Back in the mid-’80s, local island television offered strange advertising crossovers: A Hawaiian songstress spun a bingo tank so folks could fill in the cards they picked up at the supermarket that sponsored the 10-minute show. And every few hours Hiroshima would appear on the small screen with their jazzy koto music for the HELCO commercials. And it got so everyone looked forward to those Hawaiian Electric Company ads with the breezy Asian jazz. Flash forward two decades, and Hiroshima (currently 7-pieces fronted by husband-wife team Dan on winds and June Kuramoto on koto and original member Danny Yamamoto on taiko) has persevered. They’re still offering up their unique fusion of tones, where east meets west, this time on a place called The Bridge. The cooling zither-like sound of the koto mixes with the breathy elegance of the shakuhachi flute and the startling echo of the taiko drum while floating in a dreamy environment of smooth, laid-back jazz.
So settle back in the butterfly chair or the papa-san, and prepare to groove. The Bridge plays so evenly as an album that the listener is immediately pulled into the movement and soon drifts into an easy warm slipstream of imagination. Then, before you know it, the record’s come to an end.
Opening with “Eternal Phoenix” with the slow brush of metal chimes and the gentle pulse of tablas, the tune floats slowly upward until the taiko explodes with a single burst. Picking up pace with synthesizers, the koto steps into many Japanese-sounding progressions, while the flute sometimes whistles and calls like a strange bird flying overhead. The formal elegance suddenly is disrupted by a lively “out” piano solo while the koto now carries the rhythm. Then the tune reverses and closes upon itself, nestling down and folding its wings around itself. More like a montage of sounds and styles layered one into the next, but all is driven by the underpinning rhythms. Because Hiroshima take their name from the Japanese city that sustained a nuclear blast during the second World War yet endured to rise Phoenix-like from its own ashes, the title and theme of this tune can gain much in significance.
The instrumentals on this disc are where the band really sets a mood. The slight popped bass funk sound on the mellow “Shaka Phonk” soon flows with soft fluid trumpet lines and a long noodling piano riff before the trumpets, now muted, step back in. This listener prefers the mood-drenched instrumentals to the few slippery vocal tracks, which are all together too many of the snuggle up and spoon, really smoove variety, unless you’re so in the mood you don’t notice the silent sigh soundtrack of, for instance, “I Just Wanna Hang Around You”. The most enchanting vocals are the older soul sound of “Believe” which has only five lines of heartfelt verse: “The more that you want it / The more that you need it / The more you’ll believe / I need you oh so much / Trust in me”.
The atmospheric “Believe” segues straight into the funked out bounce of “Revelation” powered by the soulful sounding Terry Steele shouting and scatting and generally getting his groove on. The scant approach to vocal styling works well on “Seven Rivers”. This is an adventurous piece with out of sync vocal lines, throbbing synth exchanges, and even a chant in Japanese. Here, Terry Steele soars in his vocals and sounds for all the world like David Bowie, while a guitar break slips towards and finally falls completely over the edge into rock all while managing to maintain its jazz inflection.
The music is admirably dexterous when setting the scene for any of Hiroshima’s tunes. “Manzanar” is an instrumental that immediately evokes the cold valley winds of the internment camp where Kuramoto’s mother was sent during World War II. The breathy bamboo flute sounds just like a chilly harsh wind moving freely and quickly across a barren landscape, while the gentle guitar line trails behind like an echo. A very sober and dignified koto carries the melody and mood of the piece, while a synthesizer imitates the chirping of a bird flying freely overhead. Occasionally, the twang of the koto sounds just like metal wire does when singing in the wind, so that affect can stand in for the stretch of barbed wire surrounding the camp. Look straight up and for a time you won’t see the fence, but how unfree when compared to the clouds moved by the wind and the birds moving at liberty through the sky.
The instrumentals are where Hiroshima shines; collectively, they are remarkably deft and imaginative when painting their tone pictures. Why Hiroshima works so effectively is they maintain the theme throughout their variations. While the original idea is treated to a free-flowing ride, the group never strays too wide from the course and always turn the elements back in, so the ending impression is one of exceptional balance. Of course, the pieces are short in duration (seldom topping five minutes), and while that discipline may help keep them from straying too far off track, the clear compositional intent is balance and grace.
The group can give a Latin feel to “Viven”, which translates into “They live”, and the bongos and percussive flair in no way seem out of place in their hands. That’s likely because Dan Kuramoto is familiar enough with the sounds of the East L.A. environs where he was raised for Latino music to be second nature, enough so for him to also score the play Zoot Suit.
Hiroshima has been together since 1974 and have won themselves a strong faithful Asian following of young, modern Japanese (and Chinese) listeners. Their cool, jazzy sound created with traditional instruments represents an amalgam of musical and cultural influences. That representation of diversity is the overriding Hiroshima vision and message. If music that edges towards smooth jazz is not your bag, experiment with 1983’s The Best of Hiroshima, the music that began garnering them their following.
If you’re willing to take a trip across The Bridge, we’ve already come to the end of the record. So pour another cup of warm sake and start all over again, and mellow and chill.