Taiko in a Recorded Medium: Ondekoza and Kodo

For the first two decades of the history of contemporary taiko performance, the artistry of groups like Osuwa Daiko and Sukeroku Taiko could only be experienced live, with a few exceptions. Osuwa Daiko was featured on television a few times in the late 1950s and early 1960s on NHK, the Japanese nationality public broadcasting station. Oguchi Daihachi and the other members of the group made several appearances on the show “Nihon no Dentō” (「日本の伝統」), a program that highlighted regional folk art from across Japan. Meanwhile, they also performed as part of the 1959 NHK National Song and Dance Festival at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. And, of course, the group achieved its greatest publicity to date when it appeared as part of the Opening ceremonies for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

These appearances, however, were aberrations, as live – and local – performance remained the primary way that audiences experience contemporary taiko performance. This started to change in the 1970s, though, when Ondekoza founder/producer Den Tagayasu developed numerous multimedia projects for the group. As he explored the various avenues through which Ondekoza’s name could become better known, he in turn also helped to move contemporary taiko performance into new mediums, including movies, documentaries, and audio recordings.

Recordings by Ondekoza and other taiko groups offer a unique glimpse into the history of contemporary taiko performance. When studying the development of the genre, one is simultaneously helped and hindered by the way that the genre has grown. As many of the founders of groups like Ondekoza/Kodo are still active today, there is a living oral history that can be accessible to players and scholars alike. However, unlike in many musical cultures such as Western art music in which the prominence of written scores and parts allows for works to be studied centuries after a work is first performed, contemporary taiko repertoire is largely orally-transmitted. There are very few scores of works available to the public, and those have generally been published by composers who were already working within the field of Western art music.

Recordings, then, are an essential part of the study of contemporary taiko performance. They are especially important when exploring taiko music history, for even though many pieces are still being performed decades after their composition, they have been arranged or adapted to suit the desires of different audiences and performers over the years. By examining historical recordings, however, it possible can see how a piece was first performed.

The groups Ondekoza and Kodo are perfect subjects for shedding light this process. The records and cassettes that they produced in the 1970s and early 1980s provide insights into how they were developing their compositions and performance styles. They include both familiar pieces like “O-daiko” and “Yatai-bayashi” and lesser-known pieces that have not survived the passage of time. By examining these recordings, then, listeners can experience how taiko performance was evolving in the 1970s and 1980s.[1]

Ondekoza’s Multimedia Explorations

Ondekoza was one of the first groups to explore the possibilities of contemporary taiko performance in audio and video recording mediums. In 1974, filming began on a documentary entitled “Sado no Kuni – Ondekoza” (「佐渡國鬼太鼓座」¸ “Ondekoza from Sado”).[2] Directly by prominent Japanese New Wave filmmaker Shinoda Masahiro, it premiered in 1975, the same year in which the group made its American debut in Boston and European debut in Paris. A second documentary was filmed in 1975, although it was never completed, and a third – “Za Ondekoza” (「ざ・鬼太鼓座」, “The Ondekoza”) finished production in 1979 (and premiered in 1981).[3]

Ondekoza was active not only in visual mediums but in aural ones as well, recording and releasing three albums over a three-year period in the latter half of the decade. The first album, Ondekoza I (1977, Victor KVX-1037), reflected Ondekoza’s touring repertoire at the time. It begins with “O-daiko” (「大太鼓」), offering a glimpse into how this piece was first conceived and performed by group members. It begins with sparse hits on the ō-daiko and chappa underneath a shakuhachi melody. The ō-daiko gradually takes over, developing into the now-familiar improvisation by one player accompanied by a second player on the other side of the drummer and the chappa player. The soloist is given a brief respite towards the end of the piece while a shinobue enters, before the piece ends with a faster improvisation on the ō-daiko accompanied by atarigane.

Two melodic works follow the bombastic splendor of “O-daiko.” Succeeding “O-daiko” on Side A of the LP is “Ajikan” (「阿字観」), a standard of shakuhachi repertoire named after a Buddhist meditation technique. Side B, meanwhile, opens with “Tsugaru-jamisen” (「津軽三味線」), a performance of a style of shamisen playing from the Tsugaru peninsula in northern Japan. These pieces not only provide a contrast to the drum-heavy works that open and close the LP, but also provide insight to the diverse performance styles studied by Ondekoza members and presented in concerts around the world.

Ondekoza I concludes with Ondekoza’s arrangement of Chichibu Yatai-bayashi. This now-familiar arrangement has largely remained the same over the years: chū-daiko players trade ō-nami/ko-nami segments before the shime-daiko players begin their tamaire solo. After the tamaire, the chū-daiko return for one more ō-nami/ko-nami cycle before the piece concludes with the bukkiri.[4]

Ondekoza I stands out not only for its presentation of Ondekoza standards and pieces that have not quite survived the passage of time within the repertoire, but also for the reprinting of an English-language review of the groups Berlin debut at the Metamusik festival on October 4, 1976:

This article demonstrates that the selections presented on the LP were a fair representation of Ondekoza’s repertoire at the time, capturing the essence of the group’s style through the performance of traditional Japanese folk and art music songs. This practice would continue in the next album, Ondekoza 2, released in 1978 (Victor, KVX-1038).

Much like the first album, Ondekoza 2 features melodic pieces sandwiched in between drum-heavy works; however, this recording differs in that the drum-heavy works are not arrangements but original compositions.  The LP opens with Ishii Maki’s commissioned work “Monochrome II,” a slight variation on the “Monochrome” that is still performed today. This version includes an extended ō-daiko solo in the middle of the work and the inclusion of the ō-daiko in the quoting of “Yatai-bayashi” at the end of the piece. These elements can be found in the original score for “Monochrome” that can be purchased through music vendors, but this version is rarely performed today.

Following “Monochrome II” is  an arrangement of regional festival music, “Yumigahama” (「弓ヶ浜」), festival music featuring taiko and shinobue from the Yumigahama region of Shizuoka Prefecture. Next comes another famous work for a melodic instrument, the shamisen piece “Futozao” (「太棹」, also the name of a specific type of  shamisen).

Ondekoza 2 concludes with “Mikuni Gensōkyoku” (「三國幻想曲」, “Three Kingdom Fantasy”), an extended improvisation on the ō-daiko accompanied by chappa, and also featuring melodies on shinobue and shamisen. It has much in common with “O-daiko,” but there is less separation of melodic and rhythmic instruments. The work opens with ō-daiko and shinobue playing at the same time, soon joined by the chappa. After several minutes the focus shifts to the shamisen, quietly accompanied by the ō-daiko. About halfway through the piece, the ō-daiko takes center stage, soloing while the shinobue player improvises in the background. The piece ends in a manner similar to “O-daiko,” with a brief respite provided by the shinobue before it concludes with improvisation on the ō-daiko, albeit an improvisation with much less fervor than the “O-daiko” version.

Just as Ondekoza I provided a glimpse into Ondekoza’s history through the inclusion of the review from The International Herald Tribute, Ondekoza 2 offers an indication of how contemporary taiko performance was evolving. The liner notes feature an extended article about the recording of the album, including diagrams of both instrument and microphone placement:

These liner notes offer a look at how Ondekoza and Victor recording engineers were working to translate what was primary a live performance art into one that could be successfully captured for an LP.

On both Ondekoza I and Ondekoza 2, the listener can hear not only how Ondekoza was evolving, but also how the genre was changing. “Monochrome” was unlike anything composed to that point for contemporary taiko ensemble, and yet it existed alongside arrangements of festival music and standards of melodic instrument repertoire. This evolution is further put on display in 1980’s Ondekoza-2 (Victor, KVX-1061). Surprisingly, there are only two songs on the album: “Sōgaku Improvisation” (「走楽インプロヴィゼーション」, “Running Music Improvisation”) and “Kaigara-Koishiya” (「貝がら恋しや」, “A Loving Look at a Shell”). “Sōgaku Improvisation” – an original composition featuring concurrent improvisations on ō-daiko, shime-daiko, shamisen, and shakuhachi – is in many ways a continuation of the work done in “O-daiko” and “Mikuni Gensōkyoku.” Liner notes on the back of the album describe it as an attempt to show through music the reason why Ondekoza members run (Ondekoza 1980).

“Kaigara-Koishiya,” meanwhile, is perhaps the more interesting of the two pieces, written in 1979 for a joint performance with the rock band Boogie Woogie Down Town Band. It features a chorus singing two songs based on folk melodies from Tottori Prefecture. These songs are accompanied by a variety of melodic and percussion instruments, including three koto (「琴」, a bridged 13-stringed zither), assorted percussion instruments, gongs, taiko, and – most unusually – an Indonesian gamelan (an ensemble consisting of various metallophones and gongs). The koto is a constant throughout the piece, serving as both melody and accompaniment for the voices, while the rest of the instruments accompany the various melodies. “Kaigara-Koishiya” is unlike anything else in the repertoire developed by Ondekoza in the 1970s, bringing together Japanese folk music (the folk melodies) and instruments from both Japanese (the koto) and non-Japanese (the gamelan) art music.

From Ondekoza to Kodo

The musical explorations demonstrated on Ondekoza-3 were a harbinger of things to come, showing the directions that Ondekoza members were looking to explore. However, the release of the album in 1981 came at a time of great turmoil for Ondekoza and its members. As the 1970s closed, members felt that Den was placing too much time – and money – into non-musical projects like the documentaries, and not into the artistic growth of the ensemble. Eventually, in 1980, they decided to part ways with Den, who took the group’s drums and moved to Nagasaki. The remaining members stayed on Sado and founded a new management organization, Kitamaesen (Kodo Cultural Foundation 2011, 67). However, they still had performance obligations to fulfill booked under the name “Ondekoza,” and so they embarked on a series of concerts celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the group.

The program for the 10th Anniversary concerts included a mix of old favorites and new pieces. An April performance in Tokyo’s Yomiuri Hall, for example, included the debut of several new pieces that the group had been working on even as the relationship with Den Tagayasu was deteriorating. One piece that was debuted was “Shishi-Odori” (「獅子踊り」), an arrangement of a regional drum dance from northern Japan, described in the following manner within the Kodo 30th Anniversary book Inochi Moyashite, Tatakeyo. -Kodo 30-Nen no Kiseki –:

The foundation is the National Intangible Cultural Heritage “Kanatsuru Yanagawa Shishi Odori,” from the city of Esashi in Iwate Prefecture. It has a history of 250 years as a ritual performance art of Matsuo Shrine. It is a performance art featuring the trinity of carrying a horse-skin okedō-daiko under the arm, accompanying it with the hands, and singing while wearing a mask with deer horns attached and carrying on the back two (3-4 meter long) sasara. “Shishi” means “deer.” The deer is an object of faith as a messenger of the gods, and its origins as a performing art showing a deer playing in the rice fields and the funeral rites of a deer is evident. This dance, in which the performer jumps up high and occasionally bends greatly forward, striking the sasara on the ground, is both heroic and gorgeous.

In 1980, performers encountered the beautiful and compelling dance, and invited first Mr. Hirano Yukio, and then a total of 6 people, to Sado and underwent instruction. To this day we continue an exchange as pupils. (Kodo Cultural Foundation 2011, 108-109)

The other piece debuted on the April 1981 concert was “Soh-Rengue” (「双蓮花」, “Pair of Lotus Flowers”), composed by Ondekoza founding member Hayashi Eitetsu. While “Shishi-odori” was in many ways a continuation of past activities for the group – that is, an arrangement of regional festival drumming and dancing – “Soh-Rengue” was in many respects a dramatic jump forward in the group’s performance style, meshing together a wide variety of elements both musical and visual. It combines hand-dancing (te-odori) from the Tsugaru region with musical performance on koto, percussion instruments like woodblocks and bells, and – most surprisingly – Caribbean steel drums. Within Kodo’s 30th Anniversary book, “Soh-Rengue” is described simply as a “work in which steel drums and such are combined with Tsugaru te-odori and reconstructed” (Kodo Cultural Foundation 2011, 67). However, the notes included with the 1982 album Kodo I (discussed below), are more descriptive:

SOH-RENGUE means two lotus flowers. The image of this music is scenery filled with soft sunlight and fluttering petals. It is played as an accompaniment for dancing. Only the melody of the theme was composed and afterwards improvised with dancing. We used woodblocks, bells, koto (13 stringed instrument) and steel drum. (Kodo 1982)

“Soh-Rengue” builds upon Ondekoza-3’s “Kaigara-Koishiya,” with the koto once more featured as the primary melodic instrument accompanied by assorted percussion instruments and a non-Japanese instrument. This time, however, the secondary melodic instrument is the steel drum, which has a more prominent role than that held by the gamelan in “Kaigara-Koishiya.” They function as both accompaniment and counter-melody to the koto.

The piece opens with a slow melody expressed by the koto and steel drums. Woodblocks and bells gradually enter with brief flourishes before they start playing a rhythmic accompaniment for the melody. Eventually, the woodblocks take over for a while, with woodblocks of different pitches offering both rhythmic and quasi-melodic elements as they gradually increase the tempo. Once the woodblocks establish the new tempo, the koto and steel drums enter at a faster pace, before the piece ends with a brief return to the opening feel.

While no videos of the dance performed during “Soh-Rengue” exist, many recordings of Tsugaru te-odori have been uploaded to video sharing sites, providing an example of what audiences might have seen during this tour:

Even in a period of great change, Ondekoza members kept their basic performance formula the same, combining festival music arrangements with original compositions. However, as the 10th anniversary tour wrapped up the members encountered another hurdle to overcome, when Den asked them to stop using the Ondekoza name. After moving to Nagasaki,  he had formed a ‘new’ Ondekoza, and as he had the legal right to the name, the original members left on Sado had to find a new name (Bender 2012, 96). Founding member Hayashi Eitetsu proposed the name “Kodo,” combining the Japanese characters for “drum” (ko) and “child” () in an effort to reflect the idea of the sound of the taiko being similar to the heartbeat within a mother’s womb (drawing upon stories he had heard of children falling asleep at Ondekoza concerts during ō-daiko solos) (Hayashi 1999, 53).  The other members liked this idea, and they decided upon the new name “Kodo” for their new group.

“Kodo I”

In the summer of 1981, the former members of Ondekoza gave the final performance as “Ondekoza” and began activities as “Kodo.” In August, they held the first “Kodo Summer School,” a gathering much in the spirit of the initial Ondekoza summer gathering held in 1970. Then, in September, they made their official debut as Kodo at the Berlin Arts Festival. While in Germany, they debuted a new composition by Ishii Maki – “Dyu-Ha,” originally commissioned by the group when they were still Ondekoza (as suggested by the original full name of the composition: “Dyu-Ha, for Ondekoza”) (Kodo Cultural Foundation 2011, 69).

After returning to Japan for a performance at the end of September at the Ikebukuro Sunshine Theater in Tokyo (a concert for which tickets had already been sold as an Ondekoza performance), the group officially announced their renaming as “Kodo.” After playing a few more shows across Japan, they recorded their first album under the new name over two days in December 1981 at the Iruma City Community Hall in Iruma, Saitama Prefecture.[5] They named the album Kodo I (Kodo, KODO-001), following the naming scheme used in Ondekoza’s albums.

Kodo I represented a new start for the group, featuring compositions composed either by members or specifically for the group. Indeed, much like Ondekoza-3 there are no arrangements of festival music on this album.  The first piece on the album is “Kodo-Kukai” (「鼓童空海」, “Kodo’s Empty Ocean”) Hayashi Eitetsu’s new take on the ō-daiko solo. The piece features many of the same elements found in Ondekoza’s “O-daiko” – atarigane and chappa accompaniment along with a shinobue – but also includes a few new elements. It opens with a few notes on singing bowls  – standing bells used in Buddhist practice – as the ō-daiko player strikes intermittently. A chorus then enters, singing a wordless melody for a brief period before the primary ō-daiko improvisation begins (accompanied by chappa, shinobue, and chū-daiko).

Following “Kodo-Kukai” on Side 1 of the LP is “Soh-Rengue,” a melodic counterpoint to the rhythmic power of Hayashi’s ō-daiko solo.

Side 2 of “Kodo I” opens with “Dyu-Ha” (「入破」), described as follows on the back cover of the American release of the LP:

The “group of Taiko” mentioned in the description is a kumi-daiko grouping of drums like that first developed by Oguchi Daihachi with Osuwa Daiko in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the Kodo kumi-daiko set differs from the Osuwa Daiko version through its use of okedō-daiko (桶胴太鼓, “bucket-bodied drum”), a type of shime-daiko used in many drum dances (such as the Shishi-odori debuted at the Ondekoza 10th Anniversary concert). Hayashi Eitetsu worked with Kodo’s drum supplier Asano Taiko to create a stand in which the drum is suspended using leather drums and placed so the player can hit it much in the same way as a nagadō-daiko.

As seen in the picture above, for “Dyu-ha” several shime-daiko are placed in a V-shape with the point at the front of the space, behind which stands the okedō-daiko set (often comprised of two okedō-daiko and one or two shime-daiko). The musical content of the piece has much in common with the aleatoric sections of “Monochrome,” in that there are assigned rhythms and timing guidelines, but the execution of both is left up to the players.

While in concert “Dyu-Ha” is performed on its own, on Kodo I the group blends the end of Ishii’s work with the beginning of “Hekiryu-1st” (「碧流一番」, “The First Blue Wave”) a composition by Hayashi Eitetsu and Fujimoto Yoshikazu described in the following manner in the Kodo I liner notes:

While “Kodo-Kukai” opened the LP with an extended improvisation on the ō-daiko, “Hekiryu-1st” is an improvisation by two players on the taiko set. One player provides an accompanying ostinato while the other improvises on the set, the players take turns before improvising simultaneously while at the same time providing a quasi-ostinato rhythmic foundation.

As a whole, Kodo I offers listeners a glimpse into the directions that Kodo members looked to evolve their performance style and repertoire. With Ishii’s contribution, the “new” organization continued an existing musical relationship, while the inclusion of works by group members gave them direct involvement in their own musical development. They would not build upon this step forward for a short while, however, for even as they released the album at the beginning in 1982, members took an eight-month break in performing, traveling to various parts in Japan to learn new performance styles much as they had a decade earlier under the name Ondekoza.

When they returned to performing later that year, they had a much different look, not just in terms of the music they were playing but the make-up of the ensemble. A new generation of performers joined following the summer 1981 Kodo Summer School while one prominent performer departed: Hayashi Eitetsu. After a decade at the center of the group’s activities – during which time he was the primary force behind many of the arrangements and the development of works like “O-daiko,” not to mention the three pieces by him on the first Kodo LP – Hayashi decided to embark on a new journey as a taiko soloist. Following Hayashi’s departure, “Soh-Rengue” and “Hekiryu-1st” disappeared from the Kodo performance repertoire, and the group replaced “Kodo-Kukai” with the older “O-daiko,” now with Fujimoto Yoshikazu as the featured soloist.

“Kodo II”

Kodo members revealed the results of their eight months of research and retooling of repertoire first when they returned to touring in 1982, and then in 1983 when they released their second album, Kodo II LIVE IN CALIFORNIA (Kodo, KODO-002). They recorded the album live at Zellerbach Hall at the University of California Berkeley on November 2, 1982, and released it in 1983 as a cassette.

While some Ondekoza classics are present on the program presented in California – “O-daiko,” “Yatai-bayashi,” “Monochrome” – much of the program consisted of works the group had recently added to their performance repertoire. The concert opens with “Miyake,” the now-famous arrangement of festival drumming from Miyake-jima.[6] This is followed by “Nishimonai” (「西馬音内」) an arrangement of bon odori from the Nishinomai section of Ugomachi, Akita Prefecture. After these two regional arrangements comes three original compositions: “Monochrome,” “Hae” (「南風」, “Southern Wind”), and “Dyu-Ha.” Side 2 of Kodo II opens with “Shishi-odori,” which is followed by “Ayako-mai” (「綾子舞」, “Dance of Figured Satin”), a dance from Niigata Prefecture. After the two dances comes “Izumo-gaku” (「出雲楽」, “Music from Izumo”), a short piece for fue and ō-daiko that leads into “O-daiko,” before the program concludes with “Yatai-bayashi.”

Out of all the new additions to the Kodo repertoire found in this program, “Hae” – composed in 1982 by group member Yamaguchi Motofumi – is perhaps the most interesting, described in the following manner for the 1985 album “Heartbeat Drummers of Japan”:

Hae are the winds which come from the south. Throughout its long history, Japan has been significantly influenced by the southernmost islands. Using the basic tonal scale of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands, as well as using a Caribbean instrument, the steel drum, this composition expresses a heartfelt longing for the south. (Kodo 1985)

In “Hae,” Yamaguchi brings together the steel drums first used in “Soh-Rengue” and the southern – that is, Okinawan – influences found in “Hekiryu-1st.” The combination of koto and steel drums from “Soh-Rengue” is this time accompanied by an okedō-daiko. After the steel drums present the tonal scale through a brief ostinato, the koto enters with its own melody before it is joined in counter-melody by the steel drums, with both being accompanied by the okedō-daiko. This opening section is noteworthy not only for the instrumentation, but for its usage of 3/4 time (rarely used in taiko compositions). The okedō-daiko player then begins a 12/8 ostinato over which both melodic players first trade improvisations then start interweaving with the other’s solo, before the piece returns to the original 3/4 koto melody over the steel drum ostinato.

As often will occur during the life of a performing group, “Hae” has disappeared from Kodo’s repertoire. Nevertheless, it shows how group members were experimenting with new musical ideas and, indeed, musical instruments. It was recorded again in 1985 along with “Miyake,” “O-daiko,” “Monochrome,” and another new work called “Chonlima” (composed by the kabuki musician Tosha Roetsu) for the album “Heartbeat Drummers of Japan.”

Kodo’s November 2, 1982 concert in San Francisco – recorded and released as Kodo II LIVE IN CALIFORNIA – indicated the path that the group would take moving forward into the 1980s. The program included old favorites from the Ondekoza era and new pieces, both arrangements and originals. The number of original compositions by members would only continue to grow. Yamaguchi Motofumi followed up “Hae” with three songs on the group’s next album, “UBU-SUNA” (released in 1988). That same album featured a studio recording of “Dyu-ha” and two compositions by Leonard Eto, who joined the group in 1984.

Recordings such as those produced by Ondekoza in the latter half of the 1970s and Kodo in the first half of the 1980s are important to obtaining a greater understanding of how contemporary taiko music grew. They offer a look at an evolving performance ensemble, keeping hold of its roots in festival and music while also expanding the group’s musical horizons. Many of the pieces composed during this era are still part of the repertoire for both Kodo and the new version of Ondekoza, a testament to the artistic direction and vision of the members even amid major organizational change.

Works Cited

Bender, Shawn. 2012. Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hayashi, Eitetsu. 1999. “Tokushuu Hayashi Eitetsu Zenshi 1970-2000 特集 林英哲 全史 1970-2000.”  Taikorojii たいころじい [Taikology] 17:9-79.

Kodo. 1982. KODO I: Kodo. LP.

Kodo. 1985. Heartbeat Drummers of Japan: Sheffield Lab, Inc. CD.

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.

Ondekoza. 1980. Ondekoza-3: Victor. LP.


[1] Unfortunately, many of the recordings discussed in this article are out of print. Some can be obtained through online used record stores, however, and to support searches for these products I will be including publisher information.

Due to the wishes of the artists, I will not be posting audio/video examples from the 1970s Ondekoza LPs, or the first two Kodo albums discussed in this album.

[2] “Sado no Kuni” is the old name for the island of Sado.

[3] The Ondekoza documentaries have rarely been seen since the 1970s. However, a showing of the third documentary took placed in Tokyo in November 2016, and this documentary will be released to home video by Shochiku Company Limited in February 2017.

[4] For more about this piece, see Ben’s article about Chichibu yatai-bayashi on Esto es Taiko. https://estoestaiko.com/2015/12/07/chichibu-yatai-bayashi/ (Accessed December 20, 2016)

[5] The location is mistakenly listed on the back cover of the US release as “Irima City Community Hall.”

[6] For more on this piece, see the article by Ben about “Miyake” published on esto es taiko: https://estoestaiko.com/2015/07/10/miyake-kodos-continued-arrangement-of-regional-drumming-styles/ (Accessed December 20, 2016)

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