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 of music.

"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 instruments."

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 the sketch."

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 a record."

"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.

Find out when Hiroshima is coming to your town at www.hiroshimamusic.com

Also visit my blogs at http://mickieszoo.blogspot.com and www.insidesocal.com/doodah

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