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Abiding the strictest definition of ‘must-see’, KODO’s DADAN wows with power

Posted by: brad – Mar 20, 2017

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Impact and wonder at witnessing spectacle can easily diminish with repeated experiences.

I wouldn't even say this necessarily detracts from the experience because in those subsequent viewings, one’s ability to focus on more than just the obvious increases. Details and subtler intentions emerge allowing one to experience impact first, details second.

Once I read how the current performance concept of DADAN is solely comprised of young male drummers, I presumed the level of impact would be strong and that the lack of female performers, singing, flutes and dancing would come to mean a more heavy-handed show. Not one entirely without a melodic element, but the inclusion of tonal color was definitely less of a priority from the last configuration that came to our fair Richmond.

Having seen KODO's last performance here in RVA (03/19/11 at the Landmark), I knew what to expect, mostly. However, despite thinking I was ready for what I'd see, the amazement returned.

The program opened with a composition entitled “Toudoufuu,” that began with a gentle, very simple melodic fragment that ebbed forward from a babbling creek to full sized ocean waves. It definitely felt like the most dynamic of the evening’s selections and probably that’s just necessary for a typical American audience’s acclimation to the silent attentiveness required of such music. For similar reasons, it also seemed apropos to open the show with a bit of melodic material that will grab the attention of those requiring more than just rhythm.

There was an absence of dialogue with the audience compared to their 2011 performance, when they explained how their drums were made, notably the o-daiko (the big one). Although it’s obviously less than “green,” they told of how they would seek certain types of tree-trunks which are then cut into cross-sections and hollowed out The scooped-out innards end up being used to make the smaller drums, so there’s some redeemability to this wasteless approach to their use of tree wood.

The visual component to their performances is the aspect that really pushes the already stellar musical performance to new heights. Aside from the beautifully human display of muscle seen as the dramatic whirlwind of their arms’ extensions and the relentless, up-tempo pounding, the sight of them also allows other components of personality to come forward.

The element of humor is arguably indispensable to what could otherwise be an oppressively serious program. But when the second song began, the seven drummers for that track - who were seated cross-legged in a stage-front line - began rubbing their palms over their drumheads as auxiliary sounds one by one down the line until the last guy made the motion but without noise. Everyone else looks over at the attempted contribution a bit quizzically, and the motions were again repeated down the row. And as each time the last guy is visibly growing frustrated that his palm-rubs aren’t making any sound, and the rest of his cohorts increase the pace of it until the loner is left continuously and furiously scrubbing his instrument silently until he gives up, raises and then slams his hand down in an obviously fed-up exclamation of a drumbeat.

At this, those rubbing successfully stop and everyone jumped to their feet and took off into a full ensemble rhythm on the very next count.

Between the athleticism of the display and the use of personality and emotion, any KODO event surely qualifies as the strictest definition of “must-see.”

In keeping with the Japanese integration of form meeting function was how the drummers spread their legs low and wide, dramatically playing from that pose. At the early points of the show where they started employing this stance, one could enjoy it for the visual drama of looking like they just took a superhero-esque leap from a building and landed 30 stories down to beat their drums with a very moral justice. But then upon further scrutiny, you realize that they’re using the lowered posture to lessen the physical leverage they can exert by decreasing their amount of possible arm extension above the drum itself, which is a totally deliberate device for softening the volume, as called for by the compositions.

I also noticed the performers using a technique that I don’t believe I saw implemented during their last outing, nor do I think I’ve heard it in any of my many listenings to their recorded material. By laying one of their sticks flat across the drum skin’s surface with one end of the stick at or very near the rim of the drum and the other end over the hollow area in the center, a sort of vibrating tearing sound is produced when the other stick strikes the drum. The audience could almost feel honored to witness a technique either new to them or not often employed by the group.

The second half of the evening featured selections more complex and aggressive, and not only were they more serious, but it would seem that they made a point to effectively disguise the transitions between songs. The printed program listed five different pieces in Part II, but I couldn’t discern the structures apart to have identified more than three. The concluding song, called “Dan” and written by the DADAN artistic director Tamasaburo Bando in 2014, was a doozy of alternating solos that traded the final bars loudly and ferociously until the final unison note.

To send us back into the fervor of an American St. Patrick’s Day-Friday night, they came out for a lighthearted encore that had everyone onstage and off just beaming with the positivity of song, of rhythm and of gathering. As the individuals each took their bow and as the rest continued their outro, I knew the feelings of being across the Pacific on Sado Island, Japan amidst centuries old traditions of sound and music were going to begin to fade. My friend and I chose to extend these feelings as best we could with a nightcap at a blissfully vacant Carytown Sushi.

Either way, continuing the mindfulness and elegant aesthetics that we’d been privy to earlier was just the ticket. Here’s to the Modlin Center bringing the KODO ensemble’s brilliant entertainment back in another five years….kanpai!

Words by Daryl Tankersley

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