Kodo, Ladysmith at Disney Hall, 2023

Reviews, Music-Related

230202 Kodo, Ladysmith at Disney Hall, 2023

Immaculate performances, conservative compositions

200321 KaDON practice pad

Frustratingly limited

180617 Thomas Carbou -- Directions

A true album! Plus my ideal balance of catchy and quirky.

120418 Mark Miyoshi odaiko stand

Reclaimed wood, amazing craftsmanship.

Kodo, Ladysmith at Disney Hall, 2023

About a month ago, Minh and I saw Kodo's new touring show, Tsuzumi, at Disney Hall.  The performance was amazing, but in the weeks since, I've struggled to write a review.  I couldn't articulate what was complicating my love of the performance.  Well, we saw Ladysmith Black Mambazo last Friday and it provided a bit of clarity.  Both were great performances, but left me thinking how my musical ambitions are a little different.

I should first say that both Kodo and Ladysmith were absolutely loved by the audience.  The members of Ladysmith, after almost every piece, would turn to wave to every corner of the hall and the audience enthusiastically reciprocated.  We cheered the dance features.  We applauded the emcees.  When Ladysmith returned for an encore, the man next to me chastized the early-leavers, "Suckers!"  My favorite pieces were Nomathemba, Hello My Baby, and Homeless, and I teared up in all of them.  The dancing will never leave me.  It was wonderfully expressive for all members, including the smooth steps of youngest member, Thamsanqa Shabalala, and the more effortful kicks of 74-year-old, Albert Mazibuko, the only original member in the 63-year-old ensemble.  The kicking moves, they told us, come from Zulu dance, and they had an aesthetic I didn't understand but that felt rich.  I imagined each member having spent years trying things out, inventing and revising, encouraged and teased by the others.  There was showiness, which might normally put me off, but it was saved by the vulnerability of individuals.  The group choreography was also compelling.  Sometimes the moves would be slinky while the lyrics were religious, which read for me like a rejection of Christian prudishness and a belief that the body is wholesome.  Best of all, the dances would pull the performers away from the microphones to striking artistic effect.  Not only would the volume dim beautifully and hush the crowd, but the movements gained import and meaning, as if saying, "We can't be held back by silly tech requirements."

Kodo, too, was amazing.  They are as polished as ever, even with new members and new pieces.  My favorite piece was Zoku, which sounded massive in Disney Hall and was exactly the release I was craving at that point in the set.  The piece received a standing ovation at intermission, a first for me in that hall.  A dance piece called Hitohi was also popular.  My friends who were new to taiko were mesmerized.  It was the happiest audience I've ever seen at Disney Hall.

But for me -- and again, this is just me -- both of these performances felt saccharine.

The compositions are conservative.  The boldest compositions are the oldest; Zoku, Monochrome, and O-daikoZoku proved taiko can be head-banging music...  Taiko as groove.  Monochrome used the ensemble's smaller drums, the tsukeshime-daiko, to create both cacophony and synchronicity...  Taiko as tool of the intellectual composer.  O-daiko features sweaty effort...  Taiko as physical challenge.  But these pieces are 40 years old.  They now feel safe.  The newer works (three from 2019 and two from 2020) are very, very good, adding new instrumentation, drum setups, and a variety of moods, but none takes a unique stance on "how taiko works".  They follow the well-tread paths laid by the classic pieces, or the well-established taiko-plus-flute-melody, or taiko as backdrop for Japanese dance.  So I found myself looking to the soloists for the artistic statement, and here too I was frustrated.  The playing was impressively precise, but there was little risk taking or vulnerability.  Every katsugi, odaiko, hachijo, and yatai solo felt to me like it ended before the player actually said anything unique.  Miyuki Yoneyama is featured on Zoku, for example, and her hands are beautifully fluid, but listening to a recording, I wouldn't know who's playing the part.

I recognize that Kodo is not intending to be a "band".  They are a "group", and their aesthetic emphasizes cohesion more than individual expression.  But if the group isn't making bold artistic statements, then the unity feels oppressive, and the overall aesthetic values followers over explorers.  It fetishizes precision and its aesthetic pinnacle is something like North Korea's Mass Games, where the individual is perfectly subsumed into a machine-like group.

Ladysmith's performance also felt "safe".  The lyrics are about love and hope and God, and combined with the sterile emcee statements, the show felt sanitized.  Introducing the piece, Homeless, for example, the emcee talked about collaborating with Paul Simon and the audience applauded, when instead he could have talked about something difficult and meaningful, like, "We have homelessness in South Africa and you have it here in Los Angeles.  We don't know how to fix it, but we sing, hoping to grow our creativity and compassion."  Before a song celebrating South African democracy, the emcee mentioned Nelson Mandela and we cheered and felt good about ourselves but instead I wanted him to say, "Please don't take your democracy for granted."  The performance space shouldn't dodge the real world, it should offer a new take on how to deal with it.

The two groups have similar and cloying missions.  Kodo states in the program, "We hope tonight's performance will uplift you and bring you joy," and Ladysmith seeks to "spread a message of peace, love, and harmony to millions of people."  Bios are notoriously awkward so I shouldn't give them too much weight, but in light of the very safe performances, it feels like both groups are overly eager to entertain.  "Bringing joy" shouldn't be the goal.  Transformative performances should be the goal.  Art is the goal, and art isn't "safe".  It takes a risk as it holds out a deeply personal vision for scrutiny and hopes others are open to letting it in.  I want to tell Kodo and Ladysmith, "What kind of music do you really love?  You can be real with me."

This combination of shows made me realize I'm really craving art, and not entertainment.  Struggling with composition myself, I don't want to see groups stuck in their ways.  I'm inspired by others facing the challenge.  I love seeing David Longstreth live, or the premier of an Andy Akiho composition, because these artists are always trying new things.  Kodo and Ladysmith are legendary, with formidable foundations of technique and experience beneath them.  I hope the groups can use those foundations to push in new directions.