STORIES BEHIND THE SONGS--
We generally like to start a new CD with a concept. Some notion, vibe, title that creates a ‘through line’ through the project. J-Town Beat, was really a concept conceived by our friend, Duane Ebata. He was the driving force of the Japan America Theater in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo (J-Town) until his tragic passing from cancer.
He created a series of concerts that focused on Japanese American artists committed to exploring their own multi-culturalism. He encouraged June to do a solo concert, myself as well.
We wanted to take Duane’s idea and apply it to an entire CD project. For us the preservations of ethnic enclaves is one of the keys to the cultural diversity of this country. That ‘mix’ is what makes this country so vibrant. So here it is our 19th recording, J-Town Beat.
1. RED BUDDHA- I wrote this song based on a number of my musical and cultural influences. The title is actually the title of an amazing musical theater piece by Stomu Yamashita. It was like a commentary on contemporary Japanese culture in conflict with its own history. At that time I had never been to Japan and I really tripped on this brilliant work. Several years later and a few Japan tours for the band, one of the many things I really dug were the Obon festivals. They were so surreal with spikey haired kids and ladies in kimonos and all this Japanese folk music and everyone dancing—and great food!! So this is sort of my tribute. Kind of tongue-in-cheek with the great percussionist Kenny Endo providing so many different rhythms, sounds and kakegoe. And believe it or not, that IS June singing and playing shamisen at the beginning of the song!
2. LOST IN PROVENCE- this is a song based on a sunny day in Southern France in the summer of 2012. June and I share a remarkable daughter, Lani Ren, who was getting married in a beautiful farmhouse in the French countryside. We were at the wedding site preparing for the big day. Everyone is sort of craving munchies so I volunteer to go into the nearest town and shop for us. Its only about 5 miles away so I take off and find the town of Fontvieille. The market is closed. They are having a street festival, so the main street in town is blocked off. Here’s the deal. There are roundabouts almost every mile or so. The only street I know is blocked. I’m driving around this quaint little town with really narrow streets and bridges—I’m lost. My cell phone does NOT work here. No one speaks English and all the street signs are in French. The only good news is I am in beautiful Provence, and my kid is gonna marry a nice guy—who just happens to be French. So completely lost, but not exactly bummed out, I’m tripping around southern France and somehow I eventually find my way back. It was actually pretty fun in an odd way. So here’s a ‘road trip’ samba that sort of captures that vibe.
3. STATE OF MIND- one of the many influences for the band, and a style that will always be part of us was called “Quiet Storm.” It fused R&B with jazz and much more. It was sexy, hip and always had a vibe. Cats like LT, BK and JC created a radio format that opened the door for Hiroshima. That was my idea for this tune, and Kimo came up with just the right intro and a hip solo. This song is dedicated to the memory of one of the greats, our brother George Duke.
4. DA KITCHEN- part of the concept for this CD is the ‘beat.’ Have some fun, get a little funky and groove. Add that to the fact that this band LOVES food, and Kimo came up with this one, just check out his burning B3 organ on it! BTW if you are lucky enough to get to Maui, go to Kihei and have the loco moco at a plate lunch joint that this tune is named for!
5. LADY OF MYSTERY- we are talking June here. I’m always amazed how great artists are still human beings. Until June sits down to her koto, she is a bright, wacky, can-do-anything-really-well woman. But to me it’s the transformation to the soulful, brilliant musician that is and will always be a mystery. I wrote this with that notion in mind, and we are blessed to have one of the most gifted and unique artists we know, Vinx lending his mysterious vocal to the track.
6. KIMOCHI- In Japanese, feeling. Written as a sort of linear ‘tone poem’ I love creating a space and simple textures that you can ‘feel.’ The melody just sort of came to me and when I found a sound that fit the vibe I just played it in one pass, as I did with “One Wish” some years before.
7. MEIJI MAMBO- The first time the band toured Japan was in 1981. It was new to all of us except June, who was born there. I remember being ‘fried’ from the long flight from Los Angeles, but being asked to do a couple of interviews that first night. Being a typical So Cal dude I was wearing my zoris (flip flops) to our hotel lobby. The newspaper photographers took pictures of me when I showed up—which ended up in the paper the next day, because no one wears them in Tokyo! Considered very inaka (country) Anyway that first tour we did many interviews--they were very curious about us American-born Japanese.
I don’t want to say they ‘dissed’ us, but they had some misgivings about us—how could someone leave Japan and NOT return? All I know is my g-chan (grandfather), came here as a young man right around the beginning of the 1900’s (FYI-we JA’s consider that our first generation here, Issei) From what I can gather he worked in the Sacramento delta region both as a cowboy and farmer, eventually settling in J-Town LA, managing a hotel there. That period in Japanese history is Meiji, starting in the earlier 1850’s. its also known as the Meiji restoration, signaling the end of feudal times (and the samurai) to a centralized government--Now, don’t hold me to any of this, I’m just a freaking musician, but this is my understanding.
So back to interviews in Japan, at one point one of the interviewers said, “you are like Meiji Japanese.” Somehow I gathered this was not necessarily a compliment. I, on the other hand, DIG that we are Meiji folks. We love the traditional Japanese arts, culture and music. They are practically desperate to be western, and have lost ties to much of their own culture--I remember playing in Tokyo and college students telling us they had never seen a koto in person before.
This song is definitely NOT a mambo, but it is a musical gumbo about ‘modern’ Japan, Meiji sansei (my generation of Japanese Americans), some humor and everything in between.
8. DAYS GONE BY—every once and a while you hear a song and it gets you ‘right where you live.’ Permanent ‘family’ member Terry Steele played this for us, and we immediately decided to put this on this CD. The idea that we are grateful for things past—and carry that forward, speaks to our lives, but even more to future generations. Terry’s rich vocal testifies to his artistry not just as a composer but a singer extraordinaire.
9. AFTERNOON KOTO- having the privilege of listening to June play her koto (like Miles, everything is a performance) on a quiet summer afternoon is unforgettable. This is a recollection of those times.
10. CRUISIN’ J-TOWN- This is a ‘re-visitation’ of the first song off our second album. After all if we do a record called J-Town Beat, how could we NOT do this one? For a different ‘vibe’ I put a latin spin on it, a tribute to my East LA heritage. June is burning and Gajate really makes it rock!
11. TO SAY GOODBYE- In the band there are certain songs we refer to as our ‘classics.’ I believe this will be one of them. June created a melody so beautiful and haunting I am moved every time I hear it. Kimo’s work on the song as co-writer and arranger is emotional and timeless. Enjoy.
dan kuramoto, producer