known as Afrobeat.Born in Nigeria in 1940 of mixed Nigerian and Ghanaian parentage, Allen is influenced by everything from European ballroom dance music to big-band jazz drumming, indigenous percussion traditions, and the tradition of modern jazz drumming typified by such musicians as Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach. After playing for years in the shadows of better-known musicians, Tony Allen is now starting to receive the worldwide credit he deserves as one of the most dynamic players of the drum set. “Without Tony, there’d be no Afrobeat.” (Fela Anikulapo Kuti)
Other events on the Monogram Series:
Paul Taylor Dance Company
Sankai Juku: Hibiki
Merce Cunningham Dance Company
The Hot Club of San Francisco and the Hot Club of Detroit/Django Reinhardt 100th Birthday Celebration
Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
Vijay Iyer Trio and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Apex
Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro de Cuba
Laurie Anderson’s Delusion
Druid Theater Company: Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan
Propeller Theater Company: Shakespeare’s Richard III and The Comedy of Errors
Divine Voices (St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church)
Jordi Savall and La Capella Reial de Catalunya with Hesperion XXI and Temembe Ensamble
The Tallis Scholars
Jerusalem String Quartet
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and New Century Chamber Orchestra
Concertante and Rafał Blechacz, piano
Takács Quartet: Schubert Concert 2
Takács Quartet: Schubert Concert 3
Venice Baroque Orchestra
The Cleveland Orchestra
Rafał Blechacz, piano
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Mahler’s Symphony No. 8
Bach Collegium Japan/Bach’s Mass in b minor
GLOBAL FOCUS ON THE AMERICAS
This season’s global series explores The Americas — North, South, and Latin — with 19 different events representing something uniquely different about this part of the world. The events featured on The Americas series are:
Roseanne Cash (Sat Sep 25)
Tembembe Ensamble Continuo/The Route of the New World: From Spain to Mexico (Thu Sep 30)
Paul Taylor Dance Company (Thu-Sat Oct 7-9)
Venice Baroque Orchestra/Philip Glass’s “American Four Seasons” (Wed Oct 27)
ONCE.MORE Festival: The Historic Concert (Tue Nov 2)
Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán (Sat Nov 6)
Stew and The Negro Problem with Heidi Rodewald (Thu-Sat Nov 18-20)
Carolina Chocolate Drops (Fri Dec 3)
Laurie Anderson’s Delusion (Fri-Sat Jan 14-15)
Renée Fleming soprano (Sun Jan 16)
Grupo Corpo (Fri-Sat Jan 21-22)
Joanne Shenandoah (Sun Jan 23)
Baby Loves Salsa (family performances) (Sun Jan 30)
The Cleveland Orchestra (Tue Feb 1)
Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (Wed Feb 2)
New Century Chamber Orchestra/Astor Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” (Fri Feb 4)
Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial (Thu Feb 10)
Vijay Iyer Trio and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Apex (Sat Feb 12)
Merce Cunningham Dance Company: The Legacy Project (Fri-Sat Feb 18-19)
Detroit Symphony Orchestra (Sat Mar 19)
Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro de Cuba (Thu Apr 7)
Tickets to individual events on the series go on sale on Monday, August 23 (via www.ums.org) and Wednesday, August 25 (in person and by phone).
Which events in the season are you most anticipating? Tell us what your monogram series is likely to include!
UMS Announces 10/11 Family Series
UMS announces its 10/11 Family Series, featuring two one-hour performances especially for families. In addition, families may purchase advanced tickets to a special daytime performance by Kodo, scheduled during the Ann Arbor Public Schools winter break. Complete details below!
Paul Taylor Dance Company
Saturday, October 9 | 1 pm
Quite simply, Paul Taylor makes dances that people love. He has made some of the most astonishingly athletic and downright funniest dances ever put on a stage. This performance features his new work, Also Playing, a Vaudeville revue with acts ranging from an Apache dance to a tap-dancing horse and a toreador whose sissy bulls are frightened of her. The afternoon will also include a “chance to dance,” where children learn some of the company’s dance moves in a pre-concert hands-on — or shall we say feet-on? — workshop.
Baby Loves Salsa
Sunday, January 30 | 1 pm & 4 pm
Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre
Baby Loves Salsa features some of the biggest and brightest stars in contemporary salsa music, including band leader and singer José Conde, who regularly appears with his New York-bsaed band Ola Fresca. Just as Dan Zanes has revolutionized kids’ music, José Conde takes the Afro-Cuban form of salsa and turns it into something that kids and parents both love. Don’t be misled by the band’s name — kids who have outgrown their diapers are sure to enjoy this band’s dizzying range of Afro-Latin styles.
Kodo Drummers of Japan
Wednesday, February 23 | 11 am
This exuberant, yet highly disciplined, group lives on an island in Japan, where they submit to a rigorous training program along with an aggressive touring schedule. Their performances feature amazing rhythmic synchronicity, with the 1,000-pound o-daiko drum — carved from the trunk of a single tree — taking center stage for an amazing powerhouse of sound. This special performance has been scheduled during the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ Winter Break, providing a mid-week outlet to release some pent-up energy. An unforgettable experience!
Tickets for the Family Series are $30 for adults and $15 for children (includes Paul Taylor Dance Company and Baby Loves Salsa). Kodo tickets may be purchased for $16 adults and $8 children. Subscription renewal packets and brochures will be mailed in early May.
Tickets to individual events on the series go on sale on Monday, August 23 (via www.ums.org) and Wednesday, August 25 (in person and by phone).