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Japanese taiko drumming is an exclamatory art form as visual as it is auditory. Kodo's army of drummers, sinewy and scantily clad in traditional costume, muscle 900 pounds of drums in choreographed unison while participating in a complex performance-art piece that's equal parts athletic display and spiritual exercise. Attempting to capture this explosion of energy and monastic dedication in a studio setting is no small task. Past efforts, for the most part, have failed miserably.

Employing Deadhead drum legend Mickey Hart to produce the group's new Mondo Head may not initially seem an inspired choice in solving this dilemma. Despite world-beat success with his Planet Drum series and his past association with Kodo, Hart's penchant for self-indulgent improvisational jamming would seem to be in natural conflict with Kodo's traditional dedication to a concise and disciplined musical approach.

Not to worry. Apparently you can teach an old Deadhead new tricks. Hart assembled an ensemble of world-music legends such as Airto Moreira, Giovanni Hidalgo, and Zakir Hussain and gathered them to jam in his studio for more than 20 hours. He then efficiently edited the best of these collaborations and overdubbed them with the group to create everything from seamless, free-flowing grooves, to earth-shaking doomsday beats. More important, Hart introduced melody, a musical element that has long been in short supply in a traditional taiko drumming group's arsenal.

This change is evident throughout Mondo Head. From the ethereal vocals of "Echo Bells" and "Ektal" to the lilting chant of "Oya y Ogun" and the hypnotic African mantra on the spine-tingling opener, "Berimbau Jam," Mondo Head finds Hart and Kodo successfully hitching East and West, compromising none of their respective musical cultures in the process, and at last truly capturing the essence of the world's most talented taiko group on disc.

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Patrick Casey

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