Ondekoza Drummers Perform at SJU

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October 1, 1998

Collegeville, Minn. - For 28 years, Ondekoza has performed for spellbound audiences all over the world. Their traditional festival drum routines and folk music is played on bamboo flutes, strings and drums weighing up to 700 pounds. Ondekoza will be performing at Saint John's University in the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater on Monday, Oct. 26 at 8 p.m.

Takayasu Den formed the ensemble in 1969 on Sado Island, which lies in the Sea of Japan near the city of Niigata. His idea of forming the group was to offer an alternative to the young people who were leaving the island for jobs on the mainland. The group later split in two, forming Ondekoza and Kodo. They are the two most famous taiko groups from Japan.

Taiko, or big drum, is used to describe a particular kind of Japanese drum that is hollowed out from a solid piece of keyaki wood and skinned by stretching and tacking a rawhide over each end of the body. On a broader scale, it applies to the art of Japanese drumming itself. It is also associated with many aspects with Japanese culture. In Shinto religion, it was used to call upon and entertain the gods, and in Japanese Buddhism, its sound was the manifestation of the voice of the Buddha. Fifth-century clay dolls holding drums and poetry and paintings from the seventh-century are evidence that taiko was an integral part of Japanese life for the past fifteen hundred years.

Modern groups have blended tradition and interpretation with a wide array of percussion instruments and rhythms leading to a powerful yet graceful synthesis of sound and motion. In this style of drumming, there is a complete reliance on rhythmic syllable patterns. The drummer fixes the pattern firmly in his memory before he even picks up the drumsticks. It is physically and mentally demanding for the drummers.

"Hours of practice are part of a daily routine," said Marco Lienhard, a spokesperson for Ondekoza, "It takes anywhere from six months to a year to develop a feeling for the rhythm and sound and the endurance of drumming."

The physical conditioning needed to play the huge drums weighing 600 to 700 pounds and standing four feet high is accomplished by running. The members of Ondekoza, ranging from age 15 to 28, discipline themselves to run an average of 30 miles a day. They live a communal lifestyle where both physical and mental training, combined with a specialized diet is an integral part of their daily routine.

On Nov. 4, 1990, Ondekoza ran the New York City Marathon and seven days later they played at Carnegie Hall. That started their three-year tour of the United States on foot. They wanted to be able to perform for Americans who have never had much contact with Japanese culture. It would also be a lifetime experience. After New York, they headed south towards Florida and then west along the Mexican border. They ran the Los Angeles Marathon and then followed the coast north to Seattle. They followed the Canadian border back to New York and ended the tour with the New York City Marathon and a performance at the Carnegie Hall. By the end of Ondekoza's tour, they ran the perimeter of the United States. No one has ever gone all the way around the United States before and Ondekoza did it while giving over 300 performances.

"This is one of the most powerful performances we will present this season. It is a chance for everyone to experience an extraordinary demonstration of Japanese music, movement and spirituality," says Anna M. Thompson, executive director of fine arts programming.

Adult tickets are $20, seniors and students are $16, and children age twelve and under are $8. Patrons my order a Potpourri Series until October 26. It allows patrons to choose seven events at a 10 percent discount off the single ticket price. To experience the sound of these athletic musicians, order your tickets by calling (320) 363-5777.

This performance is made possible in part by funding form the National Endowment for the Arts and the Minnesota State Arts Board.