The term “world music” is indistinct enough to not mean much. In its broadest and fairest definition it might refer to any and all music in the world, in which sense one could dispense with the “world” part and call the stuff just “music.” It is more likely to connote any music in the world that is not part of the Western art tradition. Ethnomusicologists have been known to resist the term because of the cultural bias it seems to convey; its implicit viewpoint, they find, is from wherever the European art tradition reigns, and it may accordingly be taken to demean music from elsewhere in the world by reducing it to “other.” In its most widespread usage, however, world music has become associated with fusion or crossover pieces that draw on aspects of disparate folk or national traditions to create a new, internationalized form of pop music. Merriam-Webster defines it as “popular music originating from or influenced by non-Western musical traditions and often having a danceable rhythm.” The “danceable rhythm” bit seems perhaps not germane, but it does catapult the whole concept toward a dance club with cross-cultural aspirations. The definition put forward by Oxford Living Dictionaries also wants to involve that idea of first-world pop: “Traditional music from the developing world, sometimes incorporating elements of Western popular music.”
Much though I love many musics that have nothing to do with Western art music, I tend to be gun-shy of crossover music of most sorts. I find that when musics of varying traditions are fused together, the result tends to emphasize the lowest common denominator in each. Presenting a duet for sitar and Trinidadian steel pan or dropping an alphorn into the midst of a Javanese gamelan may create a frisson of exotic encounter; but, apart from that, such combinations can rarely hope to offer much aesthetic pleasure beyond the merely surreal, even if underscored by a techno beat. They never seem to communicate what makes, say, sitar music really great. This sort of thing has proved popular with general listeners, nonetheless, and I understand the appeal on a social level. There is something heartwarming about musicians from opposite ends of the world finding common ground through a jam session. But for the most part, musical traditions have developed idiosyncratically within their own cultures, often with a level of detail that can be appreciated only through long exposure and attentive listening. Certainly there are cases where musical creators have drawn inspiration from musical traditions that are not their own — Steve Reich learning from Ghanaian drumming, for example, and going on to invent phase compositions. But a case like that is not born of nonchalant interaction. It involved Reich subsuming principles of a foreign art into his own creative faculties, and making original works born of his expanded sensibilities. That’s not the sort of casual encounter we usually find in what is purveyed as world music.
In the past week-plus, the Lensic Performing Arts Center hosted two evenings that might conveniently fall under the rubric of world music: On March 23, Kodo, a drumming ensemble from Japan; and on March 26, Dervish, an Irish folk-music ensemble. They were wonderful, soul-filling evenings. In both cases, the performers hewed closely to “pure” traditions. As a result, both had a flavor of transporting listeners to a distant place rather than of super-imposing a foreign culture onto what would have been here already.
Kodo is a force to behold, and beheld it has been. “Kodo has given around 5,800 performances in over 45 countries on five continents,” states the printed program. “This figure includes 3,900 performances under the ‘One Earth’ banner, a theme that embodies Kodo’s desire to transcend language and cultural boundaries, all while reminding their audiences of the common bonds we all share as human beings.” You notice them straying into “world music-speak” there. The group was formed in 1981, but in fact its roots go farther back since its founding members had belonged to a similar drumming group named Sado no Kuni Ondekoza, formed in 1969, which splintered because of dissent within the organization. Kodo and a group called just Ondekoza (born of the same break) continue to this day. The more famous is Kodo, which (in various configurations) tours internationally from its home on relatively isolated Sado Island off the west coast of central Japan.
The group is an exponent of taiko drumming, and particularly of kumi-daiko, which is a style of ensemble drumming. Although it draws on traditions that go back centuries in some cases, the particular approach of kumi-daiko is a rather modern invention, dating only from 1951, when the prototype ensemble was formed by Daihachi Oguchi. A Japanese jazz drummer, he began investigating traditional Japanese solo drumming and had the inspiration to combine a number of solo drummers into an ensemble. While solo drumming had been an art associated with shrines and festivals, he developed his new ensemble approach for the concert hall, turning it into a tourable performance spectacle. Taiko, therefore, is not in itself an ancient art, but it is a distinct form of Japanese art music.
The group that appeared at the Lensic comprised 14 performers. All were men, although the Kodo group does include women members in other programs. In fact, the program Kodo performed in here was titled Dadan 2017, “dadan” meaning “men drumming.” The keystones of the ensemble are the drums known as -o-daiko, huge instruments that weigh nearly 900 pounds each and whose cow-hide drumheads are between three and four feet in diameter. Their sound is potentially thunderous, but because the drumheads are stretched very tight they retain clarity of tone. Kodo used three of them in this performance, although one looked a bit larger than the other two, so it may be that shadings of terminology should be applied to them. A variety of other percussion instruments round out the ensemble, including barrel drums and small cymbals, and the music periodically cycled back to a group of four box-marimbas, whose mellow timbre provided a peaceful contrast to the drums. The program, created by Tamasaburo Bando (who just recently stepped down as Kodo’s artistic director), ranged through 11 individual pieces by different composers, but the works were played contiguously so that each half of the concert unrolled without interruption. The musical structure therefore involved a double trajectory — the structure of each piece and the structure of each half. Instruments were moved about silently as one piece ceded to the next, yielding frequent changes in the physical set-up of the stage. These visual alterations were intensified by shifts of stage lighting. Apart from the choreography inherent in drumming, the musicians engaged in entertaining touches of stage movement, interpolating occasional leaps and turns, twirling of drumsticks, or switching places at the large drums.
Talk about chamber music: One could not imagine one-on-a-part musicians more subtly attuned to each other. Their playing displayed unison of everything — of rhythm, to be sure, and of rhythmic modulation (with the players speeding up or slowing down in absolute synchrony), but also of melody (for melodies constantly emerged from the tuned aspects of their instruments) and of artistic intent. Oguchi viewed taiko in terms of the human body, once stating in an interview: “Your heart is a taiko. All people listen to a taiko rhythm, ‘dontsuku-dontsuku,’ in their mother’s womb.” I’ll take that on faith. My memory doesn’t go back that far, and since I wasn’t yet a music critic in utero, I didn’t take notes that I could usefully consult today. I can attest, however, that Kodo’s music-making had a visceral impact, even when it was not loud. One of the things I loved most about the group was how it made manifest the Japanese aesthetic concept of ma, which refers to negative space that is nonetheless part of the created object: in architecture, the empty space between the walls; in drawing, the white space between the lines; in music, the silence between the notes. Time and again, especially with the gigantic -o-daiko, a musician with drumsticks poised above the instrument would hover in ≥≥a split second of tension (or of relaxation — let’s say both simultaneously), with time suspended ever so fleetingly before the attack — a thrilling moment of ma made visible.
Kodo attracted a sold-out crowd, but Dervish did not, to my surprise. It was an engaged gathering all the same, and many in the audience clapped along or even added their voices now and again, as they were encouraged to do by Cathy Jordan, the group’s charismatic singer and master of ceremonies. She doubled as percussionist (playing bodhrán and clappers) and was backed by five gentlemen playing in a fine blend of fiddle, flutes (including pennywhistle), mandola (tenor mandolin), bouzouki, and button accordion. The group was amplified more heavily than seemed necessary. The resultant increase in volume did not reach objectionable levels, but tonal delicacy eroded as part of the process and the balance was thrown awry, with the instruments sometimes overwhelming the singer. If Kodo’s music had been mostly about rhythm, that of Dervish was mostly melody, often intoned in unison (but with touches of individual ornamentation) by several performers, the tunes supported by simple harmonies and given out in repeated rhythms. But such melodies! The group’s repertoire is mostly drawn from folk music of the west coast of Ireland, and it wasn’t heavy on standard numbers, which kept listeners from lulling off into over-familiarity. Dervish collected some of the pieces directly from folk singers they encountered in the course of their travels and residencies. Jordan referred to one, “Eileen Óg (The Pride of Petravore),” as a music-hall song; indeed it would seem to be that, dating from about a hundred years ago, but the tune to which it was set, at least in this performance, followed the general contours of the other songs.
This being Irish traditional music, the instrumental dances were toe-tapping. In contrast, the songs and ballads tended to exude mournfulness in their subject matter, although their tunes were often more chipper than the words. Our constant companions through the evening were soldiers separated from their wives, wives murdered by their husbands, children foisted off on the neighbors due to economic necessity — that sort of thing. Jordan related all the grim plots and tempered them with a wry commentary that revealed her to be a consummate master of the vaunted Irish craic, agreeable banter that made one think she’d be the kind of person with whom you’d enjoy being trapped in a stalled elevator. ◀