Tuesday, September 16, 2008

EC '08: A Cranky Reinterpretation

Despite the respite I found during Obon and later in Kochi, I still found a slight disconnect between perception and reality. This fact was driven home after arriving in Naoetsu. I'd made this trek to Sado six times and knew my route quite well. Yet it was only after I'd bought my ticket and some food before I thought to ask myself, "Where the hell is everybody?" A quick check of the ferry times told me that the departure times had changed in April. (In my own defense, Kodo's English page still listed the old schedule.) I'd rushed off at dawn's proverbial crack in order to sit and wait for three hours. For the expensive jetfoil. This service, while convenient, took away all the joy of the slower, lumbering approach toward the island, time spent laughing it up with punters just as happy as yourself. Upon arriving, I broke my own speed record in setting up my tent, grabbed my tickets and food, then joined JesusChris and pals to climb the trail to the mountain stage, under the shrieks of sex-crazed cicadas.

Unlike last year, we found a spot halfway back on the right. This farther vantage point gives a good overview of the choreography, yet missing is the subtle details of what the individual drummer is actually up to. It was good fun though, cracking jokes with J.C. about, well, everything really. Yet my eyes rarely left the stage. Each of the few dozen times I've seen Kodo is always a little different, a testament to their ever-evolving nature. This past year saw the group split into many smaller subunits, touring to express a more personal interpretation of the group's music. A few years ago, Marcin expressed how he felt that the cookie-cutter nature of Kodo's apprentice program, while admittedly producing fantastic drummers, has the unfortunate side effect of leaching out much of the personal attributes and talents of the individual. (Though this is the nature of any Japanese apprenticeship, shu ha ri and all that.) Tonight, on stage before us, we could see brief instances of reclaimed self-expression, for better or worse. The trio of P.P.C. made their usual appearance, but to be frank I'm getting a little tired of their one joke act. Nothing to see here, move along. More impressive were the ladies of Cocon, with their demonstrations of strength and delicacy. In fact, the theme of this show seemed to be "Grrrl Power." After the usual thunder of "Yatai Bayashi," Chieko came out to play solo, the first time I've ever seen her drum onstage. The boys would do a heavy drum piece, then were followed by something light, like the almost Celtic strains of flute and bowed shamisen. For these more mellow, choreographed pieces, I appreciated my position further back. Maybe I've been watching too much Kurosawa, but from back here everything looked surprisingly flat, as if seen through telephoto lens. Yet having worked on that stage, I know how deep it is. Bizarre. (Speaking of filmmakers, one thing audible that I noticed is how each drummer has a particular tuning, similar to how John Woo has a different sound for each of his character's guns.) As usual, there was the obligatory Odaiko, with it's rippling muscles and flexing cheeks. And every year, without fail, somebody in the crowd would actually be dancing to it. Always brings to mind a lyric by the late great Dead Milkmen. But the girls held their own, taking nearly all the premier drum parts. It almost felt like Tsubasa was the lead drummer tonight. (Although she was outplayed on the final piece by Natsumi. I mentioned this later to a Kodo insider and he said, "You better not let Tsubabsa hear you say that." ) Overall, while this show of grace and skill was beautiful to watch, it never got the crowd going. The key to Friday's show is usual an energetic, "Irrashai!" But this year we never got lift off.

Down off the hill again, that lack of energy was still apparent. There was nothing at all going on, no drumming, no fire-spinning hippies. J.C. and the girls and I grabbed some beers and sat down by the water. All the while, increasing winds whipped up waves which would cause the sailboat moored in front of us to rock violently, its ropes slapping out a ringing Morse-code on the mast with every roll. Bad weather on the way...

After a surprisingly good sleep, I did some yoga in front of my tent, then met up with J.C. to watch Cocon go on in a light rain. The worsening weather was fitting for the next act, a group of deer dancers, whose eerie movements perfectly mimicked the animal. Like shamanistic beasts moving through the mist. Soon after, I was off to my Odaiko workshop. It is the only Taiko that I'd never trained on, and with its relatively simple rhythms, it seems to be about stamina rather than skill. There were about forty of us, and only two drums, so we only got to play in short increments. But this was enough, since the shoulders begin to scream after a couple minutes. (Much respect to those who play it onstage, lasting for about 13 minutes or so.) I later mentioned to Yoshikazu how happy I was to be able to play the new Odaiko that I'd seen in construction while with KASA Mix back in 2005.

The rain stopped in time for the night's concert. J.C. had gone back home, but I was found by a group of fellow yoga teachers from the Kyo. The five of us all work together, but never seem to meet. We scored good seat up close to the stage, but it didn't matter. Within minutes of taking the stage, the lead singer of Olodum yelled out for everyone to dance, and immediately, hundreds of people rushed to dance down in front. Usually dancing is reserved to the areas of to the side, but tonight it was totally chaotic. Kodo's security team tried to get the crowd to sit back down but were completely ignored. When something if over planned, there is a certain feeling of schadenfrede in watching things fall apart within minutes. After all, the theme was Brazil night. Unlike most years, when the majority of the audience is Kodo fans, here it seemed that half had come for Olodum. And these fans wouldn't be budged for two hours. During the melee, I looked over to see poor Joe, holding his arms up as a barrier between two big Brazilians practically giving him a lap dance. He looked at me and rolled his eyes. In response, I mouthed the words in time to the Bob Marley cover currently being played on stage: "Everything's gonna be alright." Directly in front of me, a small group of people was bouncing and pogo-ing. One girl, incredibly drunk, would take a few steps backward and then run to shove her friends, who, well into their own cups, would fall all over the people around them. Normally I'm pretty subdued about things. Plus, most of the dancing I did in high school had the prefix, "Slam-" attached. But this was outright dangerous. As she stumbled in my direction, I grabbed her by the shoulder, spinning her around to shout in her face, "Cut that shit out right now!" She did, and luckily, not one her super-sized friends seemed to mind my buzzkill. On stage, Olodum powered on. I'd really been looking forward to seeing them, but it got old for me after about 15 minutes. Their rhythms were redundant, their technique limited. One giant, all done up in neon dreads, would repeatedly throw his stick waaaay up in the rafters, only to miss catching it half the time. He seemed to be the Flava Flav of the group. I laughed at the religious rites of large concerts, where the audience mimics the gestures of the singer, both sides collaborating on a large amount of call-and-response. The monorhythm finally finished two hours later. (At least for this night. Throughout the weekend, samba teams from all over Japan would occasionally march around, playing their single memorized rhythm. Again. I used to love Brazilian music, but up close, I feel that it's more about performance and spirit rather than technique. And that's fine. But likewise I prefer actually talented musicians to DJs. Not much of a party person anymore, I'm afraid.) Usually during the Saturday night show, Kodo will come on to perform a few songs with the guest, but tonight they only played one. And, boy did they look small standing amidst these massive Bahians. The skies too seemed to protest, letting loose as we all lumbered past the cattle shoots the cops had erected, creating more of a hazard in the rain. (But a music festival isn't a music festival unless there's some mud.) Tired and grumpy, I lurched toward my tent, drenched and dripping with rain.

Miserable sleep. The nearby constant dripping upon my body had me dreaming of a Chinese invasion conducted at a time when all eyes were on Olympic Beijing. Everything I had was drenched. Back at EC 2005, I'd had had the same experience, which had permanently damaged a drum and some electronics equipment, yet I hadn't remembered to waterproof the rainfly later. I'd woken sometime in the night to a long coughing jag. While I don't usually mind the lack of creature comforts, I doubted I wanted to sleep out in the rain another night. Luckily, while in line for tickets at the shrine, I met an English guy who would be heading back to Tokyo that day. His room proved to be free. My relief was short lived once I found that I had lost my camera. I spent the better part of the morning retracing my steps of the previous night, when I'd last remembered having it.

Giving up, I set off for a Brazilian percussion workshop, which was extremely dull. Rather than featuring a member of Olodum, it was led by a middle-aged Japanese woman whose main qualification seemed to be her genkiness. The first half consisted of clapping and stomping to a single beat--for an hour. I considered leaving during the break, but didn't wanted her to lose face. A shame that I didn't leave since the second hour also had us focus on a single beat, though at least we got drums this time.

Disappointed, I dragged my stuff through a persistent rain to my new digs. One of my roomies was a guy I'd met (somewhere?) before; the other was the boyfriend of the slam-dance girl I'd put in a Vulcan Death Grip the night before. (Not Death Grip exactly. More like the grip of Faux Authority. ) Check-in time conflicted with my work schedule, but I was allowed to come to work late. When I finally arrived at the Flea Market staff tent, it was impossible to enter due to yet another costumed samba group working their way through their single song repertoire. When I could finally get into the tent, my work shift was half over, so we decided to let me off. With the ferry schedule change, I wouldn't be doing any work Monday either. This year, the festival was mine to "enjoy."

While having a soak in the rotemburo, I reflected on this 'enjoyment.' EC wasn't what it used to be. Last year had just been too big. I know that after the 10th anniversary in '97, Kodo had purposely scheduled the following year's event for May, in order to reduce the numbers. This year too felt strange. Some folks have complained that the security was too much, but I believe that these were measures that had been adopted to handle to increased mobs of last year, measures which were used again. I felt that this year's EC once again had that mellow vibe of years past, sadly missed in 2007. It was the other things, such as the changes in seating arrangements, plus the fact that the evening performance was now "all-or-nothing,' no longer using the smaller venue in the case of rain. The festival didn't feel less peaceful so much as too top heavy. It was as if Kodo again wanted a reduction in the number of fans. Scheduling the event during Obon next year will bring about exactly that. As for me, I sat in the hot water debating if I'll even come next year. If I do, I certainly won't work, or take workshops. Simply 'enjoy.'

I met up with the Kyoto gang and we lounged awhile around the flea market area. Unlike last night when I'd been the first up the mountain, this time we were amongst the last. Mobs of staff were on hand to prevent a repeat of last night's melee. And shortly into Kodo's set, I began to rethink my ideas of not coming again. Sometime during the weekend, they'd refound the magic. As they do, they were sharing it with us, helping us to forget the bad weather, which was miraculously clearing for the first time since Friday. Olodum only joined them for a few numbers, but they weren't a group who showed much versatility. Musical collaborations go somewhat beyond, "Dumdumdum, dadadadadum." Friday's division of labor was present this time too, with the men singing out in front, backed up by the women banging away on the Okedo just beyond. The dancers danced in their area off to the side and the punters sat equally contentedly on their tarps. Five encores later, Kodo had won us back.

Plus, I found my camera.

On the turntable: John Lennon, "The Complete Lost Lennon Tapes"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ted, you said that it was pretty sweet? ;) Man you can be cranky. hehe.
You're still going next year though, I hope! Please please pretty please...