Who would even think of blending traditional Japanese taiko drumming with gospel music, let alone stage a concert with the two musical styles?
As it turns out, one of Japan’s most renowned taiko drum ensembles, Kodo, will stage just such a decidedly non-traditional concert this weekend on rustic Sado Island in the Sea of Japan.
For the first time, the familiar rhythms of ancient Japanese drums will be juxtaposed with the joyful singing of a gospel choir especially imported from Los Angeles.
“You’ve got two worlds coming together that have always been different and separate,” said Patrisse Dawson, one of the six singers in Love, Joy & Peace, the gospel group formed for the Sado Island concerts. “It’s an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before.”
The gospel troupe, created with singers from three L.A. churches, will perform separately and with Kodo on the weekend. At least four songs will be performed together during the island’s annual Earth Celebration, which will conclude Sunday evening with Kodo and the gospel group jointly performing an ambitious 20-minute composition.
As it also turns out, the unique pairing of the two groups isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. Lead vocalist Lecei Wright and Dawson believe there are a number of similarities between the two seemingly disparate musical forms.
“In black gospel you acknowledge the earth, the spirit, the heavens and the creator,” said Dawson. “In their music and life style, the earth, the heavens and the skies are also acknowledged. When we met them in L.A., they explained that some of their songs were work songs, like what they used while working in the fields. Gospel music was developed in that same sense, as a release for the black slaves or as a promise for deliverance for the hard work and pressures of being in bondage.”
This unusual merger reflects the 16-member drum group’s recent willingness to occasionally experiment with other forms of music. Kodo has performed with two symphony orchestras and in 1988 jazz drummer Max Roach also played with the percussion unit on Sado Island. But the upcoming gospel show will represent the first time in Kodo’s 19-year history that it has worked with a vocal group.
The two groups will only have two days to rehearse together. Though they have exchanged rehearsal tapes, both sides agree that it’s impossible to anticipate how the songs will turn out until the two groups physically merge. Both hope the concert will go as well as the brief jam session the two groups participated in during Kodo’s Los Angeles visit last March.
“We really had to feel our way through that (session) because we didn’t know exactly where we were going,” said Wright, who toured Japan in 1985 as a back-up singer for Bob Dylan. “They started playing and they asked me to make up something, just anything. So as the flutist played something I just started imitating the flute. (Back-up singer) John Wilson came up with a lyric line and he started singing that. It just evolved after that. It surprised me how well it went. We had already received an invitation to perform on Sado, but that performance really solidified it.”
The joint project is being financed by Kodo at the express invitation of Takashi Akamine, Kodo’s manager. The singers all knew each other from previous concerts and formed the group, which also includes a keyboard player.
For Love, Joy & Peace, its Sado Island venture is also a chance to experience the traditional Japanese life style. Wright said they will be eating and sleeping as the Japanese do, with meals primarily of rice and fish and bedding down on the traditional futon. One thing they won’t be required to do, however, is participate in Kodo’s daily 6 a.m. six-mile run.
In turn, the gospel group hopes to educate the Japanese about Afro-American culture. Included in its own set of traditional gospel numbers will be several songs written during the days of slavery.
Wilson doesn’t believe the two groups will have difficulty communicating with each other.
“It goes back to the old saying that music is the universal language,” said Wilson. "(When Kodo visited L.A.) one guy knew the words to ‘Steal Away’ (a black slave song), though he didn’t know English. He sat there and sang with us the whole time. He said he learned it at a Christian commune in Tokyo. It was one of his favorite songs.”