On Sunday March 10, 2013 a historic concert took place at the Old First Church (O1C) in San Francisco. The featured performers were the Murasaki Ensemble a seasoned group of veteran performers who are at the peak of their musical careers.
The core Murasaki Ensemble includes Vince Delgado on Arabic percussion, Matt Eakle on silver flute, Karl Young on the beautiful and meditative shakuhachi (bamboo flute); Jeff Massanari on nylon string guitar, Alex Baum on acoustic bass, all led by Sensei Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto on koto.
Special guests joining the ensemble were Brian Matsuhiro Wong on koto and bass koto, and from Japan Masahiro Nitta on shamisen with the equally amazing Kyle Abbott, director of Bachido.com, also on tsugaru shamisen. Michael Sasaki on funk rock guitar from the groups Cold Blood and Hiroshima rounded out the guest lineup.
The concert was entitled Japanese Hogaku: New sounds from America and Japan. It opened with a lively tune called "Tomodachi no Tori" (Friends of the Birds) written by Matsahiro Nitta who played the shamisen and was accompanied by Kyle Abbot also on shamisen. They were joined by the full band and several koto players. The tune was very cheerful, rhythmic, alive and full of joyful energy. It gave the audience an immediate glimpse of the kaleidoscopic tone colors the Murasaki ensemble is capable of producing.
The magic had only begun as the concert transitioned into the sublimely beautiful "Nagare" for shakuhachi and koto ensemble. Nagari written in 1936 by Katsuko Chikushi (1904-1985) is a tone poem that describes the touch of Autumn color on the mountains and valleys around Nikko National Park in Japan. The flowing sounds of the shakuhachi and kotos depict a riverlets decent into a pristine lake and then down to a thunderous waterfall.
The concert continued with guitarist Michael Sasaki of Cold Blood and Hiroshima fame joining the ensemble for a couple of numbers, What's Goin' On by Marvin Gaye and Valdez in the Country by the late Donny Hathaway. The sound was smooth, easy goin' and mellow. It was great seeing flute man Matt Earle stretch out on some of these numbers and put his all into his flute playing.
The band exited the stage and guest shamisen player Masahiro Nitta emerged to play traditional tunes including Jonkara Bushi, Tosa no Sunayama, Tsugaru aiya bushi, and Akita Nikata. He was a commanding presence dressed in black traditional dress with gold accents and crest. His playing was crisp, rhythmic, confident and bold. The tones from his shamisen filled the church and delighted the audience.
Another highlight of the concert was the world primiere of "Fireflies" for koto ensemble. Written by Sensei Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto together with Brian Matsuhiro Wong especially for the days performance.
Sensei Muramoto is a Yonsei 4th generation koto performer and teacher who grew up in Oakland and graduated from UC Berkeley. She holds her instructors license which she earned with high honors from the Chikushi School of Fukuoka, Japan and has also earned her Masters degree from the school for her mastery of the koto.
Sensei Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto has been a dedicated koto musician for over 50 years and strives to involve diverse genres of art and music in her performances. In 2013 she was inducted into the Japanese cultural Hall of Fame.
"Fireflies" found her on stage on 1st koto leading a large ensemble of players including: Carol Kasumi Takao, Debbie Kashihiro Ohzato Brune, Bo Chappel, and Kiyomi Nomura 2nd koto. Isabella Lew, Perry Cheng, Mayumi Nomura, Miles Cheng, Adrienne Burg, Zorah Chappel took 3rd koto seats.
"Fireflies" was sonically rich and beautifully composed. Sweeping gestures underscored higher melody tones that emerged from the mix delightfully evoking the fireflies emerging from their water home flying and blinking throughout the night. The firefly ambience was further accentuated by flashing L.E.D. globes that adorned every koto.
The Japanese shamisen is a fretless long neck lute with 3 tetron strings stretched over a vellum covered square soundbox. It's sound is vigorous and bold made possible in part by the resonant soundbox but also by the percussive attack of the large plektra used that is closer to an ice scraper than a guitar pick. It has a strong, vigorous sound characterized by a heavy pluck and short sustain.
One shamisen by itself is bold, two shamisen together are full and robust. However, on Kita no Hibiki "Northern Residence" written by Masahiro Nitta's father Hiroshi Nitta, three shamisen appeared on stage and its sound took on megalithic proportions! The performers were Masahiro Nitta, Kyle Abbott, and Grant Reimer. The piece was inspired by the snow covered mountans of northern Japan; the performance was very exciting and filled with drive and dynamic energy.
The energy ramped up further as a magic carpet arrived in the mountains of Japan in the form of "Hijaz City" a tune written by drumming legend Vince Delgado who was featured on the goblet shaped Egyptian drum called "doumbek".
Hijaz is a musical mode common in Arabic and Turkish music. It was fantastic to see the Japanese instruments improvise on the mode while the flutes soared overhead. Vince's drum solos were nothing short of divine propelling the carpet ride to its triumphant conclusion.
The Murasaki Ensemble concert was a true musical milestone. It had so much going for it: exceptional musicianship, endless variety, shimmering tone colors, finely crafted compositions and a dynamic stage presence.
Congratulations are in order to the performers for their achievement. It is hoped that the Murasaki Ensemble will continue their crowd pleasing performances well into the extended future.
The Murasaki Ensemble CD "Magenta" is available on CD Baby.
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