Star-Bulletin Features

The musicians of Hiroshima are, in the front row from left, Johnny Mori, June Okida Kuramoto and Dan Kuramoto. In the back row from left are Kimo Cornwell, Dean Cortez, Terry Steele and Danny Yamamoto.


It’s a time of renewed creativity
for the Los Angeles fusion band

By Gary C.W. Chun

It's a time of regeneration for this veteran fusion jazz band that has distinguished itself with Japanese instrumental flourishes of taiko drum, shakuhachi and, most important, the koto playing of June Okida Kuramoto.

Her distinguished work on "Hawaiian Electric," written for the utility's commercial campaign in 1989 and featured on the album "Go," sealed the Los Angeles band's popularity in the islands. Both she and her ex-husband and band leader Dan Kuramoto hope local audiences will be equally eager about her debut CD, "Spirit and Soul."

"Spirit and Soul"

The disc is available on the Web site and will also be sold at tonight's promotional appearance at Borders Ward Centre. "Spirit and Soul" will be independently distributed nationwide late next month in all Tower Records and Borders stores.

It seems a particularly creative time for Hiroshima: The band is completing its first Christmas project, "Spirit of the Season" (to include a koto/slack-key guitar duet with Bryan Kessler on "White Christmas"); lead singer Terry Steele's solo debut album, "Day by Day," comes out at the end of the month (co-produced by fellow Hiroshima member Kimo Cornwell and featuring a duet with Patti LaBelle on the Stylistics' "You Are Everything"); and a lucky No. 13 release is in the works.

The Kuramotos spoke via conference call from Los Angeles last week about this exciting time in the band's long existence. They arrived on Oahu this week for a visit to skater Kristi Yamaguchi's camp for disabled children at Camp Erdman, as well as three concerts benefiting Yamaguchi's Always Dream Foundation.

The Kuramotos are looking forward to getting reacquainted with skater Scott Hamilton, who will make a guest appearance at tomorrow's Hawaii Theatre concert. "It's a great opportunity for us to meet Scott again," Dan said. "He used a song of ours, 'Ren,' named after our now 23-year-old daughter, in his gold medal-winning performance at the 1984 Winter Olympics.

He said June's new CD has already been well received.

"We sold a batch at a Washington, D.C., concert. It sold like hotcakes! D.C. is like our second home on the East Coast, and the majority of our audience is black because jazz and R&B radio stations are the only stations that play our music. When we did Taste of D.C., we appeared before 20,000 people, most of them chanting, 'Welcome home!'"

"I think black people understand what we're doing with our music," June added, "what it feels like to be a minority artist."

JUNE'S NEW solo CD includes contributions from much of Hiroshima as well as production, arranging and instrumental help from Hawaii transplant Derek Nakamoto (both Dan and Kimo Cornwell are originally from here as well).

"Even though I indulged myself on this album by playing a lot of koto on it," June said, "I got a lot of help and support from the band in helping me realize my concept."

Her work with Nakamoto includes the title track as well as "Courageous Heart," dedicated to firefighter friends in the Bay area, and "Steal My Heart."

"The album has a lot of meaning to me," she said. "This is music from a woman's perspective. The title is inspired by the Native American people and how their love of Mother Earth can save all of us. 'Through the Streets of Gion' is dedicated to the traditional geisha who studies, trains and preserves the country's true art and culture. It features Cold Blood guitarist Michael Sasaki and Harry Kim, a Korean salsa trumpet player from Brooklyn who tours with Phil Collins. And 'Eye of the Beholder' is a jazz tune that I did with the legendary saxophonist James Moody."

Hiroshima drummer Danny Yamamoto showed Joel Nobriga how to strike a taiko drum yesterday at the Friendship Games for children with disabilities, held at Camp Erdman.

"June's take on the universe is different than Hiroshima's," Dan said. "She brings an outside perspective as a musician in both a spiritual and emotional context. There are not many women solo instrumentalists like her who bring the sensibility of an artist and come from Japan. (June was born just outside of Tokyo and raised in L.A.'s Crenshaw district.)

"My only concern is that, will people get it when we play her songs in concert? That was answered when we recently did a weekend festival in Catalina, one of those outdoor party-type festivals with the liquor freely flowing, and when we did one of June's songs, it was weird: The audience stopped drinking, paid attention, and it was like going to church! Some started crying, it was such a cathartic experience for them."

THE KURAMOTOS are also now handling their own musical business affairs, thanks (or no thanks) to their disgust and disappointment with the industry.

"Unfair payment of musicians is a common phenomenon in the business," Dan said. "In some strange way, after 20 years as recording artists, we finally figured out that artists are put at an unbelievable disadvantage in their dealings with the major labels.

"Many of the big acts end up with nothing at the end of the day, and here we are, just a little act puttering along with a hard-core following. We've sold almost 4 million albums and haven't made a dime on them! Under current royalty setups, the label recoups everything."

But the Kuramotos acknowledge they and the band have been fortunate to have survived this long. They hope to sign with a smaller record label in six weeks, after their stints with Arista, Columbia/Epic, Quincy Jones' label Qwest and Windham Hill/BMG. (They had to buy June's record back from Windham Hill after that label was bought out by BMG. The support staff for the album had been fired and the album would probably have languished unreleased in the back catalog.)

"We're stumbling along, taking care of ourselves," June admitted. "This is a whole new arena for us, what with the industry changing so much. We're just scratching the surface in developing our own creative marketing. It's both exciting and scary, but in essence, we have total control."

"All of this has made me feel more defiant businesswise," Dan said, "what with all these solo and band releases we're doing for the remainder of this year. We're going back and making a lot of music instead of folding our tents. ... We've just decided to dig deep and write and tell stories with our music and do our best work now."

Hear the band

Hiroshima performs:

8 p.m. TODAY: Borders Ward Centre, a free public promotion for June Kuramoto's new solo CD, "Spirit and Soul."

7:30 p.m. Tomorrow: Hawaii Theatre benefit for Kristi Yamaguchi's Always Dream Foundation. Tickets are $29.50, $37.50 and $45. Call 528-0506.

7 p.m. Saturday: Hilton Hawaiian Village, during the benefit dinner "A Taste of California." Call 522-5400.

7:30 p.m. Sunday: Hilton Waikoloa Village, Big Island. Cost is $40 (including two drinks). Call 808-886-1234.

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