Kodo Soloist Turns Wadaiko Dream Into Reality

Kodo soloist turns wadaiko dream into realityIn a serene forest on the island of Sado in Niigata Prefecture, members of the world-renowned Kodo group pursue their creativity at the so-called Kodo-mura, or Kodo Village.
This year, the wadaiko (Japanese drum) performing group is celebrating its 35th anniversary. One young soloist is Yuta Sumiyoshi, 24, a composer who suggests ideas for the group and discusses new projects with other members.

Sumiyoshi was born in Mitoyo, Kagawa Prefecture, and took up the wadaiko, also called taiko, when he was in the second grade of primary school. Not only did he play the taiko at local festivals, but he also took part in a children’s taiko group and eventually joined another group for adults. He played the instrument daily during his middle school and high school days.

His history with Kodo dates back to when he was 9 or 10 years old, when the troupe was performing during a school workshop. Sumiyoshi was fascinated, as they were playing his favorite instrument and making a living at it. Today, he still follows the advice one member gave him — to be ambidextrous — by using chopsticks with his left hand, even though he is right-handed.

During high school, Sumiyoshi sang and played the guitar on the streets. Although he became a well-known personality locally, he never dreamed of anything else than becoming a Kodo taiko player. His ambition paid off when he won a place at the Kodo apprentice center on the island in 2010 after graduating from high school. Since then, his life has revolved around the taiko.

Drumbeats instinctive

To become a full-time Kodo member, students have to live communally at the apprentice center for two years. Most students end up leaving the center without achieving full membership.

When Sumiyoshi was in the second year of his apprenticeship, celebrated kabuki actor Bando Tamasaburo, who was directing a Kodo show, noted how talented he was. Sumiyoshi was immediately promoted to join the company’s tour in 2012, when Tamasaburo became Kodo’s artistic director, and became a full member the following year. Since then, he has appeared in a number of Kodo performances at home and abroad.

Tamasaburo says Sumiyoshi had something special when he was an apprentice. “I always tell the young ones I promote to remain humble. I’m glad to see Yuta grown up [and still modest]. He’s a smart boy,” he said. Tamasaburo said he is happy to see young members like Sumiyoshi improve themselves.

Besides his superlative taiko performances, Sumiyoshi plays the fue flute and other kinds of drums, and has become one of the troupe’s key composers.

Sumiyoshi says it’s only recently that he’s started establishing his own style and strengthening the core of his performances. He believes that producing sounds by beating something is an instinctive action shared among human beings.

“The sound of a drumbeat brings both the performers and the audience together, resonating with each other,” he said. “I’m beginning to understand that any percussion instrument, whether it’s the taiko or the drums, is part of our innate makeup.”

Yuichiro Funabashi, Kodo’s ensemble leader, says Sumiyoshi shows great structural ability, as well as combining sounds and rhythm. “He has the ability to comprehend and present the director’s intentions,” Funabashi said. “He also pursues music he personally wants to make.”

Funabashi said Sumiyoshi is always eager to do better. “I’d ask if he could write a particular type of piece, and he’d come up with one the following day,” he said.

Kodo looks to the future

During its 35-year history, Kodo has had its ups and downs. The company sought new possibilities for taiko music, but was often trapped between the ideal and reality. Members would come and go, as they argued about which direction to take.

Sumiyoshi has his own thoughts on the kind of music Kodo should pursue.

“There’s music that reminds you of your Japanese identity. Then there’s music all humankind can share,” he said.

He also has personal aspirations.

“I’ll keep on giving entertaining taiko performances with Kodo. I’m also interested in making the avant-garde sounds of the latest electronic music,” Sumiyoshi said.

These steps will surely be meaningful for the future of Kodo.

Kodo will give a series of performances to mark its 35th anniversary from Aug. 18 to 20 at the Suntory Hall in Akasaka, Tokyo. Visit www.kodo.or.jp for more information.