Harmonizing Asia

The resounding voice of Filipina singer Grace Nono filled the small concert hall as the music of the Asian fantasy Orchestra swelled behind her. Nono's voice rose in a howl like like a wolf.

Interspersed with the western-style orchestration were the mysterious Indian twang of the sitar and the lyrical sound of the Chinese fiddle, or kokyu.

As Nono, wearing a long dress with a Filipino pattern on it, moved gracefully aside, the song was carried on by two male singers who added to it a flavor of Japanese flavor of Japanese folk music with samisen accompaniment.

Nono is a main vocalist for this year's performance by the multi-national band, Asian Fantasy Orchestra (AFO). The group will perform in Tokyo in April after their Asian tour this month.

What I'm trying to do is to balance out the popularity of "Western music," Nono said at a press conference to kick off this month's tour. "It's really about time for us to dig out our cultural heritage and present it in a way that is relevant to us."

AFO was established in 1991 by The Japan Foundation, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign affairs. Its aim is to promote "cultural exchange with other countries through art."

From classical violinists to Indian tabla players, from classical Chinese music to traditional Japanese folk songs, the orchestra combines music and musicians from a diverse background of nations and nationalities to create a unique amalgam of Asian sounds.

Ryonusuke Homura, the orchestra's founder and producer, said the purpose of the group has as much to do with the performers as it does with the audiences -- it gives musicians "the opportunity to meet other musicians from throughout Asia and to get a feel for each other's music as a real entity through working together."

The orchestra is led by the leading Japanese percussionist Kiyohiko Senba, with the avant-garde saxophonist Kazutoki Umezu and keyboardist Daisaku Kume as back-up leaders.

Most of the tunes are composed by Kume, but the music of the AFO is a true mixture of various styles and textures -- imagine singers from the Philippines, Niigata Prefecture and Okinawa all singing solos in an arrangement of classical music; imagine a Japanese minyo folk song arranged with an up-tempo beat and a jazz saxophone solo thrown in.

In all cases, the original flavor of the singer or the song is kept intact yet they are blended wonderfully so that the different origins are preserved.

Members of the group are usually accomplished musicians in their own countries who come together, said Hommura.

Sax player Umezu said orchestra members usually communicate with each other in English, but whatever can't be explained in words is understood through gestures or by "feeling" each other's music. In fact, he said playing with other musicians from other parts of Asia has had a "tremendous" effect on his music.

"I just love creating sound with them," Umezu said. "From rhythm to melody to everything else, the variety of music they have brought to me has influenced me a great deal and has become part of me."

Even at the tour's kick-off press conference, the constant bantering between group members suggested a sense of camaraderie and mutual respect.

"All of us come from powerful traditions," said Indian sarangi player Dhruba Ghosh. "All the musicians are of a high caliber. With them, it's possible to take a risk and do something adventurous. It's great fun to experiment without the fear of criticism."

For Japanese singer Kaori Kozai -- who will be a guest musician during the current tour -- the experience has opened her eyes to the diversity of musical expression of other cultures.

"It was like their music has seeped into my body through the holes of my skin," she said. "The rhythm, the melody, all came to me after working with them for several days."

This year's Asian tour is intended to correspond with celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the independence of India, the centennial of the independence of the Republic of the Philiippines, and the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam-Japan diplomatic relations. The orchestra will make a concert tour to these three countries prior to its Tokyo concert in April.

The purpose of the trips is to promote cultural exchange with these Asian countries, says Tetsuhiro Daiku, who is a singer and sanshin player with the group.

"I'd like to see more communication with the local people." he said. "For example, it would be great to have free jam sessions with the local musicians through which we'd find people with musical compatibility who we'd invite to perform with us at the concerts. Unless we deal with the (local) people on the the same ground, I wonder if true cultural exchange is possible."

by Asako Takaesu
Asahi Evening News, Japan
5 March 1998

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