Kodo’s Ryotaro Leo Ikenaga on a Japanese drumming phenomenon

Thursday, February 13, 2020 - 15:51

To reach the level of an international performing artist as part of any ensemble takes a huge amount of commitment. But few groups require their members to undergo a two-year apprenticeship, and live in a self-constructed community with their other performers. Kodo does.

Kodo are a Taiko drumming group from Sado Island, located off the coast of Japan’s Niigata Prefecture. Kodo were formed in 1981, performing their first concert at the Berliner Philharmonie in the same year. The group have performed around the world ever since, and in March they bring their latest show, Legacy, here to the Southbank Centre.

To find out more about Kodo, and get a flavour of what it’s like to be part of this remarkable Japanese drumming group, journalist Tim Cumming sat down with Kodo’s Ryotaro Leo Ikenaga. 

Tim Cumming: Tell us about the history of Kodo, its origins and how it has evolved?

Ryotaro Leo Ikenaga: We have been around for close to 40 years. What started as a group of young people who were exploring folk traditions and folk cultures from all over Japan, eventually evolved into a Taiko drumming group called Ondekoza, and that in turn became Kodo. 

In those four decades we’ve explored all the possibilities of Japanese drumming, and we’ve also branched out and collaborated with many artists all over the world. In doing so we’ve drawn many different influences, musical and artistic, back into our own performance.


When did Kodo start to fuse Taiko drums with other forms of music?

Taiko drumming as a performing art is relatively new. Traditionally it wasn’t a musical instrument so much as a religious or spiritual instrument, so the history of Taiko drumming itself is relatively new. This means that when we work with folk music or a traditional style of drumming, we always reinvent it, in order to bring it to the stage. That’s been going on since the very beginning. 

We’ve integrated beats from our neighbours in Korea, from Africa, from Native Americans. We have a lot of lifelong friends all over the world, and integrating all these influences has always been part of Kodo’s DNA, so we’re constantly evolving.

Kodo: Legacy


What was your own route to Sado Island, where the Kodo drummers train and live – and what was the apprenticeship like?

I’m unique in the sense that I wasn’t a Taiko drummer before I joined. I was born in the US and grew up there. I play guitar, and was classically trained on piano and cello. I started Taiko drumming as a club activity when at college, and decided to join Kodo because I wanted to challenge myself. 

The physical experience of getting that big sound – it’s very very demanding, but at the same time it’s not all about power or muscle. You need to know how to use your body correctly, to be flexible and to train and eat right. It’s like being an athlete.

And so the Kodo apprenticeship is very vigorous. You live a very basic existence in the mountains for two years – no television, no internet; you plant and harvest your own rice, by yourself, and you wake at 5am every day. Alongside this you study different traditional Japanese arts, such as Noh theatre, and you participate in local festivals and tea ceremonies, but the drumming is always the main focus. 


Once you graduate, what is life as a Kodo drummer on Sado Island like?

All the performing members of Kodo live on Sado Island, and we have our own village. In reality, we actually spend just three or four months on the island, as the rest of the time we’re travelling around the world. There’s not much on the island, civilisation wise so it’s a great place to come back to, in order to reset yourself. There’s a lot of nature and not a lot of people. So you merge yourself into nature, and that’s when you create new things, new songs, and learn new ways of performing as a Kodo drummer.


When you merge yourself into nature, that’s when you create new things, new songs, and learn new ways of performing as a Kodo drummer.
Ryotaro Leo Ikenaga, Kodo drummer


Kabuki star Tamasaburo Bando became artistic director of Kodo in 2012, what impact did that have on the group?

He had a massive impact. What he did was challenge us to break out of our shell and to not settle down. Though we’d been exploring and integrating different things throughout our history, after 30 years or so, there is a sort of method, a comfortable way of performing that develops. He broke us out of that, and encouraged us to look at more Western methods of performing.


The show you’re bringing to Southbank Centre is Legacy. Tell us more about that?

It will feature a lot of classical pieces, and it showcases the essence of Kodo that we’ve carried for four decades. Most of the members now are very young – the average age is 24 – and these are pieces that have been performed since before they were born; it’s a new generation looking at the Kodo tradition. 

But the programme also has a Tamasaburo twist in that we are using a lot more dynamics. Tamasaburo really challenged us to explore the piano rather than the forte side of performing, so it has that as well. It’s a great mix of tradition and innovation, It’s Kodo 2.0. 



Kodo: Legacy comes to Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre on 13 & 14 March.

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