By Jin Kiyokawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterBased on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture, the Kodo wadaiko drum group has many fans in Japan and abroad. Masayuki Sakamoto is particularly popular among its members, not just for his fine-featured face, but also for his outstanding technique — the 33-year-old drummer has been chosen for the center position in the group’s ensembles since his rookie year.
Sakamoto can produce powerful and pleasant sounds when beating the wadaiko, also called taiko. His body is well-toned and well-trained, his face chiseled with almond eyes and his personality composed and polite. It is probably no exaggeration to say that he embodies Kodo, a group that is based on the tradition of the instrument while at the same time presenting a sophisticated impression.
Sakamoto has enjoyed the exceptional status of playing at center stage or as a soloist since he became a full member of the group in 2006 after surviving two years at its Apprentice Centre training school and one year as a junior member.
The drummer’s meteoric rise to stardom has prompted warnings from seasoned kabuki actor Bando Tamasaburo, who has been working with Kodo since 2000 and has directed a number of programs for the group. Tamasaburo is an onnagata, or actor who portrays female characters in the all-male kabuki world.
In a recent interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sakamoto said the celebrated actor has repeatedly told him, “Having too much self-confidence can only hinder your efforts to improve your performing skills, so you should be careful.”
Since childhood, Sakamoto has developed a rich and varied musical background and refined his sensitivity while also building up his physical strength — all these elements have helped him achieve a rapid run to his position as a star drummer.
The youngest of three sons of a family in Okayama Prefecture, Sakamoto started beating a drum set as an elementary school student after being inspired by his guitar-playing eldest brother, five years older than him. Almost at the same time, Sakamoto joined a wadaiko group of which his uncle was a member.
During his junior high school days, Sakamoto played in a band that did covers of rock groups L’Arc-en-Ciel and Glay. In high school, he played in the volleyball club but also formed a punk unit. He commuted to school by bike, a 40-kilometer round trip.
“I often used all my energy playing volleyball and practicing with my bandmates, and wound up falling asleep in the parking lot of a supermarket and going to school right from there the following morning,” Sakamoto recalled. “It was really hard to pursue the two [sports and music] at the same time, but I gave my full effort to both, which I now think was really good for me.”
Sakamoto saw Kodo for the first time as a second-year high school student. He was fascinated not just by the group’s performances, but also by how polite and pleasant its members were. He enrolled in Kodo’s Apprentice Centre right after graduation from high school.
The facility is known for subjecting apprentices to a hard life on Sado Island. Sakamoto and his classmates focused on the basics rather than techniques, while getting up early for morning runs and practicing self-sufficiency by growing their own food and making their own drumsticks.
The school’s screening is very competitive. When Sakamoto went through the process, only one in four applicants was able to make it. Now he is the only surviving member among about 10 apprentices who joined in the same year he did.
Having risen to the leadership position, Sakamoto was the oldest among the members of Kodo’s tour to North America earlier this year. Since its debut in 1981 in Berlin, the group has performed in 49 countries and territories, going on tour to either Europe or North America usually from February to March every year.
Now that about two decades have passed since he started beating wadaiko, Sakamoto once again realizes how “simple but profound” the instrument is. To illustrate this point, he mentions a regular practice that he has been doing since his days at the Kodo school, in which he beats a relatively flat shime-daiko drum for two hours straight.
“To continue steadily beating the instrument while also paying attention to its sound volume and quality, you have to feel both your surroundings and your inner body,” he said. “Posture is an important element for playing the taiko, but it’s not good if you’re too rigid. You can’t produce good sounds unless you set your body free.”
Tamasaburo has also given him similar advice: “Play big, right and elegantly.”
“It looks simple,” Sakamoto said. “However, it’s actually hard to satisfy these three elements at the same time. This is probably what stage performances are meant to be.”
As a lover of rock ’n’ roll, Sakamoto gets inspiration for his own performances by watching videos of rock bands.
“However, I don’t want to play rock pieces with the wadaiko,” Sakamoto said. “I have respect for players of traditional instruments from various regions as well, such as [the late] flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia and Spanish bagpiper Carlos Nunez.
“I’m also proud of playing the wadaiko worldwide,” he added.
Kodo is known for working with performers from various other genres, such as orchestras, jazz musicians and the performance art company Blue Man Group, to name a few.
In March, Kodo performed together with virtual idol Miku Hatsune for a special live event, and in May it premiered the latest collaboration program with Tamasaburo. Titled “Yugen” (Subtle and profound), the work is inspired by three noh plays, and Sakamoto is among the members performing together with the kabuki star.
Kodo also invites various guests from home and abroad to Sado Island for the Earth Celebration, an annual summer festival that marked its 30th anniversary this year.
“No other groups have worked together with [performers from] as many different genres as Kodo,” Sakamoto said. “I have a dream to invite all the performers who have collaborated with us for the Earth Celebration. How nice it would be to make Sado an island filled with melodies from around the world.”
Kodo will kick off a national tour called “Dadan 2017” (Drumming men 2017) on Oct. 3 in Sapporo. Directed by Tamasaburo, the show will visit Tokyo’s Bunkyo Civic Hall from Dec. 20 to 24. Visit www.kodo.or.jp for details.Speech