The group Hiroshima is celebrating 25 years of performing with its first all instrumental release. It's called Obon, which is named after Buddhist festivals that remember people who have passed away. The festivals take place not only in Asia, but in Los Angeles as well, where Hiroshima was first formed. In this case, the group wanted to salute the musicians, the events and experiences that they had throughout their 25-year history. The CD reflects both celebrating the group's longevity, but also reflect about where the members have been and what can come in the future.
Multi-instrumentalist Dan Kuramoto says the 25 years has been a cycle of life. He says, "In Japan, Obon festivals are held every year and it really kind of covers a spectrum of both going backwards and looking where you came from, where you are now and kind of where you're headed. It's a time for reflection and meditation and celebration. For us, we started out basically as a Los Angeles area band motivated by June Kuramoto's idea of combining her koto and Japanese music with other music traditions."
Sometimes, June Kuramoto says she worries about how Hiroshima comes across. She says, "Treading on this ground for me is still kind of something different and new and challenging. With the group I have so much more creative support and ideas and bounce it off each other. Still, it's always a challenge and difficult for me expand the koto into what it has become and I know that there's even greater things that it can do and I haven't even touched the surface. With five of us, it kind of a lot more fun and actually, in essence, easier."
Dan Kuramoto believes June is shy about just how important and talented she is. He says, "Because she's so humble, she's so Japanese that way, she just won't put herself out there. She makes this solo record 'Spirit and Soul' and she makes it almost an effort to make sure no one knows she put it out. She's always doing stuff like that and yet at the end of the year, 'Entertainment Weekly' voted her record the number one release for the entire year for any kind of music. The first time a jazz record even got into the top ten. And yet, would she tell anybody? Will she put it on the website? No! That's just June's nature. It's both charming and I think then becomes part of the spirit of every note she plays."
Even though Dan Kuramoto believes June Kuramoto is the major cog of Hiroshima, June believes Dan really is the big part of the group's success. She says, "Dan is the leader. He drives us insanely and pushes us to the edge. Sometimes we all get frustrated and angry at poor Dan, but he knows what it takes. If he didn't drive us, we wouldn't put out. A lot of us, especially me, are complacent and he pounds us and he drives us and he keeps it moving forward. He is the creative person with the concept."
One thing that Hiroshima believed is that the Los Angeles jazz performers were respecting them. Dan Kuramoto says, "We were really kind of embarrassed and guided by the local area jazz cats that I think maybe people would not find that easy to understand. Trumpeter Bobby Bradford, Don Cherry and other local jazz names that really heard our band and said what we are doing is what jazz really is. Another is James Moody, who we really got to know and who really encourage us to embrace our own ethnic music and to combine it with these other forms. It's really not about is it a 12 bar blues or whatever else it is. It's about going out and creating cultures and ideas and going with it. That's what they taught us."
The members of Hiroshima also got their influence from other kinds of music as well. Dan Kuramoto says, "June Kuramoto grew up right by the middle of the hood, so part of her music background was Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and all this other stuff. I grew up in East LA and listening to salsa music every single day. That was the root and the basis of what we did. First embrace these different things and go to these different styles was all a part of our background and these jazz cats say try everything, but just be honest in what you're doing."
On thing that June Kuramoto believes is important to the longevity of Hiroshima is that they are a group. She says, "In this group, we have such great talent, like our keyboard player, Kimo Cornwell. In every album, we try to feature and encompass each one of us, and bring out the different personalities as well." Dan says, "This is all her fault. She came from Japan, Kimo came from Hawaii and bassist Dean Cortez came from Puerto Rico. The fundamental band was really inspired by June and June insisted that it not be Hiroshima and June Kuramoto, or June Kuramoto and Hiroshima, and that it just be a band. That was the only way that this whole idea could just roll out and that we could be like an arts collective, experimenting and trying things. Every song we do, every piece that we work on is something that no one has every tried before because of this unusual combination of instruments. The challenge grows greater, not less. Maybe with a little more wisdom and experience and the blessing of having done it so long, I think we enjoy much more now then we ever had in the past."
On the new CD "Odom," Hiroshima uses a much smaller group of instrumentalists to get their message out. Dan Kuramoto says, "The smaller group allows us to feature different aspects of what we do in a way that we haven't before. Kimo Cornwell from Hawaii, who has been with us for so long and who has played with Al Jarreau and Frankie Beverly and Maze and Ronny Laws, he such a gifted and interesting keyboard player and on this record, everything was done on the first take or a sketch on a rundown and then we just kept it. We didn't fix notes because it was all about the vibe. We really wanted to do songs about people that meant a lot to us, like James Moody or Betty Harris or a jazz club like The Lighthouse in Los Angeles, where we all used to go and see musicians perform live for the first time. Those are the songs that are literally on the record. They are about these musical stories about our influences."
The members of Hiroshima believe that each new release is a challenge for them. "The challenge is keeping it fresh, which makes it exciting. We have a new taiko drum player Shoki Kameda. We call him the young blood because he is a next generation. He's in his 20's and grew up playing Taiko, which is a giant Japanese festival drum, in Northern California," says Dan. "His parents were hippies. He literally lived in the woods when he was a kid, but as life would have it, his mom is now a Superior Court judge for the State of California. They would encourage him to be bright, curious and creative. He has been playing taiko since the age of eight. His only jobs have been as a Taiko player. He graduated from Stanford University, he studied in Japan and Hawaii and the kid is in his mid-20's. So he can read music, he has chops to play any different percussion things. He can do Tibetian throat singing, so he brings all these different elements. It just kicks the mix up all over again and makes it just more fun for us. As we go and start touring this year, we're going to be discovering a whole bunch of new things with him and this new little instrumental ensemble that we have never dealt with before. I think it can only help us grow and only makes it more challenging and fun."
For the past 25 years, Dan and June Kuramoto have become part of the American landscape by bringing Asian flavored music through Hiroshima. America has always been a melting pot of people and cultures and Hiroshima is a prime example of that. As they begin their second 25 years together, Hiroshima will continue to bring Asian influences into the music that has become an American treasure. We hope to someday have a 50th anniversary of Hiroshima where its music continues to thrive.