On Ensemble with Kaoru Watanabe

This past Thursday January the 15th, my interest in world music and japanese culture and music in particular, made me venture out into the brutal cold of these last couple of days to check out NY-based Kaoru Watanabe and members of LA-based On Ensemble give a performance/lecture at the Japanese books store Kinokuniya in midtown. This was also the closing event of George Hirose’s photography exhibit, which was to be found along the escalator and staircase and presented very beautiful night shots of places in Japan and places that look like Japan but are in New York (as well as some enchanting blueish shots of Provincetown, MA by night, which are also available in his latest book “Blue Lights”).

Although I got there almost in time for an advertised 5pm reception that never really officially took place (that’s what you get for being on time I guess), I enjoyed a green tea frappe while waiting for the guys to take the stage, or better said, to take the corner of Kinokuniya’s upstairs. At least I got a seat (the reward for being on time!), which is good since the event turned out to be packed by a standing audience and there were only maybe 20 seats available.

Watanabe Kaoru is a flute, fue and taiko player and teacher (he has a school in Brooklyn) so he offered a lot of information between the pieces, which made the evening equal part educational and entertaining (musically of course, but also because these guys are really pretty funny). I understand this was supposed to be his own performance but happened to coincide with On Ensemble being in town for a gig at Drom the following day, so it became sort of an improvised unrehearsed jam session with three of the four On Ensemble members offering traditional taiko drumming, 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) and more modern and/or western influences (free jazz, avantgarde, if you will). Although neither the bright fluorescent lighting nor the setting (a backdrop of plastic action figures and the Bryant Park ice skating ring) might have been the most conducive for this music, I got really into it, so much so that I decided to clear my schedule for the next day and go see the full performance at Drom.

After a good early bird dinner at Takahachi, which is literally right on top of the Drom music venue and happens to be one of my favorite sushi spots in town (and Kirsten Dunst seems to like it too, since she walked in right when I was leaving), I went downstairs ready to enjoy this small american version of the Japanese Wadaiko festival all over again, this time with On Ensemble‘s full line up on the stage: a colorfully dressed four piece composed by Shoji (in the green), Maz (in the red), Kris (in the blue) and Kelvin (in the yellow).

The program was similar to the one I saw the night before at the book store, with a much 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 (played by self-taught koto improviser blue Kris). However the true goal of this quartet is to mix all of this with their western influences (rock, jazz, hip hop) and so there’s actually a modern rock drum set being used as well as some scratching on turntables and some singing by yellow Kelvin (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 green Shoji 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 (and neither can google, can you believe that shit?).

Kaoru (dressed in a modernized version of traditional japanese clothes) played several type of japanese bamboo flutes called fue (although no shakuhacki) in most pieces to accompany the guys. He recalled that that same Mongolian throat singer split his lip during a friendly staged fight after some too many shots of vodka, but that’s another story I guess…

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 Kaoru and Kelvin, 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.

I apologize for my iPhone’s crappy picture quality (well, maybe Apple should really apologize for that), but even so, you should get an idea of how amazing these two shows have been overall! A great evening well worth the $15 cover.

If you live in LA definitely make sure you find out when they play next, and for those of you on the east coast, get on their mailing list to make sure you won’t miss their next NY appearance (usually in January). Also, you might want to skip the gym and attend one of Kaoru’s taiko lessons to burn some fat and learn something about our brothers from the east. Both Kaoru and On Ensemble have sveral CDs released or about to be released, so definitely check them out as well.

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.

2 thoughts on “On Ensemble with Kaoru Watanabe

  1. shoji

    Hey Marc,

    Thanks for the write up! It was great meeting you in NY and hopefully we’ll be back on the East Coast before long. Maybe we can even work together someday:)

  2. Kris

    Hiya Marc! Thanks so much for the review! If you’re ever in LA and want to goof around on the koto, let me know! Glad you liked the show!

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