Asia Major

Hiroshima stops at all points east and west on the way to jazz success

Though the group is generally associated with contemporary jazz, Hiroshima has eluded classification. Confounded critics just can't decide which category it belongs in.

The Grammy Award-winning Asian-American group, based in Los Angeles, combines the music of its heritage with a potpourri of reggae, rock, R&B, pop, jazz, African, Brazilian and synthesized effects.

That Hiroshima can't be pigeonholed sits well with drummer-keyboardist Danny Yamamoto. "I hate to put a label on our music," he explains, "and be hemmed in by a category. We're not an [all-] instrumental band, because we feature vocals. Even though our music gets played on the new age stations, we're not new age--we're harder-edged than that. We put in some pop, some jazz, and veer toward rock. We really, in essence, reflect our roots."

When Yamamoto says "roots," he's not necessarily talking about Japan. Keyboardist and woodwind player Dan Kuramoto founded the band in L.A. twelve years ago with kotoist June Kuramoto, taiko (drum) player Johnny Mori, and drummer/keyboardist Yamamoto. The group's newest member is rhythm guitarist/vocalist Machun, who replaced Barbara Long.

"[Our] music comes out of what we grew up with," says Yamamoto. "Dan, June, Johnny, and I all grew up in Los Angeles. The Asian-American musical community, as you can imagine, is quite small, and we all knew of each other and met up here. Johnny learned the taiko through the Buddhist church and played in various groups around the city. Dan played in a lot of rock bands and grew up in East L.A., where there's a heavy Chicano population. He doesn't really consider himself a player's player, but more of a composer and arranger. The original concept for the group came from Dan. He wanted to do something that would be positive for Asian-Americans. For him, the music is almost secondary."

June Kuramoto is the only member of Hiroshima born in Japan, but the koto player spent time traveling between East and West. "June studied at the Miyagi School of Koto in Japan, and was one of the main students there. She'd be practicing her classical koto music and at the same time have a transistor recorder sitting next to her with a tape of Smokey Robinson!"

The group made another bridge between musical worlds--the traditional and modern--by adding synthesizers, explains Yamamoto. "We use samplers and sequencers a lot to emulate the recordings and add more parts. We've sampled the taiko and reinforce Johnny's sound. We've used three or four live taiko players in the past," he says, "but it just isn't economical when we're touring."

Integrating a balance between the two musical worlds, says Yamamoto, can be a challenge. For example, he says, "The koto is tuned to a pentatonic scale--five notes--while most Western music is tuned to a seven-note scale, or diatonic. Sometimes we'll bend more toward the Western side, and June will tune to a six-note scale. In her instance, we rely a lot on her musical judgment--what's pure musically and what goes with the groove. It's an on-going process and can be very difficult."

But, adds Yamamoto, the koto works well out of traditional context. The 1,200-year-old silk-stringed instrument, evocative of a steel guitar, is adaptable to a variety of styles, including the Brazilian samba. "We've never recorded it, but we have done one tune that incorporated samba," says Yamamoto. "Rhythmically, there's a floating sound [to Brazilian music], and koto seems to lay over it real well. Unlike the Afro-Cuban and salsa bands, the Brazilian groove is rounder and not as hard-edged."

Yet another style that makes its way into Hiroshima's musical diet is reggae. "Yeah, reggae definitely shows up in a lot of our tunes," the drummer says. "We've also investigated other Asian influences, but we feel hesistant because we don't want to be disrespectful of some other cultures and play [their music] badly."

But Yamamoto also suggests that Hiroshima is drawing bigger audiences because it explores the music of the international community. "At one time, the American audiences generally listened to American music," he says. "But groups like the Gypsy Kings and the Bulgarian Women's Chorus are becoming popular here and I think that's symptomatic of a good thing. It's not just `Here's us and then there's this country and then there's that country.' We're in this together these days."

Hiroshima will perform at Mesa Amphitheatre on Friday, June 9. Show time is 8 p.m.

"She'd be practicing her classical koto music and at the same time have a transistor recorder sitting next to her with a tape of Smokey Robinson!"

 
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