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MUSIC REVIEW : Hiroshima’s Ethnic Power Comes Through

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As the ethnic balance of America’s population evolves, these changing demographics find expressions in musical form. In jazz and popular music, it’s not uncommon to hear Latin, Afro-Cuban, African-American and assorted ethnic folk influences tossed into the same pop music melting pot.

One of the best of the multicultural fusion bands is Hiroshima, which returned to Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay for two shows Wednesday night, a follow-up to two sold-out shows last June. (This time, however, there were lots of empty seats; Humphrey’s wouldn’t give attendance figures.)

Hiroshima’s nine members represent a significant swath of American ethnicity. Dan Kuramoto, the group’s founder, leader and primary composer, is a third-generation Japanese-American who grew up in Latino/Asian East Los Angeles. Drummer Danny Yamamoto, koto player June Okida Kuramoto and taiko drummer Johnny Mori came of age in other multiethnic Los Angeles neighborhoods.

It’s no surprise, then, that Hiroshima’s music is an amalgam of Japanese folk influences, American funk, rock and jazz, and Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms.

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During Wednesday night’s first show, the band was feeling feisty. After the first few rollicking tunes, it had to turn down its sound to comply with the 96-decibel limit imposed by the city--much to the dismay of the band and audience.

The first show drew heavily on material from most of Hiroshima’s six albums, including its latest, the 1989 “East.”

There are two reasons for the success of Hiroshima’s complex, culturally diverse music: Synthesizers and unusual ethnic instruments (such as the large, wooden taiko drums and the 13-string koto) are used as vital ingredients, not superficial decorations, and band members write rich, original compositions that bring together the band’s full range of orchestral sounds.

Rhythms help glue the music together. From the first few bars of the show-opening “Winds of Change,” off the band’s 1980 album, “Odori,” bassist Dean Cortes, percussionist Richard Gajate Garcia and drummer Mori laid down a tight, danceable foundation, full of spunk and funk. Throughout the set, synthesizer-keyboard man Kimo Cornwell added just the right orchestral colorings, and lead instruments and vocals floated over these solid underpinnings.

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Hiroshima’s songs are divided between strictly instrumental numbers and vocal tunes, the latter being vehicles for singer Machun’s light, ethereal voice.

“Kokoro,” from the band’s debut album, for example, is a slow, moody piece with an engaging melody line featuring Dan Kuramoto’s flute and June Okida Kuramoto’s koto riding in graceful tandem. “Hawaiian Electric” (from the 1988 album, “Go”) teams flute, vocals and synthesizer on a melody line that soars above a dense, funky rhythmic forest--with a timeout Wednesday night for a searing, laser-sharp solo by guitarist Alan Hinds.

Machun took the spotlight for “Come to Me,” a slow, romantic jewel from “East,” before the band launched into an untitled, up-tempo samba from its upcoming album. Machun is an engaging presence with her soaring voice and sleekly packaged cover-girl good looks. The band’s vocal tunes are pleasant but not particularly engaging, and they don’t pack anywhere near the punch as its well-conceived, tightly played instrumental numbers.

After a break for an extended taiko solo by Mori--a spinning, gyrating dance as much as a drum solo--the show closed with “Obon,” from the band’s fourth album, “Another Place.” Hiroshima returned for an encore of “Living in America” (from “East”) and an up-tempo version of “One Wish” (from “Another Place”).

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Not only is Hiroshima one of the best of the contemporary electric ethnic pop fusion bands, it is also one of the most successful. Its first six releases have sold a combined total of more than a million copies, and the band headlines a show tonight at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.

If the engaging samba included from Hiroshima’s next release is any indication, there’s a lot more good music to look forward to.


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