Kodo drums up a way of life, performer says

The Kodo Drummers will be at the National Arts Centre on March 25.

Ryotaro Leo Ikenaga was on track to be an investment banker. He was going to one of the elite universities in the U.S., Cornell, and he had a job offer on the table.

Still he chucked it all. But he wasn’t going snowboarding or touring the world on a quest to find himself. He went to Sado Island, Japan, to apprentice as a taiko drummer with Kodo, the world famous Japanese drumming troupe.

Ikenaga is second generation Japanese American. He was born in a Detroit suburb. As a youth he went to Japan to study at an American school there and connect with his culture. But he returned to the States to go to Cornell.

“That is where I really started playing Japanese drums.” The drums are part of a class of percussion instruments called taiko.

Turns out Cornell had a collegiate taiko team and Leo joined. He was, he said, attracted to the pure energy of the drums.

Ryotaro Leo Ikenaga in action. Photo courtesy Kodo.

He did have a musical background. He had started playing the piano at age two, he said, and then he picked up the cello. He also did play the taiko drums in elementary school.

In his senior year at Cornell, he faced a crossroads.

“I had always loved music. I was studying to become a banker. I had a job offer to work at an investment bank as a trader, but a bunch of things made me think about that choice.”

One thing that brought his renewed interest in his Japanese heritage into more focus was the massive Fukushima earthquake in 2011.

All of a sudden, “getting touch with my roots” was more urgent. “It was always something I had wanted to do.”

And he was also growing more passionate about music and playing taiko.

“I didn’t want to wake up after 30 years wondering what might have been, so I decided to to take a leap of faith and go to the Kodo apprentice centre in Japan (in 2013). I wanted to push myself to do something where I wasn’t comfortable.”

He wasn’t thinking about performing then. “That was secondary.” He was testing himself.

The Kodo apprenticeship lasts a couple of years and it’s not a cakewalk.

“You live in the mountains. There is no TV, internet or phones. We harvested our own rice.”

Leo would wake up every morning at 5 a.m. and run for close to 10 kilometres every day.

“It’s a tough experience, but I wanted to do that. I felt my life was pretty easy and I wanted to take control of my life.”

Taiko drums range from the medium pizza size (about 12 inches in diameter to the massive ones that take several burly men to move.

“We also use drums and percussion instruments from around the world,” Leo said. “We have been doing that for awhile.” These include such things as steel drums from the Caribbean, rattles and shakers and bamboo instruments from Indonesia.

In the production Evolution which is coming to the NAC on Monday they will be deploying timpani and some snare drums, he said.

That these instruments are used speaks to the title of the touring show. It presents classic Kodo pieces written before the troupe was founded in 1981 to new works that will feature the kettle drums and the snares and “some new taiko drums we have made.”

Performers also play bamboo flutes, and Japanese stringed instruments along with some who sing.

Leo does a “a little bit of everything.” On this tour he is playing the bamboo flute and a Japanese stringed instrument called the shamisen.

This is Leo’s fourth year touring with Kodo. He has been a member of the company since 2016. The work is demanding, he said, “but we’re not like body builders, I guess we are pretty fit however.”

He has been travelling the world two thirds of every year in one of Kodo’s three troupes that are on the road at any given time.

“I have been to a lot of places. I haven’t been to Africa.” But he has been to Europe, most of North America, Brazil and Vietnam. He has spent almost month in Paris and Moscow.

The troupe coming to Ottawa has 16 performers of which four are women.

The presence of women on stage is not that new, Leo said. What is relatively recent, however, is that it is now common for women to play drums in a performance.

After his work with Kodo, Leo feels he has “gotten closer to my roots. Before came to Kodo I didn’t know anyone who couldn’t speak English. Right now, every day, it’s all in Japanese.

“Now that I know both cultures I can see the pros and cons of both. Taiko has taken me all around the world and what I have noticed is that despite our cultural differences and stereotypes, there is a sense of human nature that is common to all.

“In Moscow, I was a little scared. I had an American passport. I watched the movies and I watched the news. But I thoroughly enjoyed the city and the people.

“Kodo breaks down barriers,” he said. That’s the power of the drum.

Where: Southam Hall
When: March 25 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.