Traditional Japanese musicians wow U.S. audience with tribute to disaster victims

Kyodo

The 38th annual Music From Japan Festival kicked off with a Japanese drum and flute concert in New York on Saturday, delighting the audience while paying tribute to residents of the area struck by the March 2011 disasters and ensuing nuclear crisis.

Japanese-American musicians Kenny Endo and Kaoru Watanabe delivered a program of traditional pieces and jazz-infused original compositions that thrilled Japanese music enthusiasts and newcomers alike.

“It was the first time I have been exposed to this kind of music. I was overwhelmed,” said John Lavora, a New York City resident who attended the concert.

Both musicians have roots in jazz but chose to study traditional Japanese music for several years and are now considered masters of their arts.

Watanabe is a New York-based flutist and “taiko” artist who played with the world-renowned Kodo group for nine years.

At the concert, he and Endo performed one of his compositions called “Hiraki,” which Watanabe composed after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region.

“The suffering is still ongoing, but even then people continue to move forward,” Watanabe said in introducing the song onstage.

In the piece, an ominous and deep rumbling from the largest taiko drum, a somber rhythm, and a simple melody on a classical Japanese flute were followed by Watanabe singing verses in tribute to the resilience of those struck by the disaster.

“The city of water, the fragrance of flowers, the trees of the northern country, reaching for the sun,” he sang in a classical Japanese style.

“The piece was very emotional,” said Lois Vierk, an audience member and composer who has experience playing “gagaku,” or Japanese traditional court music.

Many of the other pieces blended musical ideas from around the globe with the traditional modes of kabuki, noh and gagaku.

Endo, a Hawaii-based taiko artist with more than 35 years experience, said that the centuries-old classical Japanese traditions give him a palette for improvisation and new compositions.

“Just as I am a Japanese person who grew up in this country, it’s possible to take the good parts of different cultures and combine them in a way that doesn’t dilute it but creates something that’s strong and viable,” Endo said.