To quote from Spank's Edinburgh Diary 2005, published 29/08/2005 on the old site: "It almost makes me sad that I won't be [at Edinburgh] next year. But you know the rules: two years on, one year off, meaning that my next visit will be in 2007. I already have tentative plans for what we'll be doing as a replacement in Summer 2006. However, I don't intend to start banging the drum about those plans just yet. Being a monkey, and all."
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call bloody foreshadowing.
Sado Island, Japan. As The Belated Birthday Girl can testify, it's not the sort of place you want to do a Google search on - just look at the sponsored links that come up, for one thing. (And it just made matters worse when she tried to search for Sado webcams.) But there are healthier and less painful reasons to show an interest in the place.
Because Sado is the home of Kodo, probably the most internationally famous musicians to come out of Japan now that Ryuichi Sakamoto seems to have gone a bit quiet. If you live in a big city, they've probably played your town at least once: if you live in London, they turn up regular as clockwork once every two years, and I'm invariably there in the audience cheering them on. Combining traditional taiko drumming with a ferocious sense of visual style, their mission is simple - to take a somewhat neglected form of Japanese music and present it to the world. And Kodo spend roughly a third of every year touring the planet doing just that - the remaining two thirds are split between touring Japan and rehearsing at their own village on Sado.
Kodo are big on cultural exchange, and are careful to make sure it isn't all one way. So for three days every August, they take a break from travelling the world and instead invite the world to visit them, for a festival they call Earth Celebration. 2006 marks the 19th year they've done this: 19 years of Sado's small population suddenly getting bumped up by several thousand, as musicians from all over come to perform, and music fans from all over come to listen. Which is what The BBG and I did this year, as a somewhat exotic alternative to the Edinburgh Festival.
To be honest, when we first arrived on Sado we weren't entirely sure we'd done the right thing. With the help of Sado's splendid tourist office, we'd managed to catch a speedy jetfoil from the mainland to the island, and used their efficient bus service to cover the long haul from Ryotsu port to the small town of Ogi on the other side. We arrived mid-afternoon on the Thursday, the day before the festival's start, to discover... well, not very much really. A couple of teams of guys were travelling around the island putting up banners: apart from that, there was a small group of caucasians sitting outside the main festival office, and that was about it. One of them said "people are starting to come in now" as we walked past, and I wasn't sure whether he was being sarcastic or not. Even when we set out at 9am on Friday morning to queue up for concert admission tickets, the streets were virtually deserted.
And then it was like somebody had just turned a switch on. The ticket queue had a hundred people or so in front of us, which at least confirmed we'd arrived on the right island. And by the time we'd got our tickets and were back out on the streets again, everything was buzzing: the town was full of people, cars were running around everywhere, market stalls were being set up in the Ogi Port Park. It justified our decision to come early, because we wouldn't have noticed the change otherwise. From that point onwards, Ogi was a full-on festival town for three days, transforming into the sort of small community where you gradually got to know many of the inhabitants by sight, even if you didn't talk to them.
So what actually happens during Earth Celebration? Well, as you'd imagine, it's primarily about music. At first glance you may think that the three evening concerts at Shiroyama Park are the main focus of the weekend, and that's partly true - but even if you don't want to pay the 13000 yen for a three day pass (or have difficulty dealing with their booking procedures, which despite Kodo's best efforts still somewhat favour Japanese residents), there's enough free music on the streets to make just turning up worth your while.
Most of the music happens at Kisaki Shrine, the open area just outside the big concert arena in Shiroyama Park. Kisaki is the venue for the Earth Celebration Fringe - like Edinburgh, it's open to all performers without audition, you just need to register first. That may sound like a recipe for disaster to you, but some sort of unofficial quality control seems to be in place. For proof, check out the YouTube video at the top of this page, assembled from Fringe footage shot by The Belated Birthday Girl over the three days (plus a couple of shots by me when there were really tall people in the way). Click on the YouTube logo to watch it without that irritating watermark in the bottom right-hand corner.
There's a lot of good stuff to be seen and heard on the Fringe, and we really only had time to catch around half of it. Ed Collier's hulaists (including, it appears, most of his family) performed Hawaiian dances old and new, and looked beatifically happy as they did so. Bun from the group Koh-Tao played some pretty tunes on flute and a selection of kalimba thumb pianos, and could be seen selling the latter at his market stall in between sets. Sado's own J-Pop singer Hitomi Aikawa provided the best misunderstanding of the Fringe: The BBG misread her programme notes and thought she had a 'powerful rage' rather than 'powerful range', only to be sadly disappointed at the lack of aggression in her girly tunes. As well as Hitomi, the local talent was represented by Wind Ensemble Sado (a young, enthusiastic thirty piece brass band) and a selection of performing arts groups doing traditional dances and swordfights.
Given Kodo's acknowledged supremacy in the field of taiko drumming, you'd think it would be suicidal for any other group of drummers to ask for stage time at their festival - but several groups had the balls to try, and fair play to them too. Ken and Esther were an Arizona couple - he's Japanese, she's American - who specialised in unusual guitar/taiko stylings: though we only got to catch a small portion of their set, they were visibly all over the festival wherever we went, and having a great time. Miyake Taiko appeared by personal invitation from the hosts, performing the traditional Miyake piece that's become a highlight of Kodo's own live set. Waraku Daiko and Akaoni Daiko were mixed-race groups who acquitted themselves well in this company, the latter particularly impressing with their excellent showmanship.
But for me, the highlight was an informal workshop by a group called Drumagik, who gave everybody in the audience a drum and, with the barest minimum of guidance, started us jamming. It's fascinating seeing all the cliches about music as a force for communication come to life - you start by playing your own rhythm, but pick up what's happening around you subconsciously and start adapting your own playing to it. By the end, what you're playing is substantially different from what you started with, and you can't quite explain why.
For all this excellent music, the weekend really belonged to Kodo. They were all over the place - opening up their village rehearsal hall to show visitors the environment that inspires them, playing for the 'PAL' jazz dance studio as they showed off their moves in a free gig at Ogi Port, and tearing up the town for a noisy late night open-air jam. (Our hotel's 10.30 curfew meant we couldn't stay for all of the last one, but rest assured it was actually still audible from the hotel's public baths.)
The Shiroyama concerts are the biggies, though, and the point where Kodo put their desire for cultural exchange out there on the line. Every year they invite a musician or group from another country to collaborate on these shows: the Friday night concert features Kodo with a small appearance by the guest, Saturday features the guest with a small appearance by Kodo, and Sunday is where the two share the stage properly to revel in that glorious noise cultures make when they clash.
Particularly this year, when the guests were Urban Tap, a New York ensemble led by the tapdancer/percussionist/vocalist Tamango. Friday's show gave a little taste of the chaos to come, when Tamango danced on stage for one encore, but the opening night was Kodo's baby. Having only seen the group in London theatres before, the contrast with a Japanese open-air venue was extraordinary: Kodo have always made a value of their connection with nature, but with a huge backlit forest behind them that makes even more sense than ever before. And the audience reaction was fascinating - Western audiences are reverential and silent when Kodo perform, but a Japanese audience whoops it up, cheering on the more syncopated and/or frenetic playing like it's a jazz gig.
But, surprisingly, this was nothing compared to the reaction Urban Tap got on the Saturday night. It started off as a traditional tap show, as Tamango opened with a solo and then brought on his group one by one - trumpet, sax, percussionist, foxy female dancer, and a breakdancer whose entrance got the first screams of the night, as he slid onto the stage at an angle of 45 degrees. On his head. It's from this point on that things started getting pleasantly weird. It gradually became apparent that trumpet player Fabio Morgera was playing with several effects pedals and only one arm. There was a quasi-African interlude featuring Tamango performing in a mask, and a show-stopping duet between Tamango and a twelve-foot stiltwalker, both of them effortlessly matching each other's moves. When the time came for Kodo to join in the fun, they astonishingly chose Monochrome as their first collaboration together - possibly the only Kodo piece that doesn't have any discernable rhythm, it's an experiment in sonic texture where Tamango became another visual and aural element to the sound. By the end of the night, roughly one-third of the seated audience was standing in the aisles and dancing, so I think that they won the crowd over.
As a result, expectations were ludicrously high for the final show on the Sunday night: and they were fulfilled. The stage layout from the first two nights was altered to include a huge catwalk running almost all the way into the centre of the audience. Though many of the pieces performed at this show were just reworkings of material from the first two, they were enhanced by everyone from both Urban Tap and Kodo strutting their stuff along that catwalk to highly crowd-pleasing effect. (Including the stiltwalker, scarily enough.) The main attraction was seeing the eastern and western traditions meet in new and unexpected ways: so the African mask dance on the catwalk was simultaneously mirrored by a Japanese equivalent on the stage, while a traditional vocal piece was accompanied by slow-motion capoeira. The idea of a collaboration between tap dancing and drummers looked ludicrous on paper, but the two groups turned out to complement each other beautifully: Urban Tap supplied the sex and the funk, while Kodo gave it a seriously weighty bottom end.
The final ten minutes or so of the last concert of Earth Celebration 2006 may well be one of the most demented things I've ever seen: so much stuff was going on it was barely possible to keep track. Tamango breaks his one-string African guitar, and just picks up the rhythm with his feet without missing a beat. The breakdancer is trading moves with a Japanese acrobat. Four Kodo girls are performing their own catwalk tapdance to a playground song. Three guys with twelve-foot long slapsticks strapped to their backs are whacking the stage with them and giving the stiltwalker a serious run for his money. And all this is happening at the same time, while a couple of thousand people are cheering it all on. It makes you believe that the power of music really can bring everyone together. Even, perhaps, me and the annoying little French prick who identified me as one of the few dozen people in the arena taller than him, stood behind me, and then whinged at me about my hat getting in his way. Well, maybe I couldn't say everyone. Being a monkey, and all.