JAPAN

Read the following world music reviews at the last part of this page:

Circle Percussion & Anumadutchi: Drums of the World (Netherlands/Africa-Japan)

Ondekoza: Fujiyama - Nihon Daiko: The Japanese Drums

Koku Nishimura: Kyotaku flute

Various Artists: Music for Zen

Ondekoza: Legend - Kodo x 2 x 2: The Hunted & Live at the Acropolis

But first a few of the great Japan titles in stock at Numen Music Center

The great Japanese drum, the taiko, and the Japanese bamboo flute, the shakuhachi, are two of the most well known bearers of Japanese musical tradition. Intensity and manifestations of strength - a strictly disciplined control of the body and its expression. A deeply felt yearning - a reaching out for something greater than the human. But also a playing at this so powerful element, sound. That would be some of the description given by this follower of the Zen-inspired music and tradition.

KODO: Originally members of Ondekoza (see below), for over a decade now, they have had their own base, and have likewise been touring the world with their music. Best of Kodo is a fantastic demonstration of the taiko drum tradition's controlled yet explosive power. Invest in a bigger stereo set and hang on to your hat! 159.-

ONDEKOZA: Play mostly drums. Quiet passages interchange with enormous discharges of energy. There are 5 titles. Devils on Drums is most simple. Typhoon is great, Fujiyama (read the review below) is very diverse, with other Japanese instruments it's a kind of all-round introduction to Japanese classical music. But for us Kagura, and especially the varied Legend (read the review below) are probably most recommendable. 169.-

CIRCLE PERCUSSION & ANUMADUTCHI: Drums of the World is a drumming CD integrating the two great drumming traditions, African and Japanese. A great collaboration (see the review below) for all who are fascinated by that human mirror of the heart, the drum. 169.-

MASAYUKI KOGA: On Heart of the Wind he plays the shakuhachi flute, very meditatively, and in the modern tradition - a trifle more rounded in tone than one otherwise often hears. Only cassette 115.- Eastwind is his latest, on CD at 159.-

KATSUYA YOKOYAMA: On Zen he plays the shakuhachi completely traditionally, meditatively, and with extraordinary intensity, on this fine double CD 325.-

KOKU NISHIMURA: is a Japanese master of the kyotaku flute. This is deeply meditative music - the sound is of "bells that empty the mind" (read the review below). AVAILABLE AGAIN, through private import - NOW ONLY 149.- Once more unavailable at this time.

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REVIEWS

from DJEMBE, magazine for cross culture and world music

(You can also see them on Djembe's home page)

The Art of Listening? I try to use my reviews to give information about the music, and to help people listen. You may often not agree with my evaluations. Write me an e-mail...


CIRCLE PERCUSSION & ANUMADUTCHI: 'Drums of the world'

I think that anyone interested in drums, or for that matter, in rhythm in it's broadest sense, will be able to find something of interest on this record.

This is interaction between two very different traditions - African and Japanese. And it's not just a meeting between two traditional ways of creating certain kinds of sound, resonance, timbre, but also - purely rhythmically - it's a meeting between the syncopated African way of rhythmning, with the most usually more "straight" Japanese way. (Note: to define the concept, in the words of music educator Philip Seyer, "Syncopation happens when we shift an accent from a beat that's normally strong to one that's normally weak or when we fail to provide an accent for a normally strong beat". For more, check out http://www.ilovemusic.com).

So, in this vein, even the illustrious old minimalist, "love-him-or-hate-him" Steve Reich, shows up - composition-wise, though not in person. And his somewhat interesting, but in my opinion emotionally empty structures, get filled out and complemented by the African element, so that for once the music feels not only complete, but it also becomes a stimulating experience to follow the development of his composition.

Circle Percussion is interestingly enough not a Japanese group, but a Dutch one, formed as far back as 1973 by musicians inspired by Japanese taiko-drumming groups like the now world-famous Kodo and Ondekoza groups (see my Japanese page). The group plays impressively professionally and is probably well worth hearing on its own. Anumadutchi, also based in The Netherlands, is a mixed African and Dutch group, and they seem to have done a lot of work learning to play different African and Western traditions, together with the attendant instruments. Besides playing a lot of West African djembe drums here, among many other interesting instruments they play, are the mbira from Zimbabwe and the timbila xylophone from Mozambique.

Altogether an intriguing and stimulating example of real world musical fusion.

Jack Donen - 2/99

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ONDEKOZA: 'Fujiyama'

Dynamic drums: Right from the great O-Daiko, 2 meters in diameter, and its distant, rumbling thunder that gently but insistently massages the breast - and to the flat Shime Daiko's sharp, dancing showers of irregular rhythm.

On 'Fujiyama', Ondekoza lives up to their reputation as the great mother - or father, as you will - of modern Japanese drumming groups. This is the group whose musical power and intensity is connected - certainly for themselves at least - with their physical stamina. In fact the group always runs a 42 kilometer marathon before a concert - which by the way is said to be one of the reasons that the members of the other famous taiko-drumming group, Kodo, decided in the 1980s to get out and form their own group.

This record is a little unusual for a taiko recording, because it makes room for a couple of quite long solo sequences played by other kinds of Japanese instruments. Besides the more usual interplay on several tracks, between traditional flute and drums, there's a 6 minute track with solo shakuhachi flute. Ondekoza's guest, Seizan Matsuda plays powerfully, expressively, dynamically, and with lots of feeling - he seems to use the total register of the instrument and still more.

Likewise, there is a 6 minute track with two shamisens, a 3-stringed banjo-like instrument - played with a kind of monotonous insistency, and rhythmically flat, in my opinion.

The last number is a new 16 minute long (abbreviated!) version of an old Ondekoza composition 'Monochrome', which is also a kind of demonstration by turn, of the potentialities of each drumming instrument: its tone, resonance, volume, sound.

So, with a lot of emphasis on drumming of course, the record also gives a bit of an introduction to the world of classical Japanese music. So although it doesn't really present anything new, it's probably a good introduction for newcomers.

Jack Donen - 2/99

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NIHON DAIKO: 'The Japanese Drums'

There are said to be around 4,000 taiko drumming groups in Japan, and Nihon Daiko is probably one of the oldest. It was formed in 1975 in a large provincial fishing town called Kushiro, on Hokkaido, the northernmost of the large Japanese islands.

Interesting to this reviewer, to hear a quite different kind of taiko recording. The material is similar to that of the internationally well-known groups. They even play a Kodo composition, 'Dzauku' - 'hunter'. But in comparison to Ondekoza and Kodo, this recording is clearly more folksy, less disciplined, and in fact there seems to be a greater melodic warmth in it.

The reasons are several:

First of all the microphones appear to be placed further back, further away from the musicians, than one is used to from the recordings of the other groups. This gives a good deal less dynamics to the individual beat of the drums, than "normally", where the focus is usually closer to each instrument or group of instruments. But it also happens to give a better overall impression of the music, as a whole.

Similarly, when the bamboo flute, on many of the numbers, is given a more prominent place in the sound mix, than "normal", - it becomes a more overt partner in the musical expression of the group. And so the totality of the music, rather than the usual somewhat fascinatingly daemonic qualities of the drums alone, becomes apparent

Interesting too, is that the rhythms here have a tendency to be more syncopated. Not so clearly accented ON the strong beat. But it must be said too, that this effect is strengthened by the fact that the beat is simply not as precise, the group sections just don't hit the beat together, as in the more professional groups. Not to speak of this crazy person who keeps playing a cymbal loudly with a quite amazing lack of precision.

So what's really interesting in the end, is that even though this is clearly a less professional group than we're used to from Japan, that doesn't necessarily mean that the music is less entertaining for you and me.

Jack Donen - 2/99

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KOKU NISHIMURA: 'Kyotaku'

In 1997 an 83 year old master of the Japanese bamboo flute, Koku Nishimura, visited Copenhagen together with three of his pupils. Recently, his Danish pupil, Anders Nordin, presented this CD.

The recording is from 1964, made by Koku Nishimura himself on a reasonably good tape recorder from that period. Still, listening to it, it's soon clear that a lot of fine work has been done in Denmark, digitalising the recording and removing almost all the tape hiss, while managing to keep the dynamics of the sound intact.

The CD consists of five quite long tracks, pieces for training as well as being spiritual songs that descibe certain images and feelings. Images of the city of Kyoto, the experience of listening to the sound of a bell as it moves in the air, the journey through life, and a song about the love of Boddisatva, The Enlightened One.

Koku Nishimura himself developed the kyotaku flute, and founded the Tani sect of flute players many years ago. The blowing technique is quite unusual, in that the flute is not really blown in to, but rather, softy or more vigorously breathed in to. Koku Nishimura has himself made over 2,000 of the flutes, and today he has many students all over the world. Kyotaku means "bell that empties the mind", and the flute is played simply, intensely introvertedly, slowly, and with very fine attention to the details of producing the sounds.

There's no doubt at all that this is a great master playing. His control over the sound is brilliant, and there is a quite profound depth and intensity to the feelings being expressed.

And yet the experience of listening to the CD is rather peculiar. As a stranger from the West, with a modern western, outward-going culture resting heavily on one's back, it can be surprisingly difficult to allow the music to go in, and influence what is going on in one's conscious level of awareness. It's by far easiest to stick to what is there, on the surface, what is able to be controlled. And what is there on the surface is a quite soft, neutral sounding music, but with an intensity that can seem intrusive and undesirable.

On the other hand, if one can give way, and open one's senses to what is, in fact, a powerful expression of sound and feeling from the flute, it turns out that each sound goes directly into the "system" of the listener, and quietly but surely awakens memories of feelings long forgotten - feelings, one may suddenly discover, that one still has a need for.

Try it yourself.

Jack Donen - 9/98

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VARIOUS ARTISTS: 'Music for Zen'

A compilation for those interested in Japanese-inspired music, and in the states of consciousness of the Zen Buddhist. It includes fine musicians like Schawkie Roth, Riley Lee and Nawang Khechog.

The record is filled with meditative music, with a lot of good energy and peacefulness. My only problem is that the record company, Oreade, has found it possible to present a deeply original Japanese art form, exclusively through recordings by Western musicians, and a single Tibetan world musician. Without in any way advising the listener, or buyer, of this procedure, on the cover or anywhere else.

Jack Donen - 2/98

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ONDEKOZA: Legend

Here is one of those Japanese taiko drum records that really test your hi-fi setup - especially the loudspeakers.

Ondekoza is the first of the world-renowned Japanese taiko drum groups. Founded on the Japanese island of Sado in 1969, they went on their first international tour in 1975. Since then, they and especially the Odaiko, the great drum that weighs 300 kilos and measures one and a half meters in diameter, have become part of the world music scene.

Ondekoza split up in 1981, and it is said that the reason was the dictatorial style of the leader. Before a concert he liked the group to run a marathon, or at least 15 km. in the morning, and 35 km. in the afternoon. This finally became too much for some of the members, who stayed on the island when Ondekoza, with its founder, Tagayasu Den, left. This then became the group we now know as Kodo, at least as well known as Ondekoza today.

The music on this CD is full of energy, power, the drums are quite often accompanied concentratedly by a couple of flutes and a string instrument. Quiet passages interchange with passages of enormous energy. The odaiko sometimes sounds just like the thunder which it worthily imitates.The other drums are played with disciplined potency, in many impressively synchronised patterns of percussive energy.

A fine introduction to the genre for new listeners, and once again a great experience for old fans.

Jack Donen

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KODO x 2:

'The Hunted - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack'

'Live at the Acropolis - Athens, Greece'

Within a very short time, Sony has put out two new releases with the Japanese taiko-drummers, the Kodo group.

Why all of two new CDs? For many fans that's an unnecessary question. Kodo has long been established as a master group in the world of Japanese drumming, perhaps rather in the world of drumming as a whole. They are masters of precision, masters of the beat, masters of a powerful sound that will always test the quality of your hi fi setup, and the patience of your neighbours.

If you've ever heard a taiko drum group live, you'll be familiar with the peculiar tingling, buzzing experience in your breast, as it vibrates sympathetically with the swinging skin of the huge 1½ meter o-daiko, not to speak of the many smaller taiko drums.

But what is special about these recordings is that neither is a regular studio recording:

The Hunted is a motion picture soundtrack, and as such, not quite what one is used to from Kodo. The film is an action adventure, about an American businessman in Japan who witnesses the murder of a certain, mysterious woman, Kirina, and is then chased by the killers. The album consists of the musical accompaniment to 15 sequences from the story.

Being a Western film, it's perhaps not surprising to find that the rhythms on this CD are somewhat more syncopated than one normally expects from Kodo. For example there's the use of cymbals and bamboo shakers on quite a few of the tracks, the high, sharp tonal effects of these instruments creating a sort of contrapuntal percussive effect, countering the deeper and heavier drums.

It's an effect that Kodo normally only uses more sparingly. Also the 7 minute closing number sounds, in quite long passages, almost like a jam session for jazz percussionists, each getting a chance to do his solo. Besides this, there are a couple of very short synthesizer sequences, dedicated to the lady Kirina. So all in all, the album is pretty much tailored to Western ears.

With Kodo - Live at the Acropolis, we're back to mainstream Kodo. Disciplined, hard-hitting, sometimes very fast. To me the group is at its best when the individual drummers are intuitively weaving into and through each others' patterns, in a way that makes the whole group into just one living organism.

Recording Kodo's powerful drums live must have been a difficult task for the technicians, and compared to some of their previous (studio) recordings there is a slight loss of dynamics here.

Still being critical, I could have done without the last, 14 minute long number. Here the group takes up the clapping of the audience and starts a long, partly improvised session that makes more use of effects than art - constantly bringing back the clapping. The high enthusiasm of the audience at this stage seems to indicate that being there was now more important than being present.

On the positive side, as a live recording, the album is infused with a sense of excitement that's not on their other recordings. One can easily hear the voices of the artists, shouting, sometimes driving each other on, and the excitement is infectious. So, if you're at all interested in drums and percussion, you'll easily forgive these master drummers for letting down their hair and playing up to their audience for one quarter of this hour long session.

Jack Donen

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