Hiroshima�s Obon: Reflection and Celebration

An Interview with the founders of the band about their latest CD, to be released April 26, 2005, by Heads Up International
Beverly J. Packard

Hiroshima.jpgHiroshima�s contemporary jazz music is not simply music, but is also a significant contribution to the world. Significant because Hiroshima has a unique ability to lift us to spiritual places. To celebrate that which is worth celebrating and to encourage us to be wise about each other. Diversity is their middle name, and the varied cultural and religious influences that form the heritage of the band itself only enhances their credibility.

With a name like Hiroshima, none of us can be surprised that the music they make reaches deep within us and has so much to say. To come �up from the ashes� is perhaps the longest journey to be made, and to associate one�s music with that concept would easily cause it to resonate with meaning. Their latest CD, to be released April 26th and entitled Obon, is no exception, with its deeply rooted meaning, timing, and style. It is offered as a tribute to the musicians, places and events that have inspired the band.

Obon continues the tradition of giving something back to the world, both in its commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the imprisonment of Japanese Americans, as well as in its tribute to the loss of relatives fighting as American war heroes in Europe. In addition, it marks the contemporary jazz band�s own 25th anniversary of their recording career. And it happens to celebrate the debut of their very first instrumental album in those 25 years. So this album is a blend of reverence and joy.

In an interview with Dan Kuramoto and June Kuramoto, founders of Hiroshima, they explain it best:

BJP: Congratulations on 25 years of Hiroshima�s recording career! Dan, you�ve mentioned that Obon represents a new beginning for Hiroshima. Would you tell us what is involved in this new beginning and the factors that led up to it?

Dan: Life is cyclical. This first 25-year cycle really represents several cycles within it. We have seen so many musical evolutions, and we have always tried to grow with each new change�yet stay true to our sound and our audience. We remember when we were first signed to a record deal, we kept hearing we�d never make it because we didn�t fit into any category. Now we hear that we sound too �distinctive and ethnic.�
June: So we are full circle�BUT we keep growing and discovering, and �Obon� reminds us to pay tribute to our ancestors as well as to celebrate.

BJP: This is the first instrumental album you�ve made. Can you tell us what went into that decision?

June: Yes, Obon is our first instrumental album. Like life itself, it was part situation, part inspiration. Our lead vocalist and good friend, Terry [Steele], had decided to go solo. These kinds of changes used to devastate me, but as I started growing up, I realized change can be made for the better, like the legacy of the city of Hiroshima�up from the ashes. It becomes a perfect situation for us to SIMPLIFY. In particular, we wanted to feature our keyboard player from Hawaii, Kimo Cornwell. Having played with so many top acts, including Frankie Beverly and Maze, Al Jarreau, and on and on, Kimo is phenomenal. WE have an exciting young taiko drummer, Shoji Kameda�and we decided it was time to make Dan take some time between writing and producing to play more sax and flute. Having less gives more breathing space . . .air . . .life. There is a beauty and new energy in that.

BJP: I am definitely enjoying the greater use of Kimo, especially his piano playing and of Dan on the saxophone and the flute! How did you arrive at the concept of Obon for this new CD? Would you share some of the highlights for you of this past year or two as this project evolved?

June: Dan actually came up with the concept of �OBON.� Reflection and celebration. It represents so many things to us�25 years of recording, the 60th year anniversary of the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II-- along with the 60-year anniversary of the passing of my Uncle Katsu, who died an American war hero fighting in Europe to rescue the �lost� Texas battalion�while my father�s family was still incarcerated. And virtually every song has a story. An in-depth explanation of the songs can be found on our website, www.hiroshimamusic.com.

BJP: The word �obon� is a fascinating one � it makes sense that in the reverence for those who have died we must allow ourselves also to celebrate their lives, their example, their legacy to us -- is there anything about the original meaning you want to further explain?

June: Our Japanese roots are so rich and we are always trying to learn about them. Obon is a buddhist observation. In our band we are baptist, catholic and buddhist�it�s all about the spirituality of life. We move forward in the steps of those who came before, to guide and inspire us.

BJP: The CD truly does have more of a �celebratory� feel to it as compared to the more �reverent� nature of much of your music I have enjoyed so much. How do you think fans will react to this change?

Dan: We like to think our fans really appreciate our commitment to what we do�and that we celebrate diversity and variety in our music, as we do in our lives. We often explain our music by using food as an example. And we do love food! No one wants to eat burgers for every meal. We like to think every record we make has its own journey. The departure to a more upbeat project is really like our earlier work.

BJP: That makes sense. I�m most familiar with your more recent music, since I discovered you last year just before you came to perform at the Berks Jazz Fest ��..Is there a message in creating the album around a concept of Obon at this time in history? For instance, partly in response to recent events/tragedies/loss of life in the world?

June: It goes back to the Tao�the yin and the yang. It is the timeless cycle of life. When we endure tragedy it makes us more grateful for what we have, and who we can share that with.
Dan: OBON is taking the time to observe all of these things, and to learn to be positive and always have compassion.

BJP: I see the tour begins on the East Coast on May 1st -- the day of the concert at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.) � is there any significance to beginning the tour in that location?

Dan: May is Asian-Pacific Heritage month in America. We are very proud to be part of this celebration. It is in itself our OBON!

BJP: I know from visiting your website that cooking is a favorite activity for you both (and perhaps others in the band, too!) Your recipes look very good and I just may try some of them! I noticed one of your songs, Swiss Ming, is inspired by Chef Ming Tsai on television. Can you tell us more about how he became part of this song?

June: Dan did the theme music for Ming�s emmy award�winning food network show, �East Meets West� and his other show, �Ming�s Quest.� Subsequently they became good friends, and Dan wrote the music for his current hit cooking show, �Simply Ming,� on PBS. The band played the music for all the shows, and last year had an extraordinary dinner at his restaurant near Boston, Blue Ginger. We often plan our tour around cities where we have favorite restaurants!

BJP: Diversity is a great word to describe the various people, events and places that have inspired you. Thinking over the last 25 years, can you describe the vision, or world view, that has been the heart of Hiroshima and that is expressed in your music?

Dan: I think ultimately that it�s about �valuing� every human being. Thank God for all the things that make us different. Our whole sound is based on that notion, about creating a new mix from song to song and CD to CD. It makes everything filled with discovery and passion. That we will never compromise.

BJP: Please share with us the ancestors that have played a key role in inspiring who you are today, those whose lives you include in the celebration that is Obon.

June: For me, it would have to be my mother who passed on quite a while ago, but since OBON encompasses living as well, it would include my daughter Lani, my bandmates, my musical mates, family friends and our fans. I�m so grateful.
Dan: We are �sansei� which means third generation. It doesn�t matter what your culture, its about respecting and enhancing your heritage�which is the title of the last track on �OBON� and I think it addresses the question far better than I can describe in words.

BJP: I couldn't agree more! What a great song that is! June, could you please tell us why the koto instrument has such a special appeal? It seems part piano, part harp, part violin, all wrapped up in one. There's a soothing or calming effect that seems to be associated with it. Does it seem to affect many people in that way?

June: The (o)koto (as in the first "o" given in Obon to give honor), is an ancient Japanese instrument that came/imported to Japan from China around 700 AD. It was strictly a court instrument until introduced to the public in the 17th Century. The koto is approximately 6 feet 3 inches long, about 10 inches wide and 3-4 inches deep. It has 13 strings with 13 moveable bridges. It is hollow and made of kiri (paulownia) wood. The kiri tree is only grown in Asia with heart-shaped leaves.
When I first heard the okoto (played by my teacher Kazue Kudo), I fell in love with the sound. I believe a lot has to do with the instrument was a connection to my homeland Japan; but I also believe that because it's made from wood, it's strongly connected to Mother Earth. There is something very special about trees -- their roots anchor this beautiful creation to Mother Earth and can hear what's going on around the world but at the same time the branches spread to the sky embracing spirituality. So with this combined with the koto being long and hollow, a sound of deep resonance and reverberation is the outcome that soothes the ears and sometimes heart and soul.

BJP: And I believe that is a good way to characterize the experience of listening to the music of Hiroshima -- it soothes the ears, the heart and the soul of so many of us. Thank you so much, Dan and June, for sharing your thoughts during this important time and most of all, thank you for your music. Every time I listen to Obon, I become more enthused about it. This album is another masterpiece of creativity and spiritual emphasis.

Hiroshima will perform at a free outdoor concert at the Hirshhorn Museum at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. on May 1st, and will also perform May 2nd at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. Please visit www.hiroshimamusic.com, to see their complete touring schedule and to learn more about them.

Beverly J. Packard
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Reading, Pennsylvania

Photo compliments of Heads Up International