Sunday, April 27, 2008

Contemporary Tradition: Asian Music in New York

There’s no place like New York to hear music from all walks of life. A period of few weeks earlier this year demonstrates it perfectly. I’ve seen and heard amazing acts of Asian music, drawing upon ancient traditions, rendered in new forms.

Hogaku: New Sounds of Japan 2008 @ Asia Society, January 12, 2008

As a general term Hogaku refers to traditional Japanese music, as opposed to Western music. In this series of performances on one Saturday night in January, the music was distinctly Japanese, although the tradition was perfectly merged with contemporary sounds. Still the evening’s performances were all on acoustic Japanese instruments.

First on stage were Goto & Obama, a duo that has performed together since 2002. In his introductory remarks, the Director General of the Japan Foundation in New York, Isao Tsujimoto, joked that we should not expect to be entertained by any presidential candidate tonight. Instead, one half of the duo was Akihito Obama who plays shakuhachi, the bamboo flute. Playing the Japanese biwa-lute was Yukihiro Goto. Both of these instruments belong to the pantheon of Japanese music. However, neither is a mainstay in Japanese classical music, but rather have more folksy roots and were originally brought to Japan when Buddhism spread there from China. The Shakuhachi was played in mountain temples some thousand years ago and was later disseminated further by wandering monks called ‘Komuso.’ Both instruments became popular beyond their Buddhist connotations and much popular music has been performed on them over the past couple of centuries. Seldom, however, have they been played together in Hogaku.

Goto & Obama’s music was firmly based on traditional Japanese melodies and sounds. Indeed, their performance consisted of a number of traditional tunes - such as the solo shakuhachi piece Tamuke and Itsuki-no-Komoriuta - as well as pieces penned by the two musicians themselves. While the atmosphere was true to the musical origins, the two instrumentalists stretched the limits of the form by borrowing from jazz and rock expression and improvising skilfully around the themes. As a student of shakuhachi, I was particularly taken by the fluidity with which Obama moved between these worlds.

After the intermission, the voltage was turned up a notch by Wariki, a quartet that combines music and dance to create the carnival-like atmosphere of Japanese street performances and festivals. Formed in 2001, the band draws from a variety of performance traditions around the country – including the shishimai lion dance and Shintoist kagura folk music and dance – rendering them into joyous celebrations completely in tune with current sensibilities. In fact, Wariki’s performance this night was so cheerful that it completely engaged the audience.

The quartet was fronted by Akira Katogi, whose main role is dance and street performance, but who also plays percussion on the taiko drums. Shunsuke Kimura played the yokobue, a horizontal bamboo flute. Both he and percussionist Etsuro Ono doubled on tsugaru shamisen, the Japanese banjo. Shingo Ikegami joined as a guest on koto, the complex zither.

Akira Katogi’s antics as he performed in flashy festival outfits cheered up the somewhat stuffy audience. As the show progressed, people were increasingly animated and laughing at the humorous twists on the stage. At the reception following, I briefly talked with Katogi who turned out to be as sympathetic and good-humoured off-stage as on it.

The stage was thus set for the final jam session in which all of the six musicians for Wariki and Goto & Obama joined in a jazzy romp. Goto and Ono showed off their jazz chops trading fluent improvisational lines between the biwa and the shamisen. For me, however, the highlight of the evening were the solos on shakuhachi and yokobue, respectively, by Obama and Kimura. The entire evening left me exhilarated as I exited the Asia Society premises to the chilly and dark Park Avenue.

Kaoru Watanabe and Tatsuya Nakatani @ Tenri Institute, February 6, 2008

A few weeks later on a Wednesday night I headed to Union Square south on Manhattan to catch what seemed like an interesting performance involving flutes and percussion by Kaoru Watanabe and Tatsuya Nakatani. Unlike the more formal concert hall setting of the above hogaku event, this performance took place in the exhibition hall of the Tenri Institute where folding chairs had been placed in a semicircle in front of a wall that donned contemporary Korean calligraphy.

The two performers both are bona fide jazz musicians of the free improvisational persuasion, albeit with a keen awareness of their native roots. Kaoru Watanabe was actually born in St. Louis and studied at the Manhattan School of Music, although he moved to Japan in the late-1990s living and performing there as a flautist for nine years. His background includes collaborations with well-known jazz and world music performers, as well as in traditional Japanese settings. He occasionally sits in with the Tenri Gagaku Society orchestra, of which my wife Yoko is also a member.

The drummer and percussionist, Tatsuya Nakatani hails from Osaka but has performed all over the world and has released many recordings of improvisational music. The performance started with him alone on stage, using a bass violin bow on a large gong building up a huge thunderstorm into which walked Watanabe from behind the audience with his side-blown ryuteki-flute.

Nakatani continued to create imaginative sounds from his stripped down Western drum set and various percussion instruments. He had a series of brass bowls out of which he would tease a wide range of tones. On occasion, he would grab a small cymbal and blow through its center hole while placing it on the snare drum. This would create whispering sounds that would rise and produce overtones that would mix with those of the flute.

Watanabe had placed a range of flutes, including a Western silver flute which he used only briefly, on a chair beside him. The unplanned improvisational character of the music became obvious from how he hesitated to choose a particular flute before first listening carefully to which direction his partner was moving. As a result, the music was both varied and sensitive. Watanabe played some beautiful mellow shinobue on a piece that swayed in a smooth bossa nova rhythm. He demonstrated his impressive technique in a jazzy solo on the ryuteki, a historical flute not known for its versatility.

After a brief intermission, the duo returned for a brief reunion. This time Nakatani entered from behind the audience blowing on the head of the tom-tom producing sounds imitating elephant bellows. The second set consisted of a range of styles that merged into a cohesive whole in the hands of these two musicians. They played a very pretty traditional Japanese folk song, even a tune from the very old gagaku court music repertoire, as well as free music on a high pitch nohkan, a flute used in the traditional noh theater, and percussion verging on SciFi tonalities.

The two musicians have known each other for two years but this was only their second performance together. It was an inspiring event in the clean and simple, yet intimate space of the Tenri Institute. In his own words, Kaoru Watanabe enjoys the Japanese sensibilities of space and a variety of tonal qualities. These were ample in the music we heard that night.

Akiko Yano @ Japan Society, February 8, 2008

On the Friday night of the same week, the legendary Japanese musician Akiko Yano performed at the Japan Society. She is undoubtedly a genius whose music resembles that of no other artist (the only fleeting connotations in my mind were some of her piano solos that reminded me of the sensibilities of Chick Corea). She has recorded 26 albums under her own name. This was the third time I had the great pleasure of hearing her live. In Japan, Akiko Yano is a mega-star who fills up the Budokan and other arenas, so it was a particular treat to sea her about five meters in front of me in the smallish hall in Manhattan where she’s lived since 1990.

Akiko Yano showed up on the stage looking great in a flowing black, white and grey dress that left her shoulders bare. Her hair was brown, long and flowing in large curls. When she sat behind the grand piano her touch managed to combine the powerful with the frail in her unique way. The first tunes were played in a trio setting with Chris Minh Doky and Cliff Almond backing up Ms. Yano on bass and drums. On the first tune, Hou-hi, a Japanese folk song, Akiko displayed her amazing ability to play funky while singing in the inimitable way that only she knows. The backing musicians easily settled into a free floawing groove that perfectly accompanied the music.

The second song, Chinsagume Hana from Okinawa, started with an ostinato played by Doky into which Akiko and Almond joined. The song drifted into a dreamlike state followed by a complex vamp during which the band intensified the approach. After the intensive period, Akiko got back into the melody and the song ended with Doky playing the same ostinato he had started off with.

The middle part of the concert consisted of a series of songs played solo by Akiko Yano. A few of the songs were her renditions of Japanese children’s songs and nursery rhymes, such as Imomushi goro-goro. She would chatter with the audience in a seamless mix of Japanese and English, then start on a song only to soon venture far from the theme on both vocals and the piano. At one point she’d play a tune composed for her by Pat Metheny, which – like Ms. Yano herself explained – didn’t take account of the singer’s range: Metheny, a fabulous musician and composer but not a singer, had written a melody line that challenged even Akiko Yano’s soprano. Another new song was by T-Bone Burnett, who has produced Akiko Yano’s forthcoming 27th CD. The slow funky allowed her to display her blues abilities.

The back-up musicians returned and the band went back into a jazz mood for the rest of the concert. Akiko Yano’s childlike singing is unique. She is an amazing pianist and her interpretation of music is like no-one else’s. There are few musicians anywhere in the world as brilliant and original as Akiko Yano.

Electric Kulintang: Susie Ibarra & Roberto Rodriquez @ Noguchi Museum, February 10, 2008

Just two days later, I went to the Noguchi Museum in Queens to catch a Sunday matinee with Susie Ibarra and Roberto Rodriguez amongst the imaginative stone sculptures of Isamu Noguchi. It was starting to snow outside and the austere setting in the museum was perfect. I grabbed a straw mat to sit with Yoko on the concrete floor against a white wall just in front of where Susie had placed her kulintang and other percussions. Kulintang is a traditional Filippino instrument, a kind of a xylophone with eight brass gongs played with mallets. The word ‘kulintang’ also refers to the kind of music and dance from the Philippines. Electric Kulintang was formed after Susie Ibarra and Roberto Rodriguez travelled to the archipelago in 2005 to research the musical tradition of her home country.

In the matinee the duo played music they had composed to the poem ‘War Horses’ by Yusef Komunyakaa. The poem narrated from a tape was accompanied by Susie on the kulintang and Roberto on various kinds of percussions and electronics. The short pensive concert played to an appreciative and artsy audience produced some interesting ideas that suited the atmosphere of the winter afternoon superbly. Yet, it was not something that would impress me excessively. I much prefer the duo's debut album, Dialects, in which the Electric Kulintang gets deeper into creating its innovative brand of “Filippino trip-hop.”

Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble @ Kumble Theatre, February 15, 2008

On yet another Friday night in February I took the subway underneath the East River to attend an Asian New Year Celebration at Long Island University's Brooklyn Campus. The attraction for me was the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, established and led by violinist Meg Ogura since 2005. I had purchased their first album already a couple of years ago and was intrigued by the music, so I looked forward to catching them live in the university’s Kumble Theatre.

The setting was not terribly promising. There was confusion at the entrance, which was clearly staffed with volunteers. A sponsor, Chatham Imports, Inc., that represents Chinese Baojing White Spirits, had failed to show up and the pre-show tasting was thus cancelled (a disappointment). The auditorium was only half-full and many in the audience appeared to be students and parents of the performers who would be on stage after Meg Ogura’s group. I settled in the middle of the hall close to the stage.

The Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble has five members, four of whom are female and three of Japanese origin. Tokyo-native Meg Ogura herself plays the violin and the Chinese violin, erhu. She is an established musician with a superb classical background, having graduated from Julliard. She has performed with the New York String Orchestra and as concert master with stars, such as Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones and Diane Krall. In addition, she’s a professional jazz violinist who has recorded as a sideman for some of the biggest names in jazz. The other members are Jun Kubo on the Western flute and shinobue, Mamiko Kitaura on piano, Jennifer Vincent on cello, and Rich Stein on percussion. The ensemble entered the stage dressed elegantly in all black and sat down in a semicircle like a chamber orchestra should.

The first piece, Dance at the Palace, set the scene with a light swing. However, the main event was the world premiere of Meg Ogura’s composition Lu Chai or ‘Deer Park’ based on a poem by the Chinese poet Wang Wei (699-761). Although Meg Ogura herself is from Japan, her musical sensibilities are, indeed, pan-Asian. Lu Chai drew more on Chinese tonalities than Japanese. Although these two traditions are related, there are significant differences. In this piece, the composer used two different pentatonic scales, one from China, the other from Japan (the so called ‘Miyako-bushi’ scale).

Ogura’s four-part composition was intricate and sensitive, yet it was constantly moving and at times swinging, with the cello providing a base that was closer to a walking jazz bass than the classical basso continuo. Not unexpectedly, Meg herself proved to be the most powerful soloist on both of her instruments. Jun Kubo’s flute had a perfect but somewhat thin tone approaching a sini curve, but on the shinobue she demonstrated a remarkably beautiful sound (already a third shinobue player this year that has surprised me!). The pianist, Mamiko Kitaura, was another remarkable player who switched effortlessly from restrained classical style piano playing to fiery solos a la McCoy Tyner.

In the next phase of the evening the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble accompanied the C. Eule Dance troupe in a ballet called Tsuru-no Ongaeshi (‘The Crane Wife’) based on an ancient Japanese fable. Meg Ogura had composed the music and the artistic director and choreographer was Caron Eule. As I don’t feel qualified as a ballet critic, I refrain from commenting further.

As the night wore on, the performances became increasingly amateurish but some were charming. After the ballet, they were performed by the Asian Student Association of Long Island University. I did stay until the evening ended with the famous Lion Dance.

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