Taiko X2 ON Ensemble and Kenny Endo March 28, 2009
By Glen Creason
I admit I am prejudiced. I have been a fan of the On Ensemble since I saw them last at Cerritos and admired their unique hybrid of Taiko drumming and world music. Each of the four members: Masato Baba, Kristofer Bergstrom, Shoji Kameda and Kelvin Underwood are classically trained and have studied in Japan with the legendary Japanese-American Taiko master Kenny Endo. Having Endo perform with them at this concert was both an honor for the young men but a blessing for the large crowd on hand to get their Taiko and eat some sweet musical cake for dessert. Since I equate the word fusion with dilution I will not use it here but what Kenny Endo and subsequently the On Ensemble do is place their improvisations and modern musical forays in fascinating paths of discovery that branch out from the big highway of a centuries old Japanese drumming tradition. Sometimes the paths become highways themselves but at the center of every tune is the drum despite the dozens of instruments and sounds used at this show.
This concert began with the basics, the grand tradition of Taiko with Kenny Endo playing the big Taiko drum, turning two sticks and a skin stretched out over this hollow space into a magical journey called “Harukaze.” The large crowd sat up in their seats and got ready for more when On came on stage for “Noon Cycles” that straightened some backbones in rapt attention. When special guests started joining the group it increased the scope but not the volume, just adding intricacy to the sound. There was Brad Dutz on vibes, Ysanne Spevack on violin and Kaoru Watanabe on flute. These three were really and truly superb, certainly strong enough individually to stand up there and carry a show on their own. Each guest added a certain spice to the mix; Spevack making some tunes drift toward Balkan or Indian tones, Dutz tossing tasty jazz riffs in and Watanabe returning everything back to Japan with his flute. Sometimes there would be a stage full of hand held percussion like on “Spirit of Rice” or a seashell blown as in “Yume no Pahu” or the sort of pedal koto played by Bergstrom and even a didgeridoo from Aborigine Australia. Holding it all together was the powerful, limitless invention of Kenny Endo playing Taiko.
The second half was very innovative and stretched the limits of the Japanese tradition out to its outer limits. There was light and lyrical songs like “Little Man” that ended with a wonderful kumidaiko and then there were the amazingly rich sounds of throat singing from Shoji Kameda as in “Yamasong.” In yoga they suggest that you take a pose to its edge and that is where On went for “Waiting,” “Turns,” and “Hisashi” using turntable scratching, throat singing, dozens of percussive inventions, a western drum kit and touches of rock and roll to create a sometimes edgy soundscape. Somehow, it just worked beautifully and “After Rain” dedicated to our dear, dirty LA was like the place itself; a stupendous, multi-textured dream.