Kitaro taps into Native American culture

by Sachiko Tamashige

Special To The Japan Times

“Kitaro and I were destined to meet each other,” Dennis Banks tells The Japan Times. “Our beliefs are similar: Mother Earth, who we are … we are all the children of this Earth.”

Banks, 75, is a Native American activist and leader of the Anishinaabe people from northern Minnesota. He is known for leading the Longest Walk in 1978, a pilgrimage of 26 Native Americans who walked across the United States to draw attention to Native American rights.

In November, Banks reunited with new-age music composer Kitaro (real name: Masanori Takahashi) in the posh Omotesando district of Tokyo at a party to showcase their album, “Let Mother Earth Speak.” Kitaro, 59, is a Golden Globe and Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist regarded as a pioneer in the new age genre.

“The recording session went smoothly as being in Kitaro’s studio made me want to sing,” Banks adds. “There were more than a hundred instruments in his studio. Just being with Kitaro playing all sorts of instruments inspired me to sing stronger and higher.”

The flattery goes both ways as Kitaro praises Banks’ voice: “His voice is always in tune and most of the tracks were recorded in one take. It was amazing.”

“Let Mother Earth Speak” was released last year and features nine tracks of Kitaro’s musical stylings with Banks’ spoken word poetry. The album is filled with traditional Native American instruments and, of course, Banks contributes a number of songs indigenous to his cultural background.

The first track, “Thank you Great Spirit (Migwetch Gitchi Manitou),” features Kitaro on a Native American-style flute as Banks addresses the listener and plainly sets out the theme for the rest of the album. The effect this has might be akin to sitting around a fire in the woods and listening to someone telling a story before slipping into a dream.

Kitaro says the tunes on the album came from Native American culture and directly reflect Native American’s lives, including Banks’. They are about family, love, history and responsibility.

“Native Americans lead balanced lives in harmony with animals and nature,” Kitaro says. “Their wisdom has accumulated over generations and I tried to condense that in our CD. I hope that it can be a kind of textbook to help the youth — or anyone on the planet — live in harmony with nature.”

Banks elaborates on the message by addressing what he calls the “seventh generation.”

“(Our community) always talks about the seventh generation, which is how far our responsibilities go,” he says. “Our chief used to say we always have to think ahead, not only for this generation or the next generation but ahead to the seventh generation.”

The concept is one that Kitaro feels he can relate to as a Japanese in the land of Shinto, a nature-based religion. He also feels that the Japanese can learn from Native American beliefs.

“We, the Japanese and the Native American, have the same ancestral roots,” Kitaro says. “Deep down we share the same spirit and respectful attitude toward nature, and it has profoundly influenced our ways of life.

“But what makes Native Americans special is the concept of the seventh generation. They have such a long-term perspective and a strong sense of responsibility toward maintaining a sustainable future, and it’s something the Japanese should look at.”

Kitaro met Banks through the Sioux actor and activist Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman (1936-2007) at an anti-Columbus concert in 1992 on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of North America. Kitaro began building friendships and collaborating with Native American musicians after the concert and even learned to play the traditional Native American flute. In 2008, Kitaro participated in a concert to support Banks’ Longest Walk 2, which commemorated the 30th anniversary of the original.

While the 7,000-km walk was a success, it was not without hardship. Banks was involved in a car accident and the event had followed the death of their mutual friend, Westerman. To cheer Banks up, and as a kind of homage to Westerman, Kitaro suggested collaborating on an album to spread Banks’ Native American message with a focus on achieving inner peace.

“Let Mother Earth Speak” is nothing out of the ordinary for Kitaro. His music has long been associated with messages of peace and spirituality. His talents as a player of multiple instruments also led him to experiment with synthesizers early in his career, making him one of the first to do so.

“Audiences often associate my music with Eastern mysticism,” Kitaro says. “It is not because I use traditional Japanese instruments such as the koto or biwa, it comes from the atmospheric wave or soundscape — something beyond sound — that can be created by the synthesizer.

“When I started using synthesizers, the first sound I produced was white noise … like a ‘zaaaa’ and that immediately made me visualize the sea and waves in my mind. I then realized that I could draw all sorts of visual images with synthesizers.

Kitaro says he has used synthesizers for nearly 40 years and that he has discovered their possibilities by himself.

“Analog synthesizers have infinitive possibilities for sound, but they’re very difficult to control,” he says. “It’s like a magical encounter for me to find a specific sound, but that can just as easily be lost in the following moment, so I still struggle to master (the instrument).”

Kitaro says he enjoys playing in unusual venues such as temples, planetariums and so on. If he could play anywhere, though, where would he play? “A pyramid,” he replies. He recalls that, though not a concert, he once pulled out a flute and started playing to himself inside one of the pyramids at Giza in Egypt more than 30 years ago. A security guard found him, but Kitaro says the man started dancing instead of asking him to stop. This perhaps reinforces the universality of his art.

Kitaro suggests that new-age music needs to be redefined in more modern terms. In 2013, he hopes to bring together his fellow new-age musicians for a large concert in New York in the summer.

“My music is still put into the category of new-age music,” he says. “That relates to a ‘new age’ belief from the 1980s that underscored a new way of living beyond the conventional, materialistic world, and sought to explore the spiritual world through Zen, meditation and yoga. Now, my fellow musicians and I have reached old age and we’ve seen a lot of social change. The feeling to respect the unseen world is still just as valid and strong.”

“Let Mother Earth Speak” is available from Domo Music Group in stores. For more information, visit www.domomusicgroup.com/kitaro/index.php.