"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview"

Dan Kuramoto of Hiroshima

Interview by Jonathan Widran

Jazzmonthly.com is pleased to welcome Dan Kuramoto, co-founder and leader of the groundbreaking band Hiroshima, the only Asian-American group to ever receive a Grammy nomination. Since forming in 1974 and making their recording debut five years later, their sound and vision reflects a distinctive One World philosophy which
blends Asian and North American cultures.

Their 2009 CD Legacy, nominated for a Best Pop Instrumental Album Grammy, reflects a convergence of East and West that is as powerful and relevant now as it was 37 years ago when Kuramoto (who plays sax, flute and the shakuhachi) and koto great June Kuramoto joined musical forces to create the band. Their new album Departure is their first independent release without a major record label.

Your last album Legacy and current Departure have titles that seem to indicate larger concepts and themes. Can you elaborate on what those are?

DK: Legacy was designed as a celebration of our 30 years in recording industry. We had hoped to go back and create a “Best Of” collection that was different from the type record labels slap together after a band leaves a label. Dave Love, who was President of Heads Up Records at the time, suggested it. The idea can be abstract when your catalog goes back three decades, and we spent a lot of time trying to narrow down our favorites. At one point we thought about a double CD, but in this digital era that seems a little ambitious. Then we asked fans on our website to submit their favorites and the diversity was overwhelming. We ultimately decided to revisit songs from our first decade. What made it fun was that we essentially did it live in the studio. I overdubbed some of my parts, but there was a whole lot of live playing going on. It was fun to experience the arc of our personal journey and take songs we hadn’t played for many years and replug them into the vibe we have now. We asked ourselves where these songs came from, and tried to recapture their original essence. It was like a spiral where you hit the same point again even though you’re in a different place otherwise.

Departure revisits two other favorites, “Thousand Cranes” and “One Wish.” It reflects where we are in an industry that is very different today than it was back in 1979. It’s bizarre to have no record stores and such a shrinking radio market, but it’s a good chance for artists like us to kind of replant, re-bloom and remind ourselves why we started out doing this in the first place. When our contract was up, we decided to go fully independent and release the album by ourselves. There’s a liberating feeling in
gaining control of your music and career like this, even though it’s largely uncharted territory. But the good news is that, though the marketplace has changed, our music isn’t going away. For us, it begins spiritually. We like the idea Dizzy Gillespie once said, that music is in the notes you don’t play. For us, it’s time for “Mah,” a word for the space between the notes. We’re excited about this new direction.

JazzMonthly: What was it like revisiting some of your earlier songs and how did you change them for that modern recording? While making these albums, did you think about what the band’s legacy in music is?

DK: It was a powerful experience reconnecting with these songs, some of which were more than 30 yrs old and many of which were written before we got a record deal. It’s great to look back as we did on Legacy, but the idea behind Departure is that we’re looking ahead on a truly grass roots level, which is always exciting for bands, whether they’re first starting out or together as long as we have been. Ask any band, and they’ll tell you the most amazing time is the garage band days – because you have no idea what will happen next! That’s where we are again. We’re also celebrating chemistry and continuity, because (bassist) Dean Cortez has been with us since the beginning and (keyboardist) Kimo Cornwell has been with Hiroshima since the mid-80s. I love our sense of community as artists and the way we have shared this vision. We’re carrying the Legacy forward now.

There was a tremendous energy in revisiting these songs, and we approached them from an organic world perspective. With Thousand Cranes, we added an African element and a voice choir for an emotional context that feels like “now.” “One Wish was a huge pop hit and originally had an R&B/jazzy flavor. So this time we did it as an acoustic trio, recording the koto in a home studio with a mic and no reverb, and adding my alto flute and Kimo’s piano. On Legacy, we took the song “Another Place,” which was originally three minutes long, and made it nine minutes to reflect the way it had grown when we perform it live. It’s got amazing solos by June and Kimo. When I think of what our legacy is, I defer to Robin Miller, a British producer who has worked with Sade and Eric Clapton but wanted to work with us. He said it must be fascinating to be the only ones to do what you do. He called our music ‘Urban World Music.

JazzMonthly: I also know there is a larger context to what you do, in terms of paying homage to the Japanese American culture and community and their historical challenges.

DK: Yes, all my family was in prison camps in California during World War II. There were 110,000 Japanese Americans in prison for nothing, just caught up in the madness of war. For so many years, these people didn’t have a true voice, and we just wanted to be a small part of sharing our culture and history with people who might be interested. We’re proud of where we came from. June’s eldest uncle fought in the Battle to save the Texas Battalion. One of his legs was shorter than the other, so he had physical challenges, but he was a sharpshooter for the unit. He received a bronze star posthumously. No unit took more casualties in one battle than this one. Growing up in Los Angeles in the postwar years, even though I was born in the U.S., we felt like the goofiest looking people on earth and were treated sometimes as subhuman. We were not made to feel good about who we were.

Using our gifts for music, we created Hiroshima not to show that we were superior to anyone, but just to let people know that we were proud to be like all other Americans as our culture moved forward out of those dark times. Our legacy is a very American
legacy. One of our proudest career achievements was doing the music for the play Sansei at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. I remember one review that said it was not so much just about Japanese Americans but about America. Our band and our music is
about the strength of our people and the sacrifices they made. We embrace cultures not simply to blend together but to integrate together.

JazzMonthly: What are some of your favorite new songs on Departure? “Koto Cruise” and “Smiling Jack” are light and fun, but I know there are heavier emotional meanings behind “Blues For Sendai” and “See You Again,” which you dedicate to the late,
legendary saxophonist James Moody. And “Yamasong Duet” featuring your taiko player Shoji Kameda is your first live taiko recording.

DK: For us, the album is all about celebrating diversity. We wanted to make a celebratory record after Legacy and it’s mostly that, but as a songwriter, I was moved to respond to the tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year in the song “Blues For Sendai.” It’s a city in Northern Japan whose coastal regions suffered catastrophic damage. For me, it will always be the best place in the country to buy an authentic shakuhachi flute! June was born in Japan and has a lot of family in Tokyo, so
our hearts were with them in the aftermath of the tragedy. At one point we stopped the recording of Departure to do some fundraising concerts, much as we did after Hurricane Katrina. Last year, our drummer Danny Yamamoto lost his dad and I lost my dad. It’s the arc of life for all of us. The album reflects all these things.

We love the opening song “Have You Ever Wondered,” which features the beautiful harmonica of Tetsuya “Tex” Nakamura, who played with War for 15 years. It’s a central emotional piece June and Kimo wrote that most labels wouldn’t let us start an album with. As for “See You Again,” we weren’t simply inspired by James Moody, we had a very unique relationship with him. We’ve known him since the mid-70s and he’s one of the most vibrant human beings we’ve ever met. I remember when he was about 80, we ran into him in the lobby of a hotel when we were both playing at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Capetown, South Africa. I hugged him and offered to help him carry his sax. I reached out and he slapped my hand, and he said, “Haven’t I taught you
anything? We always carry our own axes!”

When we first met, at a small LA club long before Hiroshima had a recording career, I told him about my idea and my uncertainty that such a cross cultural concept would work. He lectured me that I had not idea what it was like to pay dues, and about his experiences as a black musician coming up in a time of racial discrimination. He told us we were put here to make the kind of music that came to us naturally. We have a lot of great memories of Moody…the two of us playing indoor tennis at the Las Vegas
Hilton, June teaching him the koto. It’s an honor to do a song for him and quote a bit from his classic “Moody’s Mood for Love” on it.

As for “Yamasong Duet,” can you imagine any record label getting behind a track that features only taiko, percussion, drums and Shoji’s throat singing? Shoji’s much younger than we are, in his mid-30s but he’s traveled the world studying and doing workshops and first started throat singing in Tuva, which is in Southern Siberia. He integrated that with his taiko and he and Danny worked out an incredible duet like they do in the live show. In the studio, we set them up in booths where they could see each other play and let them do a full take version.

JazzMonthly: Finally, what was the vision you and June had for the band when you started? And how do you think you have achieved that?

For June, her goal was to make the koto part of American musical lexicon like conga, which is fundamentally a Caribbean/African instrument but is part of our general culture now. She moved from Japan at age six and was dedicated to the koto throughout her childhood. The instrument is so organic and adapts well to a Western musical concept. She grew up listening to R&B and even asked her koto teacher once if she could learn a Smokey Robinson tune! She knew and still knows it sounds good in that context. I grew up in East L.A. which is mult-racial and very Hispanic, so I was listening to Latin dance hall music for years. I knew the idioms of local Latin music but was also a jazz fanatic, studying jazz piano. I also loved Elvis and The Beatles. My grandparents who lived upstairs only listened to Japanese music, and my dad was a Sinatra guy. .

I honestly don’t think June and I had a grand vision of what we were going to do together, but all of these forms of music were organic to us and part of our natural expression. Before launching the band formally, there were two years of us getting together four or five times a week, where she played koto and I noodle on the piano. We were always experimenting and there was no precedent for what we were doing or would eventually do. Almost 40 years later, we still see the music we make as a continual experiment. We’re just so grateful that it has found connections to so many
people’s lives over the years. Our loyal fan base means everything to us.

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