khoomei-taiko ensemble

Picture 16I heard a fascinating fusion this week from American and international musicians:

from Japan,

  • Koto and taiko drums

from Mongolia,

  • khoomei throat singing, urtiin duu long song singing and morin khuur horse-head fiddle.

The natural question in a fusion is why? What brought the disparate musicians together? And what does a listener expect? I bumped into a friend there who had come for the long song style. I imagine people came into the mix for all kinds of reasons. The World Music Institute and Asia Society presented the concert — that support seems appropos. But it was interesting that the onstage leader of the group, the Khoomei-Taiko Ensemble, Kaoru Watanabe, both a taiko drummer and a flutist, had the same question: ‘why are we doing this?’ His answer: we’re looking for that answer.

The answer lies with a venture dear to my heart: cultural exchange. Without recounting the entire history, which you find on the Ensemble’s web site, this group is the result of the work of Teddy Yoshikami and Aziz Rahman, both of whom produce cross-cultural programs. Funded by exchange proponents like the Trust for Mutual Understanding and the Asian Cultural Council, the work of these producers and their six superlative musicians (the Mongolians are all recognized by their country as national treasures) makes the world a bit more closely knit and finds the points of conversation between peoples who would otherwise see each other as simply “other.” Mr. Watanabe is finding that the conversation is revolving around their various traditions’ focus on the importance of the natural world.

None of this would matter beyond diplomacy if the resulting music were not interesting. In fact, this was a superb concert that served as a two-set introduction to the various musical traditions involved and a jazz-like exploration of the potential interactions between the sounds and personalitites of these masters of their artforms. The concert included a solo or duet piece showcasing the sounds and traditions of each of these unique voices and instruments. Several ensemble pieces meshed the powerful Taiko drumming with dexterous and sonorous improvisation on the koto, flute, fiddle and voices.

I almost began this review with a rant about how great these musical traditions are compared to what we fill our airwaves with. I was going to juxtapose the introductory “rapped” magtall praise song by Tserendorj Tseyen

The Khoomii Taiko Ensemble is introducing delightfully
With heavelnly colored blue ribbon raised upon in the highest
Spirited is this traditional praise gifed by our great ancestors
Originated from Great Mongol Empire of Lord Chingis Khan

May all the people on the world live peacefully
May this blessed praise grant us eternal tranquility

May worldwide people reserve our mother nature
May all the nations unite in full convenant
By Olympic games, cultures and future developments
Oh, may all the countries neighbor in peace and gain full achievements …

with something from some prominent rapper, maybe Snoop Dogg. But when I went looking for something in the Dogg style, I remembered why I like Snoop; he’s literate, intricate and sometimes very similar to what’s written above (see A Word Witcha), so I’ll leave it at this: the Khoomei Taiko Ensemble have their hearts in the right place and manage to bring respect for nature, culture and each others’ musical forms into a powerful, accessible, exciting, uplifting show. If this is how they sound having only met in September, I look forward to how this group evolves.

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