By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
After more than 40 years of concerts, tours and recordings, June Kuramoto and Dan Kuramoto of smooth jazz band Hiroshima recently announced that their Domo Tour in 2022 will likely be the group’s last.
The revelation that Hiroshima plans to take a step back comes as the group releases their latest album, “2020”. With songs carrying titles like “Someday Soon”, “Brighter Days” and “Álways Tomorrow”, the post-pandemic well-being message is clear. For fans of Hiroshima, this is perhaps the best and most uplifting collection of the bunch yet.
In the late 1960s, Hiroshima introduced a new, Japanese-only American vibe featuring June’s jazz-infused koto, representing a new musical form. Around the same time, a political movement was gaining ground among the Sansei youth, who brought to the public consciousness issues such as Vietnam, civil rights and ethnic studies. As Hiroshima gained popularity, their music became the de facto soundtrack.
We asked Dan and June to take us back to the start.
Rafou: What do you remember the most from those early days?
June: I only had classic koto training. I didn’t know how to make it gel. I really didn’t have any western musical education. Like in high school, I couldn’t join the group. They didn’t know what to do with (a koto). The koto is a revered instrument… so a lot of people have been offended or called me vulgar for (playing unclassical music). But my best memory, especially at the beginning, is the warm welcome from the community itself to be open and supportive of what we were doing because no one else was doing it.
Dan: The whole notion of what Hiroshima has become dates back to June. She played koto, she loved koto. Nobody understood that. None of his peers understood it. My brother John and I started an art school group in Cal State Long Beach. June thought, “Maybe they’ll do something with me on koto.” It was his idea.
Rafou: Was there a turning point for you?
June: When I wrote my first song. In fact, Derek Nakamoto is the one who encouraged and helped me. When I started to write, knowing that I could, it gave me a voice, my voice. Until then, I was playing what someone else wrote. It was an amazing experience and in many ways a liberating experience. It is something that no one can take away from you. It was the most incredible feeling, then hearing it on the radio, not expecting to hear it.
Dan: I had no intention of starting a group. I stayed in school so as not to be enlisted. I had no chance of fighting in a war against people who looked like me and (who) had done nothing against my family. All of this for me was illegal and racist. Even in elementary school, I was aware of the persecution of our whole culture, our whole JA community. I was seven or eight years old, and I was bitter because they put Baachan and Jiichan in a prison camp. I was pissed off and wanted revenge somehow on this country. After I started the Asian American Studies program I was teaching at Cal State Long Beach and decided to focus on making people understand how illegal and immoral war camps were. .
Rafou: What do you attribute the group’s success to?
June: It is the African-American community that is behind all of this. I truly believe they bonded with us in the sense of finding your roots, who you are and what it means. Jazz is so relatable. We are very honored to be placed in the same category as true jazz artists. It is a humbling experience.
Dan: June, having grown up listening to R&B, soul and Latin music, can play jazz and American swing. She has performed on over 50 records by other artists. Nobuko Miyamoto, Charlie Chin and Chris Iijima, a close friend of June, really broke the ice for us. They showed us that they had faith that there was a purpose in doing this. Our core audience is the black audience. The black community supported us because they understood it. In many ways, we face the same battles. From the start, Hiroshima has been multiracial.
Rafou: Do you think you will miss the tours?
June: The group has been a big priority. I liked it. Sometimes I think I have devoted the best of my years, but then I think the best of my years is now. I don’t want to be younger. I’m fine where I am. I have grandchildren (ages 2 ½ and 6) that I’m so in love with. When I come home, I come back to my family… I miss being connected with them all the time. I guess COVID showed it to me. I hated (COVID) because of the conditions, but loved being home.
Dan: Next year (2022) will be the last of our regular tours. We’re going to take a break but will consider (playing) if it’s for a specific reason.
Rafou: What do you hope people take away from the new album?
June: Well, positivity and hope. Let’s learn from (the year) 2020, how we treat people, how we treat disease. What happened to mankind? We have to make do with what we have, do our best, have hope, be positive, and move on, keep moving forward.
Dan: Hope people try to keep in touch. Even if we are not on tour, we will still have a website (www.hiroshimamusic.com) and a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/hiroshimamusic).