LA-based On Ensemble offer traditional japanese taiko drumming mixed with traditional ceremonial music (hints of gagaku) and some traditional kabuki theater music (actually Mae, the music that is played for the space and the people passing by outside the theater, before the Nagauta performance actually starts) as well as more modern and/or western influences (free jazz, avantgarde, if you will). In fact the program presented had a greater focus on the crossing over and the blending of different influences. Their stated and de facto quest is to mix the traditional instruments of Japan with influences from the west.
Although even an out of place looking darbuka appeared on one song, most of the show was played on a variety of japanese percussions, such as large O-Daiko, smaller Chu-Daiko, rope-tied Shime-Daiko, fan-shaped Uchiwa-Daiko (which as an encore all four of them played while making percussive noises with their mouths, in an almost Bailnese kecak style), fish-shaped woodblock-type Mokugyo, wheat sticks, cymbals, gongs, rattling shell percussions and other type of drums that I didn’t recognize (like a long cylindrical Brazilian surdo-looking drum). In addition to all of these drums, On Ensemble make use of one of my favorite japanese instruments: a gorgeous koto. However, like I said, the true goal of this quartet is to mix all of this with their western influences (rock, free jazz, avantgarde, hip hop) and so there’s actually a modern rock drum set being used as well as some scratching on turntables and some singing (only in one song, although all four of them love to do their kakegoe shouts of encouragement and appreciation on the stage, when they play, and off, if they are not playing on a particular piece).
One of my favorite parts of the show was when one of the performers accompanied the rest of the group with some self-thaught Tuvan throat-singing that allegedly he picked up while sitting on the lap of a NY-based Mongolian musician whose name unfortunately I can’t recall.
NY-based taiko and flute player and teacher Kaoru Watanabe sat in and played several type of japanese bamboo flutes called fue (although no shakuhacki).
Obviously, with a multi-racial line up and all the experiences that such a richness alone brings to the table, in addition to their individual research, interests and travels and the exposure to all american pop culture (they are all US born after all), the broad spectrum of influences to draw from is obviously enormous, so these four guys HAVE fun and ARE fun (every time they take the mic between songs to give a little explanation they manage to collect more laughs and giggles than some comedians I have seen).
The visual highlight of the evening was probably the Miyake-style taiko performance by two of the musicians, who stand on either side of one horizontally placed O-Daiko and hit it forcefully and following patterns in what almost looks like a duel.
On Ensemble’s two sets of this powerful concert are like a musical chair game in which instruments and positions are constantly reshuffled to suit every new piece. They struggled to make it happen on Drom’s small and abstractly shaped stage, but they managed just fine. A great evening well worth the $15 cover.
Sonically impressive and visually stunning, I would recommend this highly to anyone bored of the same old concerts and looking for something new to experience.
Both Kaoru and On Ensemble have sveral CDs released or about to be released, so definitely check them out as well.