Drum roll

THERE is a felicitous double meaning to Kodo, the name of the celebrated Japanese drumming ensemble. Its written characters mean “drum child”. But an infinitesimally different stressing of the second syllable will give you the character which means “heartbeat”. The company regards this accidental ambiguity as a symbolic blessing, and drumming does indeed go way back. It is one of humanity’s most elemental forms of musical communication, at once both mystical and—because it can span great distances—highly practical.

The taiko (“fat drum”) tradition was imported from Tang-dynasty China. It took root in the Japanese court, and in temples and shrines, in forms which have scarcely changed over 1,000 years. Over the course of the 20th century, however, it lost its appeal at home, though it was popular with the Japanese diaspora on the west coast of America. In the 1960s, as Japan threw itself into modernisation, drumming came to be seen once more as a symbol of continuity. Taiko ensembles proliferated, with one named Ondekoza (“demon drummers”) hitting the headlines in 1975 when its members ran the Boston marathon. At the end, they picked up their drumsticks and launched into a thunderous riff.

Based on the remote island of Sado in the Sea of Japan, Ondekoza was a commune run on ferociously Spartan lines by a visionary named Tagayasu Den. After 12 years, most of his drummers rebelled against the constraints—no smoking or alcohol, no marrying—and set up Kodo as a rival group. They stayed on the island and (slightly) relaxed their regime. Players still had to carve their own drumsticks and each day began at 5am with a ten-kilometre run. Their fame grew as they issued recordings and went on tour. The annual Earth Celebration on Sado attracts ensembles from all round the globe. And they teach, spreading the word through workshops to such effect that there are now hundreds of amateur taiko groups, both in Japan and in America.

But what precisely is that “word”? Audiences in Britain and across Europe will soon have a chance to find out when Kodo begins its next major tour on January 30th. Kodo programmes are sometimes interlarded with Japanese folk music on flute and zither, but this time their show will reflect a return to basics.

Drumming, pure and simple, makes for a memorable aural and visual experience. Taiko drums come in several sizes, ranging from the sharply resonant little shimedaiko to the giant odaiko (pictured). Six feet (1.8 metres) high and three feet wide, it is hollowed out of a single block of wood and takes six men to hoist into place. Kodo’s rich sound-world ranges from woodland susurrations to a thundering which makes you feel as if you’ve been struck in the chest. Moreover, whereas Western drummers work with the wrist, these men and women drum with their whole body: they are athletes as well as aesthetes. These days they have swapped their traditional Japanese headbands and (for the men) loincloths for less nationally specific garb, but they still move with a beauty which is quintessentially Japanese.

Taiko drumming may be rooted in Shinto and Zen, but Kodo’s often lighthearted art has no explicit connection with religion, or with the fanaticism of the Den years; indeed, they wince at any mention of “demon”. When drummers leave the ensemble now, it tends to be on amicable terms. Some players eventually find the Kodo style too restricting. Some cross over into jazz and other forms, as Ryutaro Kaneko, their former hand-cymbal virtuoso, has done. He is now a star in his own right in America.

Perhaps because of its roots, there is something spiritual about Kodo’s art. Sixty-seven year old Yoshikazu Fujimoto, who has spent his entire adult life first with Ondekoza and then with Kodo, speaks with profound reverence of his earth-shaking daily encounter with the giant drum: “Before I start drumming, I pray, ‘Please let me play you.’ And I am told, ‘OK, you may play me.’ We become one. And as I play, I feel at peace. I become the sound.”

Asked about his earliest musical experience, Mr Kaneko gave this mystical reply: “It came when I was three. I was under a cherry-blossom tree, and the leaves were fluttering in the spring wind. I know this may not sound like music to Westerners.” As with other Kodo players, his dreams were musical: “In my best dream I was falling through space in bright light, and singing very loudly.” Mr Kaneko looked at his muscular forearms: “I was singing with every limb. My whole body was singing.”