Hiroshima is still jazzin' the world
By Naughty Mickie
Hiroshima is an American jazz fusion band formed in 1974 by Dan Kuramoto
(flute/multi-instrumentalist), June Kuramoto koto), Johnny Mori (percussion
and taiko) and Danny Yamamoto (drums and percussion). The group is noted for
fusing Japanese and other world music into its jazz foundation. They have
explored the various facets of jazz-including East-meets-West, R&B, jazz-pop
and smooth jazz.
In 1990 Hiroshima opened for the Miles Davis world tour. In 1976, the
band was featured in the documentary, "Cruisin' J-Town." Their song, "The
Moon is a Window to Heaven" was in the 1989 film "Star Trek V: The Final
Frontier" and they also contributed to soundtrack of the film "The Thin Red
Line." They received a Grammy nomination in 1980 for their album "Odori."
Hiroshima has released 14 albums, including its latest "Little Tokyo"
(Heads Up, 2007), and sold more than 3 million records. Their current lineup
is Dan Kuramoto, June Kuramoto (not related), Danny Yamamoto, keyboardist Kimo
Cornwell, bassist Dean Cortez and taiko drummer Shoji Kameda - taiko drums
West Los Angeles.
I have been following Hiroshima for a good portion of my life and was,
well, jazzed to have an opportunity to speak with Dan Kuramoto.
"There were different versions of the concept of the band that actually
preceded it, but the where we draw the line in the sand is December of '74,"
Kuramoto begins. "I was lucky enough to be a co-musical director of a
musical play based on the Chinese monkey tales, which are very famous
throughout Asia. They did an American production here with an American cast
of Asians. It was really a lot of fun. It was cool musical, they had martial
artists and top Asian-American actors, dancers and performers. We did it at
a theater in downtown Los Angeles and it was sold out. We did one
performance and the producer decided that while it was a lot of fun, it was
too much work for a run, so that was that.
"In the course of doing that I had the freedom to put together whatever
kind of music that I wanted." Kuramoto continues, "I wanted to do something
that was rooted in things Asian, but integrate elements from all over the
world because that was what I was interested in. We had a steel drum player.
I thought it was crazy, but what if we tried using Japanese taiko drums? It
would give us a different timbre and Latin percussionists. A bizarre,
eclectic mix. In those days they didn't have a category called world music."
"We started out having absolutely no niche at all. Here we are, this year
will be our 30th in making records, our first album was released in the fall
of 1979.," Kuramoto goes on. "We still really don't have a niche, so we're
not uncomfortable with that idea. The entire intent was to create our own
voice and to do that with an East-West sensibility, but definitely merging
all manner of other components because we're Southern California people. In
Southern California there is no one thing."
I ask Kuramoto about his childhood.
"I played in the Japanese American Boy Scout Drum and Bugle Corp, which
may sound a little wacky, but it was quite a good unit," Kuramoto recalls.
"At one time, in the juniors, 18 and under, our drum corp was rated third in
the nation. I learned a lot about drumming because I was a drummer. I played
snare drum. I grew up on the drumline, which for me was a tremendous
blessing later. At the time, I got tired of being in parades and by the time
I was 15 or 16 I was like, 'That was interesting, I'm done with this. I
played a lot of sports and played sports in college."
Kuramoto went to five different colleges, including Whittier College,
East L.A. Junior College, San Francisco State, Long Beach State in
California and graduated with a degree in fine arts and painting and
drawing. He then went to graduate school, studying cinematography at UCLA.
"I had no intention whatever to get into music, but it was one of those
kinds of situation where my junior year of college my brother was also an
art major and we were hippies and we were playing music because we worked at
being artists," admits Kuramoto. " Then we started to get into these little
art bands. It was really a lot of fun. It turned out that there was a social
movement at the end of the '60s that we latched onto and we started playing
fundraisers. Music had a very elevated status in entertainment and in the
sociology of this country, particularly in the '70s. People connected by way
"For us, it became something that we thought would help create a dialog.
In the first place we're artists, the need to express yourself or some
concept was really at the basis of who we were, my brother and I," Kuramoto
goes on. "He and I started this band as an arts band. Even from the very
beginning our notion was we were not going to follow any preconceived line
of musical direction, we were going to blaze our own trail even though we
didn't know what it meant quite then."
The brothers were drawn to many of the jazz and rock trailblazers, who
dabbled in between genres, such as Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix.
In addition to Hiroshima, Kuramoto is a producer. He has been producing a
record with Roy Firestone, the ESPN sports interviewer ("Jerry Maguire" was
based on him)-- Firestone is singing on the album. Kuramoto is also
a sessions artist on Japanese bamboo flute and writes film scores, such
as "Black Rain" (which he worked on with June Kuramoto), as well as two of
the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Hiroshima's lineup has remained fairly stable over the years, so I prod
Kuramoto for their secret.
"We organized the band on three guiding principles," Kuramoto responds.
"Number one, that we were friends, that we liked hanging out with each
other. The music industry, as all entertainment is, is an extremely longshot.
To go into and not share a camaraderie that goes beyond the work itself, to
me, is insanity. We all feel like family, we like each other that well and
have the same disputes that family has, but we have that connection because
that sees you through the hard times and we needed it and we need it still.
"The second thing is to relate to a concept that will always keep
changing, that's dynamic within itself. It's not just East-meets-West, but
it's all the things that go with it. It isn't that we're doing something
that 'sounds like,' if you're going to play, you're going to study it.
"The third thing is that you have some propensity to musical ability, you
should be able to play a little bit. But that's the least important thing
to me because if you share in a common dream and you relate to a concept
that embraces the planet, then music will follow. I don't see how it can't.
To our good fortune, we have outstanding musicians. If it were not for me,
everybody in the band would be a great musician," Kuramoto laughs. "I'm the
dead wood here."
Kuramoto, June Kuramoto and Cornwell are the main writers for the group.
"June says I don't write like a typical composer or musician, I write
like a painter," Kuramoto says. "I've written tons of material, hundreds of
songs. I was the original arranger for the play, 'Zoot Suit,' that ran here
in Los Angeles and on Broadway, I've done probably 30 plays. I've been
nominated for three Obies, two Emmys and won one. All this without really
knowing about music, but having a sense of wanting to create a world, a
moment in a world that draws somebody in, which is just like painting to me.
All the same rules apply - composition, rhythm, symmetry, asymmetry,
tonalities - it's all the same. You're just rolling over mediums. To me
music came naturally in one sense. I just have a lot of catching up to do in
terms of being a versatile musician because I play way too many
Kuramoto plays keyboards, flutes (Western and bamboo) and saxophones.
"It's my own fault," Kuramoto shares, "because when I write a song, I
would hear in my mind this world and then now I'm hearing an alto flute, but
I don't know anybody who plays an alto flute and I couldn't afford to pay
somebody to play. So I go, 'Why don't I just go to the pawn shop and get one
and play the part just so I have it?' And that would roll into the next
thing. 'That would be cool with a soprano sax, except...' "
June Kuramoto is very creative and highly disciplined. She was playing
classical Japanese music at a community picnic where Dan's art band was also
performing. Her brother is best friends with Dan and she told him that she
wanted to meet Dan because someone who was willing to play music as crazy as
he might find it interesting to integrate classical koto and Western music.
She taught Dan how to begin reading music and other technical aspects, while
he worked at getting her to improvise.
"There are times when one of us will write a song and it's done and then
we'll bring charts," Kuramoto explains about the band's creative process.
"We always play it together and we always encourage each other, 'If you hear
something different for the part I wrote for you, go for it man. Let's hear
where this travels.' Very often June, Kimo and myself will get together and
we'll collaborate on a piece of music and then present it to the band.
Sometimes it's a sketch and we bring it into rehearsal and we improvise off
So the members of Hiroshima get along well, but how have they managed to
stay popular for more than 30 years?
"Being honest about what we do, integrating the elements that balance,
the tao of our environment, which is Southern California.," Kuramoto tells
me. "I think one of the reasons I would never leave Southern California is
because I like that balance. I live in Monterey Park and if I drive six
blocks I can get great Mexican food, but I can walk four blocks and have
Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, whatever. All the mixture in Southern California
is so natural.
"I believe the great strength of our country is the very fact that we
have a multiplicity of cultures here. I think that's what makes our country
spiritually so strong in the midst of difficult times and, from out point of
view, leadership that is not making the country whole. We're working against
ourselves in so many levels, but apparently the multi-cultural nature of
this country gives it something that no other country can really boast,"
continues Kuramoto. "That's why we love this country so much and we're so
blessed because through all this we have these pockets of fans that support
us whether we have a hit record or no record or they don't even know we have
"I think we try to put so much heart into all the things that we do that
it transcends any bad notes or wrong notions. We really love doing what we
do and we don't love it any less and we're not any less excited today than
we were 20 years ago," Kuramoto sums up.
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