Prog7edit.jpg (39076 bytes)

Hardly a Sand Pebble, KENSO in America 
by Dave Schwartz   Photos by Keith Durflinger  and Paul Wells

When I got the nod for Progfest, I was both excited and apprehensive. I consider myself a fan of progressive music, but also realized that my cognition for this genre was hardly a sand pebble with respect to those who travel America and, occasionally, the world in pursuit of their passion. Compound that with my lack of familiarity with many of the bands featured at this festival and clearly my work was cut out for me. Not the least of these unfamiliar bands is KENSO. For 25 years this Japanese band has carried the torch of progressive music in their homeland and through many line-up changes and the ebb and tide of popular music there remained two constants, guitarist Yoshihisa Shimizu and the fans.

Yoshhisa Shimuzu.jpg (16083 bytes)It should be no surprise if most Americans have never heard of KENSO, for only rare moments does the Asian music scene ever find its way to our shores. The irony of course is that western music has long dominated the world market. In a recent trip to Taipei, Taiwan and Bangkok, Thailand I discovered firsthand the depth of our music's proliferation. Sitting in a Bangkok hotel room, we would spend our mornings watching MTV; the music was a mixture of (often refreshingly) unfamiliar bands interlaced with western chart toppers such as No Doubt. Honestly, I had traveled half way around the world and "I'm Just a Girl" was the last thing I wanted to hear.

KENSO was formed in 1974 by guitarist Yoshihisa Shimizu. Their meager beginnings found them covering the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, but not for long, with strong influences by YES, they began writing their own compositions. KENSO considered putting out an album, but with the departure of Yoshihisa for Kanagawa Dental College, the band went on hiatus. The CD, "KENSO - 76/77," was released earlier this year documenting some of the early recordings.

KENSO reformed in 1979 and the following year released their debut self-titled LP (yes, on vinyl people). Reportedly only 400 copies were ever pressed. Since then, the band has continually evolved and performed only rare concert dates. I was astonished during the performance to learn that Progfest wasn't only KENSO's first trip to America, it was the first time this band had ever played outside of their native homeland.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with guitarist Yoshihisa Shimizu, bassist Shunji Saegusa and a translator at the progressive music record convention several days after KENSO's performance. In between requests for autographs and the occasional photo-op, I was able to squeeze in a question or two. I began with Yoshihisa.

Dave: Progressive music is becoming more popular here in America, how is music changing in Japan?
Yoshihisa: Progressive music has never been extremely popular in Japan. However, it has always had a core of followers and it seems that the crowds have been growing slowly, little by little.
Dave: Much like America I take it.
Yoshihisa: If that is the case, then yes.Shunji Saegusa.jpg (13913 bytes)

Dave: You have a very prevalent exchange of melody / counter-melody between the guitar and bass; it seems that in your music the bass works as a second lead instrument, did this naturally happen or is it something that you had to work on?
Yoshihisa: It varies from song to song. Some of the songs are written with bass playing in mind, like the lead in mind, some are not. It varies from concert to concert too. Some of the songs evolve as they are arranged and occasionally the lead instruments are substituted by the bass in the process. The bass guitar is not a rhythm instrument but rather it is synonymous to the contra bass used in an orchestra. For this concert, Shunji could not bring his fretless bass which was unfortunate because if he could have brought his fretless bass, he would have been more prominently melodic in his bass lines.

Dave: For many musicians, music is something to perform. When Shunji is on stage performing it seems as if the music is coming from within him- it's not like he is just playing the music, but more like the music is an extension of him. Is this how you feel?
Shunji: Very right, and I come prepared to let myself go on stage, to let out everything inside.

Dave: You mentioned during your performance that this is the first time KENSO has played anywhere outside of Japan, why have you waited so long to come to America?
Yoshihisa laughs: The biggest reason is that the band members are all busy doing their respective work.

Our translator attempts to explain that, even in Japan, KENSO only performs one or two concerts a year; the band members are largely occupied by their professional lives and that an organized tour would be most difficult. During this explanation, Yoshihisa and Shunji continue to sign pictures and CDs for a multitude of fans, some American, but many Japanese. Several young Japanese girls approach embarrassed to speak with the band and after an exchange in their native tongue and much uncomfortable laughter, the girls have their autographs, pictures and happy memories. For us, it was back to the interview.

Dave: I know that the members of KENSO all have careers. For example, you, Yoshihisa, are a dentist. When did you decide to pursue your professional careers and keep KENSO as a side project?
Yoshihisa: I had to make a conscious decision while I was in dental college, 22 years ago, but after that it was a natural progression. My father was also very upset about me pursuing a musical career.

Yoshihisa laughs.

Dave: Yes, I understand!  You play live so infrequently, how do you keep the band so tight?
Yoshihisa: In my mind, I do not think that the band is tight enough.
Dave: When I was playing live I always felt the same way.
Yoshihisa: There is still a lot of room to improve, as far as the tightness goes, if we had more time to rehearse. Although we have long intervals between performances, all the members who love KENSO, that is the central core, all pull together.

Dave: What are your influences? What kind of music do you like to listen to?
For the first time Yoshihisa responds in English: The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, PFM (short for Premiata Forneria Marconi), Gentle Giant, Banco... these are the rockier side. Speaking of the jazzier side, Pat Methany, Weather Report, Return to Forever, I like it, John McLaughlin, yes I like it.

Dave: What is the difference between Japanese and American audiences?
Yoshihisa, again in English and acting out much of his response: Japanese audience is quiet. (He laughs as he sits and claps politely) American audience. (He begins yelling and cheering, mimicking the Progfest audience). When we finished the second song we felt a great deal of enthusiasm from the audience. We were overwhelmed. Masayuki (Muraishi), the drummer, was really charged up by then. The audience was incredible.

Prog2edit.jpg (15170 bytes)In an attempt to aid KENSO's live performance, I suggested that when performing in America, they should allow time after each song for the audience to respond. At the Progfest performance, Yoshihisa would step up the mic and begin speaking almost immediately after each song. This comment lead to some confusion and laughter on the part of the translator and the band. The translator explained how he had scripted Yoshihisa's banter with the audience and apologized if there was anything that we could not understand. I replied that it was neither the text nor his accent but rather the amount of cheering from the audience that would not allow us to understand every word. Again Yoshihisa interjects.

Yoshihisa: I was under pressure to keep the show going. We were only allowed 90 minutes.

Dave: Your next live CD, "Ken Son Gu Su," will be released in Japan soon, are there plans to release the CD here in America?
Yoshihisa: I haven't decided yet, I have had very little time to discuss this with my manager; I have been engaged in preparing for Progfest.

Dave: I read that you have begun or are about to begin recording a new studio CD.
Yoshihisa: I have the idea, but I have not begun work yet.

Dave: Do you write your music in the studio or do you work out the arrangements before?
Yoshihisa: I write the music beforehand. I am very busy as a dentist and I like to have time to play with my child, yet I have to work and compose at the same time.
Dave: Yes, I understand, my wife works in the dental profession, dentists do work very long hours. Do you have plans for KENSO to return to America and play?
Yoshihisa: Yes, I want to come back. We don't have a plan at this moment, but it was such fun we want to do this again. I feel very encouraged to see the audience traveling from all over the states to see us.

I would love to see KENSO again and would like to thank everyone associated with the band for being so gracious to not only grant an interview, but for also supplying an interpreter. Obviously the logistics of this interview were challenging and the kindness of the band only made our meeting easier. As always, I encourage the DaBelly readers to explore music- open your ears and you will open your hearts and minds to a world filled with great music. Later people!

Back to