In Japan, in ancient times, the boundaries of a village were defined by the distances over which the beats of an enormous drum could be heard. So the annual world tours of the Japanese percussion group Kodo are called "One Earth Tours"; the members of this unusually idealistic ensemble hope that their big bangs will help unite global villagers.
Kodo -- the name signifies either "heartbeat," that most universal of sounds, or "children of the drum" -- will appear at the Kennedy Center tomorrow as part of a 24-city North American tour. Kodo can also be seen briefly and heard at length in "The Hunted," an action-adventure movie starring Joan Chen and Christopher Lambert, released Friday; the group composed and performed the entire soundtrack.
Kodo's instruments range from the small, tom-tom-like shimetaiko drums, which weigh 20 pounds apiece, to the spectacular 900-pound o-taiko, which is carved from the trunk of a tree and played by two drummers simultaneously.
Its distinctive musical style, evolved from Japanese folk and ritual drumming, has grown to include elements of contemporary classical and jazz idioms and is so adaptable that the group has performed with everything from a symphony orchestra to gospel singers.
Although the drumbeat is its primary sound, it also uses Japanese string and wind instruments in its concerts. And its performances include some dance and other choreographed movement.
"The appearance of the performers is as important as their nTC musicianship," Takashi Akamine, Kodo's manager, said recently. Indeed. During much of the program, the drummers wear only headbands and loincloths, a costume suitable for their athletic exertions.
Some of the drumsticks are the size and weight of baseball bats, and some of the drumming is done in a sit-up position, with the players' backs at a 45-degree angle to the floor. This style, almost painful to watch, evolved from a ritual, thousands of years old, in which performers were carried in carts so small that they could not sit up straight.
Kodo is based on Sado, a small island about 200 miles north of Tokyo; once a place of exile for political prisoners and convicts, it is now inhabited by fishermen and farmers -- and drummers. Every August, Kodo holds a three-day festival of arts and percussion, an "earth celebration," on Sado. Musicians from far-flung places like Burundi and Bali have attended, communicating in the universal language of rhythm.
While on Sado, Kodo's 40 members live communally and monastically. Apprentices must rise by 5 in the morning and begin their day with a six-mile run. They share household chores and are forbidden to smoke, drink or watch television. Their daily practice, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (except on Sundays), includes not only drumming but also exercises to develop the strength and stamina needed for the group's unusually demanding style of performance.
"Communal living makes things easier," Mr. Akamine said. "Whatever we need to do, we can do at once, because everyone is right there. But the lack of privacy is a drawback."
Apprenticeship lasts a year, and only about one out of four apprentices actually goes on to perform. Full-fledged members share the apprentices' practice schedule but jog and exercise at their own discretion, and married members do not sleep in the communal dormitory.
"After graduating from the apprenticeship program, the members don't abuse the freedom they've gained," Mr. Akamine explained. "Because if they do -- if they smoke, for example -- the result shows up on stage."
Kodo was formed in 1981 by a breakaway faction of Ondekoza (Demon Drummers), a percussion group that was established on Sado in 1971 and appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York last November.
Kodo's original members became dissatisfied with the autocratic ways of Ondekoza's founder, Takayasu Den, and determined to create a more democratic group. But for many years, Kodo was all-male.
"Journalists would always ask why," Mr. Akamine said. "But there was no policy of excluding women. Now, in fact, I would say that encouraging young female performers is a special task for Kodo. Women's physical strength may be different from men's, but some styles of drumming don't require so much strength, and I believe women can express something that male performers can't."
Kodo has three female members now. One is the dancer Chieko Kojima, who performs bon-odori, folk dancing associated with the Japanese summer festival for the dead. Like the festival, the dances are cheerful.
Dancing is just part of the visual spectacle of Kodo. And while film is hardly an adequate substitute for the experience of a live performance, some of the thrill is captured on the Sony video "Kodo." Recordings are available, too: "The Best of Kodo" and the recently released "Nasca Fantasy," both on Tristar.
Still, what Kodo values most is the opportunity to interact with an audience. Mr. Akamine said, "It's like a sleeping giant we can awaken. In North America audiences are so open and responsive. Japanese audiences are more reserved and quiet. The Americans are very direct and very cheerful. We appreciate their appreciation."
WHERE TO HEAR
What: Kodo, Drummers of Japan
Where: Kennedy Center Concert Hall
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 27
# Call: (202)467-4600