BY STAN SHIKUMA
Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble (SYTE) is an exciting voice in the rapidly proliferating Bay Area taiko scene. “Out of the Box,” their first CD, presents us with a seamless integration of taiko with strings, woodwinds, vocals and percussion, providing each a clear and distinct voice. Their frequent and effective use of ma (space) on several pieces helps create a spare and ephemeral sound rare among North American taiko CDs.
SYTE’s music is at times elegant and subtle, at times spare and simple, at other times complex, multi-layered and highly nuanced. Their playing is powerful, full and precise, but the sound is not overwhelming or excessively dense, as you sometimes hear with larger drum groups. I thought the straight-ahead taiko piece “So Du So” would benefit from more drums, as perhaps would the closing section of “Dan Dan Batake,” a beautiful flute ballad with an insistent taiko tag, but the rhythms stand out well-enough on their own. The drums are absolutely mesmerizing on the driving pulse piece “Hitenko.”
While all four members of SYTE play taiko on the CD, each also brings a special talent that embellishes everything the others do. Director Bruce “Mui” Ghent is a modern dancer and choreographer. Reiko Ellen Bepp is a visual artist with a background in painting, mixed media, textile art and art installations (and was a founding member of San Jose Taiko). Hiroyuki Jimi Nakagawa is a jazz drummer and percussionist who has also studied Edo Matsuri Bayashi. Kallan Yoichi Nishimoto is a composer who plays clarinet, shakuhachi and other woodwinds. All four have studied taiko with Seiichi Tanaka and San Francisco Taiko Dojo.
The CD itself is superbly engineered and gets a full range of sound from the four main players and their guest artists; it is a showcase for their technical expertise, power, precision, and masterful arrangements. The acoustic balance of all the instruments and vocals brings out the true quality of each sound with nothing muffled, missed or overwhelmed by the power of the drums (often a problem on taiko recordings). In order to hear all the subtleties and nuances of the music, I strongly urge you to listen to this on a good stereo system. I listened to the CD several times in the car or through headphones on a portable player, and the difference I heard when I played it on the big system in my living room was simply astounding.
The real joy comes in hearing the exceptional integration of Native American vocals, Vietnamese sting instruments, shakuhachi, clarinet, shinobue, hammer dulcimer, shamisen, bells, chimes, yotsutake, and other percussion with taiko. From the haunting vocals of Native American singer Jane de Cuir on “Wamblegleshka (Eagle in the Mist)” to the flowing lyricism of the dan bau (Vietnamese monochord) and dan tranh (Vietnamese zither) by Van-Anh Vo on “Omurasaki” to the ephemeral improvisations of shakuhachi master Masayuki Koga on “Tasogare,” the taiko is used to alternately underlay, amplify, complement, answer or interweave with the guest artist.
Some of the most unusual pieces on the CD include “Guardians,” a vocal chant accompanied only by yotsutake (bamboo sticks). “Chindonya Medley” shows a playful and comic side of SYTE – chindon is sort of a “taiko meets klezmer” style of street music used by Meiji era merchants to advertise their products and featuring drums, clarinet, bells and even brass instruments. (Somei Yoshino may well be the only group in North America performing chindon music today.) “Utusukushiki Tennen” is best described as a melancholy chindon waltz.
My only complaint with “Out of the Box?” I wish they had included more extensive liner notes on the songs and the artists. To get this, you will have to check out their website at: www.taikoensemble.com.
I had the pleasure of seeing Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble in a live performance at the Rialto Theater in Tacoma in 2004, and as much as I enjoyed the CD, the theater aspects, movements and drum arrangements cannot be appreciated in a recording. Some of this is captured in their video, but a live performance is even richer and more nuanced and exposes the full beauty of their arrangements and choreography, visuals and props, movement and expression. Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble truly plays “Out of the Box” and then some.
Stan Shikuma is a taiko player, teacher and writer in the Seattle area. .