On Ensemble (OE) is not your typical taiko group. And the music they create is not your typical taiko repertoire. In fact, what they play and how they perform transforms the venerable Japanese drum and carries it well beyond its folkloric roots.
On Ensemble spent nearly two weeks in the Northwest last spring, leading school residencies, doing teacher workshops, and playing shows in several Washington cities. I caught up with them at a concert in the Edmonds Center for the Arts (ECA), where they played a mix of new pieces from the 2013 release, “Bizarre Heroes,” recent hits taken from their 2009 album, “Ume in the Middle” and a couple of “OE classics” from their 2003 debut album, “Dust and Sand.”
All four members of On Ensemble (Masato Baba, Kris Bergstrom, Shoji Kameda, Kelvin Underwood) share a strong background in kumi-daiko (group taiko), one or more having played with Shasta Taiko, Stanford Taiko, Ondekoza, TaikoProject, and Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble in the past. And while taiko still forms the major base for their music — at least ten taiko were used on stage during the performance — their sound is much more complex than just Japanese drums. Throughout the evening, they managed to add koto, fue, melodica, trap set, cajon, frame drum, gamelan, chappa and throat singing to the mix, creating a unique and mesmerizing sound.
The evening opened with “Little Man,” one of OE’s early pieces and probably the most “Kodo-like” piece in the set, featuring a beautiful fue duet and swinging drum hand-offs back and forth. Next came “Gengakki,” another early piece that introduced two of their signature sounds — Bergstrom’s hammered koto and Kameda’s throat singing — playing over and under relatively restrained taiko. “Bizarre Heroes,” the title track from their newest release, came next, showcasing their move towards more complex polyrhythms and odd time signatures as they played to a 13-count base pattern. “Bounce Back” integrated some African-style rhythms with playful repartee between fue and drums. The first set ended with “Yamasong,” a Kameda composition and inspiration for a film short of the same name.
The second half opened with a “Hisashi,” a vocalized fue solo by Masato Baba, followed by “Gamelong,” a new piece by Kameda and Underwood set in 5/4 time and incorporating metallic sounds from gamelan, chappa and trap-set cymbals. “FTK” featured a trance-inducing drone and bass patterns, overlaid with koto, fue, and throat singing. “Verdugo Hills” then built off a 21-beat pattern, waxing and waning in undulations meant to mimic the namesake hills near Los Angeles. “Jack Bazaar” is a fun piece showcasing Kris and Masato on slant-stand taiko — arguably the most advanced Matsuri-style solos in North America. They ended with “After Rain,” a piece that moves from melodic and mellow to brash and driven. For an encore, they played a four-part version of Kenny Endo’s rhythmic maze titled “Symmetrical Soundscapes.”
As stated in the beginning, On Ensemble takes taiko way beyond is folkloric roots and moves it into new frontiers. Young and old were mesmerized by the concert, including a significant number of students from their middle school residencies who showed up and loved it. The ECA was a perfect space for them: big enough to handle all their instruments and all their sound yet small enough to maintain a certain intimacy. I only wish they could have talked a little more with the audience to share how and why their music came to be, and where we might go beyond taiko.
Listen to OE’s latest at http://onensemble.bandcamp.com.