A New Direction: Kodo and The Path to “Irodori”

When members of Ondekoza came to the United States in 1975 to run the Boston Marathon and perform a series of concerts, the tour started a long relationship between members of the Sado-based group and the North American taiko performance community. As the United States and Canada became a primary tour destination for the group, first as Ondekoza and later as Kodo, members came to rely heavily on the support of the growing number of taiko groups that were emerging across the continent. In an interview for the “Kodo in America” segment of Big Drum: Taiko in the United States documentary, Kinnara Taiko founding member Reverend Mas Kodani remembers how Ondekoza would run from the apartments where they were staying to the Senshin Buddhist Temple for rehearsals, then to the theater for a performance (2005). Meanwhile, in Kodo’s 30th Anniversary retrospective book, Kodo members acknowledge that American groups “deeply supported [them] in various ways since Ondekoza’s first North American tour” (Kodo Cultural Foundation 2011, 96)

This connection not only built a support network for the group whenever it came to North America, but also provided the foundation for ongoing artistic partnerships. Several members of San Jose Taiko toured with Kodo during their first tour of the United States in 1982, then traveled back to Sado with the group to continue training for several months.[1] Later that decade, in 1987, San Jose Taiko was invited by Den Tagayasu to present joint concert programs in Japan with his new incarnation of Ondekoza, an experience that PJ Hirabayashi cites as being a large factor in the group’s decision to become a professional organization.[2] On the other side, Kodo members single out San Jose Taiko as having a large impact on the original Ondekoza members upon their first encounter:

When we saw their [San Jose Taiko] performance for the first time, with their bright, carefree, and expressions overflowing with joy that was the complete opposite of us who were simply devoted to pursing a straight line to our goals, it had a huge impact on the members; at the same time, we felt a deep sense of relief. (Kodo Cultural Foundation 2011, 96)

Over time, these feelings of relief and joy would make their way onto the stage, helping the members move away from a stoic image dominated by the group’s past as Ondekoza and towards a new identity as Kodo.

This evolution was spurred on by an influx of new members into the group in the early 1980s, including some who participated in the first “Kodo Summer School” in 1981. Among those who joined the group during this period was Saito Eiichi, whose stage presence is described on Kodo’s own webpage as “always with a smiling face and teeming with exuberance.”[3]

Saito Eiichi with members of Blue Man Group. A screenshot from the 2012 DVD “Blue Man Group Meets Kodo,” published in 2012 by WOWOW INC. (Kodo 2012)

Another member who joined during this time was Leonard Eto. He was born in New York to Japanese musician parents; his father, Eto Kimio, was a koto player who established a vibrant career playing with musicians such as Harry Belafonte and Leopold Stokowski.[4] Leonard Eto was with Kodo from 1984 to 1992, during which time he became the group’s music director and one of the primary composers. Just as Hayashi Eitetsu helped to shaped the artistic direction of Ondekoza in the 1970s, Eto would help to guide Kodo into new artistic directions in the 1980s. From the almost stoic devotion demonstrated by the members at the beginning of their Ondekoza careers, the Kodo performance style would come to include a sense of playfulness and happiness, embracing the feeling of “overflowing with joy” that they saw in San Jose Taiko in the mid-1970s.

This joyous feeling is epitomized in Eto’s work “Irodori” (彩 “Colors”). Composed in 1990, “Irodori” quickly became a staple of Kodo’s repertoire, heralding a new composition style that is still followed by group members today. It not only reflected the change in Kodo’s demeanor, however, one later described as “a sense of musical freedom that rivaled the strictness they had held since Ondekoza” (Kodo Cultural Foundation 2011, 82). “Irodori” was the culmination of many different musical movements taking place within Kodo’s repertoire in the 1980s. Eto incorporated a number of instruments and performance practices that Kodo were experimenting with, leading to a new style of performance that was quite different from that performed by the group when they were known in the 1970s as “Ondekoza.”

New Instruments, New Possibilities

Since Oguchi Daihachi first brought his friends together to learn what would later become “Suwa Ikazuchi,” the taiko ensemble had been comprised of three primary drums: chū-daiko, ō-daiko, and shime-daiko. Both Oguchi and other groups later augmented this with narimono like chappa and atarigane. Towards the end of the 1970s, Ondekoza members added their own contribution to the kumidaiko ensemble: the okedō-daiko. The group began using the drum in performances such as their collaboration with the rock band Down Town Boogie-Woogie Band, documented in the 1982 documentary “ZA ONDEKOZA” (「ざ・ 鬼太鼓座」). A scene from the beginning of the film features an extended jam featuring members of both groups, with Ondekoza members playing chappa, two okedō-daiko, and a small taiko set made up of two shime-daiko, one okedō-daiko on a stand, and an ō-daiko. The two okedō-daiko being played by group members were slung over the shoulders using a strap, hanging at the players’ sides and hit using a pair of bachi on the front head.

Ondekoza using an okedō-daiko in concert with the Down Town Boogie-Woogie Band. A screenshot from the 2017 Blu-ray release of the 1981 documentary “Za Ondekoza.”

This usage of the okedō-daiko drew from Ondekoza’s studies of the drum dance Kanatsu-ryū Yanagawa shishi-odori (金津流梁川獅子躍).  Originating in the city of Oshu in Iwate Prefecture, this drum dance began as a Shinto ritual performed at the Matsuo Shrine in the city. During the dance, the performers dress in elaborate costumes that include red deer masks and long bundles of wood and bamboo called sasara (簓) on their back. They also carry small okedō-daiko with horse skin heads that are approximately one foot deep and slightly wider in diameter. The dancers sing and dance as they hit the drums with flat bachi, occasionally quickly bending over during the dance so the sasara can forcefully hit the ground.

Kodo members learned this drum dance in 1980 from Mr. Hirano Yukio both on Sado and in Oshu (Kodo Cultural Foundation 2011, 109). By the end of 1982, they were performing in concert, as evidenced by the inclusion of “Shishi-Odori” in the Berkeley, CA concert on November 2, 1982 released on cassette in 1983 as Kodo II LIVE IN CALIFORNIA (Kodo, KODO-002). This version of the dance was later incorporated by Leonard Eto into a composition called “LION,” the setting for which is described in the following manner in the liner notes for the 1990 album Irodori (CBS/Sony Records, CSCL 1525):

“This music contains thoughts of Africa where the roots of drums are to be found. The rhythm develops into a fierce like wild lions running as fast as they can, kicking the earth strongly.” (Kodo 1990)

In “LION,” three members of Kodo wear costumes similar to that worn by the dancers in Kanatsu-ryū Yanagawa shishi-odori, missing the large red deer masks but still with the sasara attached to their backs.

Kodo members performing “Lion.” A screenshot from the 1992 VHS “Kodo,” published by Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. (Kodo 1992)

“LION” opens with an ostinato by four drummers on one nagadō-daiko – referred to in Kodo’s materials as a miya-daiko (宮太鼓), an alternate name for the drum that refers to its place in Shinto rite (miya meaning shrine, temple, or palace) – and several hiradō-daiko. Hiradō-daiko are a type of byōuchi-daiko that are much shorter than nagadō-daiko but are often much wider. For “LION” and other pieces, Kodo members used hiradō-daiko that are almost as wide as their large ō-daiko, hitting them both with regular bachi and oversized baseball bat-like bachi. The latter type of bachi are used for continuing notes on the beat or on every two or four beats; in the latter case, the hits are often accompanied by elaborately choreographed swings that enhance the visual spectacle of playing the large drums.

The “LION” ensemble, with hiradō-daiko on both sides. A screenshot from the 1992 VHS “Kodo,” published by Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. (Kodo 1992)

The dancers enter as the four accompanying drummers continue their ostinato. Incorporating many of the shishi-odori movements into their dance, they slap the sasara against the ground several times before they begin to play one of several rhythmic phrases they will repeat throughout the piece, the accompaniment momentarily stops before beginning again. This pattern continues throughout “LION,” with the dancers alternating between dancing and drumming.

“LION” is one of several pieces in the Kodo repertoire for which there exists two primary versions: one performed for recordings and one performed in concert. In the recorded version first released on the 1990 album Irodori, a pair of chappa enters after the first repeat of the drum dancers’ rhythmic phrase. Later on, in the middle of the work, the focus shifts towards a number of non-Japanese instruments like the Indonesian gambang kayu, the chajchas from the Central Andes, the Brazilian ganzá, and the caxixi commonly found in Brazil and across Africa. After a short break by these world instruments, the taiko return to the forefront.

In the concert version, meanwhile, the middle of the piece is quite different. Several of the accompanying drummers move from their drums and pick up other instruments. Two play on larger okedō-daiko of a type used in the pieces “Dyu-Ha” and “Hekiryu-1st” on the first Kodo LP Kodo I (Kodo, KODO-001).[5] Whereas in those pieces the larger okedō-daiko were hung on stands using leather straps, for “LION” a long cloth strap tied to each side of the drum, and the drummers carried them under one arm while hitting with the other.  Meanwhile, a third performer grabs a pair of large cymbals similar to those used during the Chinese lion dance. This variation of the accompanying ensemble plays a brief interlude while the dancers move around the stage. Eventually, the musicians move back to their original positions and begin a variation of the opening ostinato, gradually increasing the speed while the dancers move in a circle as they repeatedly strike the sasara against the ground.

“LION” demonstrates how Kodo members were integrating both Japanese folk performance styles and non-Japanese instruments in the 1980s, something they were doing with other pieces like “Hae.” The hiradō-daiko would come to have a prominent place in Kodo performances, becoming a crucial element of the ensemble. Meanwhile, the okedō-daiko would gain an even greater place within Kodo compositions, influenced as much as by the group’s musical development as by the interactions members would have as they toured around the world. Among the musicians that members met were Samul Nori, a percussion group from South Korea. Like Kodo, Samul Nori was engaged in the transformation of folk music for the concert stage. They arranged for stage performance pungmul nori, a folk genre traditionally performed to ensure and celebrate good rice harvests, and arranged it for the concert stage. Founder Kim Duk Soo and other members took folk music from across South Korea and integrated into their performance style that uses four instruments: kkwaenggwari, a small gong; jing, a large gong; janggu, an hourglass-shaped drum; and buk, a small barrel drum.

During one of their meetings, Kodo member Saito Eiichi tried out the janggu and was struck by the manner in which the drummer plays both sides of the drum (Kodo Cultural Foundation 2011, 111). Members saw the potential for this style to be adapted for the okedō-daiko, and began experimenting. Eventually, with Eto at the lead, they adapted the construction to make it larger than that used by the dancers in “Shishi-Odori” and “LION” but slightly smaller than those used by the background ensemble in “LION.” Inspiration for this change came from folk drumming at the Tozan Festival of Iwakisan Shrine (岩木山神社賑祭) in Aomori Prefecture (Asano Foundation for Taiko Culture Research 2002, 21).

In time, this variation of the okedō-daiko became known as the katsugi okedō-daiko (かつぎ桶太鼓), the word “katsugi” coming from the verb “katsugu” (担ぐ) which means “to carry on one’s back or shoulders.” The katsugi okedō-daiko was first put on display in Leonard Eto’s composition “Yu-Karak” (游カラク), composed in 1988 and recorded on the album “UBU-SUNA” released that same year (Kodo 1988). It’s in Eto’s 1990 composition “Irodori,” however, that the style was made famous. “Irodori” was the culmination of much of the work that Kodo members had been putting into the evolution of their performances, opening the way towards a new style not incorporated not only new musical elements but also a new perspective.


Within “Irodori,” Leonard Eto brought together many of the musical developments and instruments explored by Kodo members during the 1980s. This included not only the okedō-daiko and hiradō-daiko, but also innovations being made in the use of chappa by member Kaneko Ryutaro. Kaneko began to experiment with different ways of creating sounds using the cymbals, creating a complex sonic palette that could be integrated in Kodo’s new works.

Meanwhile, Eto also made use of the changing role of the shinobue within Kodo’s compositions. The bamboo flute had been a part of performances since the beginning of Ondekoza’s activities in the early 1970s, when it would be featured in arrangements of festival music like “Yatai-bayashi.” In the mid-1980s, the shinobue became more prominent through its usage in original compositions by Yamaguchi Motofumi like “Michi,” from the album UBU-SUNA (1988) and “Kariuta” from Blessing of the Earth (1989) (Kodo 1988, 1989). These pieces featured original melodies by Yamaguchi with either minimal or no drum accompaniment, taking the shinobue from the quasi-accompanying role it had in works like “Yatai-bayashi” and “O-daiko” and moving it into the spotlight.

“Irodori,” meanwhile, took advantage of the many musical explorations upon which Kodo members were embarking during the 1980s. Its difference from those works that came before is immediately apparent. The piece opens with a short introduction by the drums and chappa, walking on stage in a line with smiles on their faces (a contrast to the stoicism that often accompanied Ondekoza performances). Following a brief interplay between the two instrument types, the okedō-daiko drummers begin playing an accented ostinato. The chappa adds an accented rhythm, while the hiradō-daiko solidifies the tempo by hitting on beat one of each measure. In the 1990 recording of the piece, this ostinato accompanies a brief solo by an ō-daiko player (Kodo 1990). During the performance of the piece captured for a 1992 VHS release, however, the ostinato flows directly into the first statement of the shinobue melody. This melody, performed by two players in unison, occurs over an ostinato provided by the okedō-daiko and shime-daiko:

The primary fue melody in “Irodori”

During this fue/taiko ostinato, the chappa occasionally mirrors the accented ostinato but also playing in counterpoint, rubbing the cymbals together so they buzz in between the accents of the okedō-daiko. He also adds a visual flourish, drawing attention to his movements and playing to the crowd to a small degree. All the while, the hiradō-daiko players continues to hit on beat one of each measure. Even this has a hint of the theatrical, as the drummers whirl the bachi over the heads or take a bit windup before hitting the drum. As a result, the entire stage environment is much lighter and freer than can be found in pieces like “Miyake” or “LION.”

After several repeats of the primarily melodic phrase, a four-beat closing pattern by the okedō-daiko players wraps up this section and serves to transition into the next section featuring a series of improvised solos by various members, the specifics of which depend on the performance. The 1990 CD recording features an ō-daiko solo, while the 1992 video recording is more elaborate. It begins with several solos by okedō-daiko, first independent and then playing off of each other. These okedō-daiko solos further the light-hearted nature of “Irodori,” with the drummers playfully interacting with each other. A degree of good-spirited one-upmanship permeates the improvisations, as the soloists are watched by the rest of the ensemble with large smiles on their faces.

Once the okedō-daiko solos are finished, the ō-daiko players takes a turn, one of the few times in the Kodo repertoire apart from “O-daiko” that there is a solo improvisation on the ō-daiko in the middle of a piece.[6] After this, the shinobue players return for simultaneous individual improvised variations of the initial melody. As they play, a dancer comes on to the stage and begins a hand dance.

A restatement of the opening melodies serves to cue the entire ensemble, which then reenters for the final section as the as the dancer brings out a fan with a flourish (sometimes accompanied by confetti). The shinobue players repeat the melody over and over while the dancer moves around the stage, accompanied by several more performers waving poles with paper streams on top. Even these dancers get a chance to show off, spinning their poles around their necks and showing the various ways they can keep the festival-like atmosphere going. All the while, the drummers continue the ostinato, with several okedō-daiko again starting dueling improvisations. The music reaches a fever pitch, until finally the piece ends with a bit visual flourish and a single unison note.

The “Irodori” Effect

Even as “Irodori” was the end result of Kodo’s work over the course of the 1980s, it was also an experiment by the group. In particular, the combination of a wind instrument melody and drum accompaniment was surprisingly unusual within Kodo’s repertoire. Of course, this grouping is standard in festival music, and thus can be found in arrangements like “Yatai-bayashi.” However, in this piece the stage focus is on the drumming, and the shinobue player stands towards the rear of the ensemble. Indeed, the matsuri-bayashi pieces performed by Kodo featured quite visually striking drumming styles, from Chichibu yatai-bayashi (“Yatai-bayashi”) to Miyake-jima Kamitsuki mikoshi-daiko (“Miyake”) and Kanatsu-ryū Yanagawa shishi-odori (“Shishi-odori”/”LION”). It could be argued that “Nishinomai” – the bon odori arrangement first featured on the Kodo II album – is shinobue-heavy, but given that it is primarily a dance piece even here the emphasis is on the visual element of performance. Rather, one has to look at Yamaguchi Motofumi’s pieces like “Hae” and “Michi” – the latter from the 1988 album UBU-SUNA – to find pieces in which melodic instruments are at the forefront.

And yet, despite its departure from what had come before, “Irodori” and its festival atmosphere was immediately well received by audiences. It soon became either the ending piece or the encore for Kodo concerts in the 1990s. Eto’s work was particularly popular as the closing piece at Kodo’s Earth Celebration music festival, held every summer since 1988. Today, it can often been seen and heard as a farewell piece played by Kodo members as Earth Celebration attendees return to the main Japanese island of Honshu on a ferry.

Perhaps in recognition of this popularity, the basic structure of “Irodori” – slung katsugi okedō-daiko serving as rhythmic foundation and accompaniment for a fue melody – has been used for many other pieces in Kodo’s repertoire. [7] Until the most recent tours created under the direction of Bando Tamasaburo III, the closing piece for a Kodo concert was, if not “Irodori,” an “Irodori”-esque piece. In 1995, Kodo released a video of their performance at the Acropolis of Athens (Kodo 1995). The closing piece for this concert is “Akabanar” (「アカバナー」, a Okinawan word meaning “Hibiscus”) composed by Kaneko Ryutaro. Like “Irodori,” it opens with a shinobue melody accompanied by okedō-daiko, hiradō-daiko, and chappa.[8] This then evolves in an extended jam on all the instruments.

More recently, “Mata Ashita” (「また明日」, “Tomorrow”) – composed by Ishizuka Mitsuru for Kodo’s Heartbeat Project in support of relief efforts in Tohoku following the 2011 earthquake – was the closing piece for the 2012 Honoka tour in Japan.

The “Irodori”-style piece has also been incorporated into the repertoire of other taiko groups around the world, proving that Leonard Eto hit on a song style with lasting audience appeal.

Meanwhile, the prominence given to the katsugi okedō-daiko as a vehicle for rhythmic melody and soloistic expression has been embraced by other members as they have written new pieces for the ensemble. There are a number of works now within the Kodo repertoire that feature either okedō-daiko alone or okedō-daiko, hiradō-daiko, and chappa – that is, the “Irodori” ensemble minus a shinobue. These pieces often highlight not only the movement possibilities of the okedō-daiko – the simple ability to move around the stage while playing – but also the choreographic possibilities in hitting both sides of the drum in a manner modeled after the Korean changgo.

Twenty-seven years after “Irodori” first premiered, then, its impact is still being felt. Not only is it the culmination of the musical explorations upon which Kodo members embarked upon in the 1980s, but it also represents the tonal shift members were seeking. In searching for a “taiko overflowing with joy,” Kodo members have explored and continue to search for not only different compositional styles and instrument combinations, but also collaborations and performance opportunities that offer a chance to expand the boundaries of what is possible within contemporary taiko performance. The beginning of this article features a screenshot of the group’s 2011 collaboration with the Blue Man Group, during which Saito Eiichi gets suited up and plays drums filled with paint. This collaboration and scenario would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, but now this sense of playfulness is almost expected of the group. By creating a festival atmosphere on stage that allowed for fun and self-expression, Leonard Eto helped change the image of Kodo forever.


  1. Big Drum: Taiko in the United States: Japanese American National Museum. DVD.

Asano Foundation for Taiko Culture Research. 2002. Wadaiko Ga Wakaru Hon 和太鼓がわかる本. Edited by Mieko Kono. Fukudome, Hakusan, Ishikawa, Japan: Asano Foundation for Taiko Culture Research.

Kodo. 1988. Ubu-suna: CBS/Sony Records. CD.

Kodo. 1989. Blessing of the Earth: CBS/Sony Records. CD.

Kodo. 1990. Irodori: CBS/Sony Records. CD.

Kodo. 1992. Kodo: Sony Music Entertainment Inc. VHS.

Kodo. 1995. Live at Acropolis: Sony Music Entertainment (Japan), Inc. DVD.

Kodo. 2012. Blue Man Group Meets Kodo: WOWOW INC. DVD.

Kodo Cultural Foundation. 2011. Inochi Moyashite, Tatakeyo. -Kodo 30-Nen no Kiseki – いのちもやして、たたけよ。-鼓童30年の軌跡ー. Tokyo: Shuppan Bunka Sha Corporation.


[1] Roy Hirabayashi, Personal interview, November 3, 2012

[2] As stated by Hirabayashi during a discussion panel at the 2013 East Coast Taiko Conference discussion panel. February 2, 2013, Brown University.

[3] http://www.kodo.or.jp/ws/20080919juku_eiichi_en.html (accessed January 30, 2017)

[4] http://www.leoeto.com/en/profile/ (accessed January 30, 2017)

[5] See the previous article for more about these pieces.

[6] The original version of “Monochrome” does feature one, but that version has rarely been performed since it was first premiered by Ondekoza in the mid-1970s; even today, this inclusion of the ō-daiko remains a rarity.

[7] Other examples – beyond works composed by Eto – include Yamaguchi Motofumi’s “Niji no Nagori” (“Rainbow Trances,” composed in 1999), and Ishizuka Mitsuru’s “Mata Ashita” (“Tomorrow,” composed in 2011).

[8] It’s worth noting, however, that the version of “Akabanar” recorded for the 1996 album Ibuki is quite different than this performance

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