An Inventive Fusion of Music and Culture
by Paula Edelstein
Hiroshima, one of the instrumental world music’s most innovative acts, has released their 14th CD! This summer is not only a special time in their musical careers, but also marks the release of The Bridge, their sensational debut for the Heads Up International record label. It is a great recording that fuses a blend of Asian and North American sensibilities and reflects their cultural and spiritual connections. We were fortunate to hear some of Hiroshima’s great songs in concert at this year’s 25th Anniversary of the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, CA. Fortunately for us, we had communicated with them just before the concert date and here’s what Dan and June told us about the making of The Bridge.
P.E.: Hello, Dan, hello June. Your debut for Heads Up International is sensational! Congratulations on The Bridge, it¹s right on time with its symbolic messages, up tempo feel and larger sound. I’ve been told that this CD was essentially recorded “LIVE” with overdubs, odd loops and even scratch marks! Were these techniques employed to freshen up the sounds of the ancient Eastern instruments such as the koto and shakuhachi so that they’d have a more contemporary feel?
Dan: Thank you for your enthusiastic approval! It means a great deal to us. We feel good about this project, both conceptually and musically. We feel that Hiroshima’s music has always been about bridging cultures and music, and this being our 14th CD and with a very cool label, Heads Up, we felt a certain “rebirth,” of ourselves, our music, and reaching out to people with our message of peace and multi-culturalism.
We also felt that we wanted to “uplift,” people with our rhythms and vibe and spirit. That’s why we open with “Eternal Phoenix,” (with its rousing, multi-cultural overtones ranging from Kabuki to rock to contemporary jazz) because it will always be about rising up from whatever we have to deal with in this life. We chose “Caravan of Love,” by the Isley Brothers, because it is a classic song from the 70’s about brotherhood–a theme that people no longer talk about, but is so crucial to the times we live in now. Our approach to this project was to be as spontaneous as possible, so we did record as “live” as possible. We also tried to use as few “takes” as possible. It was like, “play with your heart–and don’t worry about it if there are a few clams’ here or there”. It was fun! We actually were VERY behind starting this CD and pretty much wrote, recorded and mixed it all in the space of about 12 weeks, which is pretty fast by today’s standards.
Again, the koto, and to a much lesser extent, the shakuhachi and taiko, play a prominent role in our “sound.” It is who we are. We actually never think to “update,” their sound, because they are timeless.
P.E.: Great! Dan, you wrote or co-wrote seven of the 11 songs and have been one of contemporary jazz’s most prolific composers since the group was formed in the 70s. What type of events, persons or places seem to inspire you?
Dan: I’m very flattered that you asked. I was born and raised in East Los Angeles, with 3 generations in the same house, so I grew up in an environment that was rich with Japanese music (my grandparents), Sinatra (my parents), jazz (my older brother studied jazz piano), rock and R&B and the music of the neighborhood–which was salsa. In fact, that salsa was the foundation of my first big musical ‘break.’ Because of my familiarity with regional Los Angeles salsas, I was the musical arranger for both the Los Angeles and Broadway productions of “Zoot Suit.”
I’m also very much influenced by the times and the people around me. On The Bridge, the song “Manzanar,” (which I co-wrote with June) was influenced by the whole epoch of World War II and all the Japanese-Americans being imprisoned for no reason. The direct inspiration was a story my mother told me about how strange it was to be an American one day, and then to be treated like an enemy the next. To be forcibly evacuated to a desolate place in the desert, to live behind barbed wire–and to hear the mournful wind at night. The song starts with me trying to replicate the sound of that wind on my shakuhachi, and then weaves the sound of the koto into those nights.
P.E.: I understand those same feelings more than you’ll ever know. But on a lighter note, you’ve put vocalist Terry Steele out front on several songs including “I Just Wanna Hang Around You,” “Caravan of Love” and “Believe.” These songs are known for their messages of brotherhood, humanity and love. How did you come to work with Terry Steele?
Dan: Good question. Why ARE we working with Terry?? Hey, it’s a joke!!! In truth, Terry has been a longtime friend of the band’s and has sung background on recent CD’s, and over the last 5 years gradually became our lead singer. Kind of by osmosis. Terry is probably more known as a composer whose songs are covered by chart-topping vocalists like Patti LaBelle and Luther Vandross (“Here and Now,”) but he’s also a very soulful singer and a pleasure to work with.
P.E.: There is a beautiful spectrum of musical styles on The Bridge. Did either of you study any special musical techniques with masters from India, South America, Africa or Japan in order to be able to fuse the sounds of those countries effectively? After all, the musical scales of those countries are so different and sometimes very difficult to play.
June: To know koto is to understand me and my love for this Japanese instrument. I was born in Japan but immigrated to America at the age of 6 with my mother, brother and two sisters. Facing the struggles and hardship of adapting to a foreign country, I longed to return to Japan. It was not much longer after our arrival in Los Angeles that was I introduced to the instrument. My family was attending a social/welfare event for immigrants, and I saw a woman perform on the koto. This woman sat at one end of the koto and when her fingers touched the strings, beautiful, harp-like sounds emanated throughout the hall. At that moment, I immediately fell in love with the sound and image. I begged my mother to let me play koto.
This woman playing this angelic sounding instrument was Kazue Kudo, who also had just immigrated to America. She was searching for a place to teach and was settling her life in a new country with her husband and three sons. My family’s living room became the “studio” where Kudo Sensei (teacher) initially taught in the Los Angeles area. I have studied classical, traditional koto with Kudo Sensei for over thirty years. I have also received her “natori” (teaching/professional/master degree) from the acclaimed Michio Miyagi Koto School of Japan.
Dan: I got the idea of playing shakuhachi through an early friend and mentor, Bay Area jazz musician, named Gerald Oshita. He played so many different instruments and really gave me the desire to also be a multi-instrumentalist–to have a truly diverse palette to work from. Also culturally it was exciting. I then had the opportunity to study briefly with Kodo Yuge, a wonderful man and a very soulful shakuhachi player and teacher.
P.E.: Please describe what a koto and shakuhachi sounds and looks like.
June: The koto is a traditional Japanese instrument that came to Japan from China around 700 AD. It was originally made from kiri (paulownia tree) that has heart-shaped leaves. It is a soft, porous wood that gives the deep, warm sound, like a harp (although it is classified under the zither family). It is approximately 6′-3″ long, 10″ wide and about 3″ deep. It has two sound holes at the bottom and is hollow inside. The traditional koto has 13 strings (originally silk, and now usually substituted with tetolon), with 13 moveable bridges (originally ivory but now also made of plastic). It is played with three ivory picks worn on the right hand. Some compare the koto to a dragon crouching by the sea because of its length. At the head of the dragon the strings are pulled down through eyelets, representing the horns off the dragon. At the opposite end the strings are coiled like the tail of a dragon.
Dan: The Shakuhachi is a bamboo flute with 5 holes and an angle cut at the top. It’s played vertically. Like the wind it is played by feeling and texture, and likewise can be both lyrical and eerie. It’s truly an instrument of the Tao. I’ve had the opportunity to use it in a number of movies, from “Black Rain” to “Thin Red Line.”
P.E.: Wow. That’s amazing. Which composers, jazz artists or visual artists inspired you to become a musician?
Dan: My musical influences are legends, ranging from Pharoah Saunders, Geraldo Oshita, Yusef Lateef, Moody, of course Miles Davis to Jimi Hendrix, Donny Hathaway, Earth, Wind and Fire, Santana, to ethnic musicians the world over. Since my educational background was in art (I graduated with a B.F.A. in Painting), I tend to employ art as the basis for my approach as a musical composer. I love Japanese art, and the work of Kandinsky, Peter Paul Reubens, Van Gogh, and on and on. Art and music are SO RICH.
P.E.: Truer words were never spoken! As Michelangelo stated, “Art and music have ruined me.” I’m sure he meant that in a good way though. (Smile)
June: It is because of the influence of, and the special sound from my teacher, I am continually trying to expand the creative elements of contemporary and traditional sounds, along with keeping ties to heritage and cultural. Kudo Sensei is one of the artists who inspired me to become a musician. Other inspirational artists include Dorothy Ashby, all previous and current bandmates of Hiroshima, James Moody, the late Gerald Oshita (“G”), Sutomu Yamashita and the Red Buddha Theater, many of the rock and roll, R&B and jazz artists and groups!
P.E.: We recently saw your brilliant performance at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Bowl. Will you be appearing in concert in support of The Bridge any time soon?
Dan: Anywhere AND everywhere people will listen, feel and support the tradition of creative artists that we are privileged to follow.