Great East Japan Earthquake Commemoration Free Concert

March 6, 2012 at 7:30 PM
Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center on Broadway at 60th Street.

Kids made their own percussion and wind instruments, with which to jam with Japanese musicians in a Lincoln Center concert expressing Japan's gratitude for the world's support during its Earthquake and Tsunami.

by Jonathan Slaff

"Man, this is going to drive my mom crazy!," exclaimed Safouane Chestnut, age 8, celebrating his new-found ability to make tones on the hora. Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation.

"We learn from the children," declared Mitsuo Tamura, director of the concert, "Overcoming the Disaster: Gratitude from Japan to the World." The event was about to be presented by The Japan Foundation at Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center on Tuesday, March 6. It is one of a worldwide series of free concerts that has been dispatched by the Japan Foundation to convey the Japanese people's sincere gratitude to the global community for its tremendous outpouring of support during the Great Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami. Now it was March 4, the Sunday before the performance, and 13 children, ages six to 13, all from Manhattan's Lower East Side, had joined musicians from the concert--all from Japan--at Avenue C Studios, 55 Ave. C (near E. 4th Street) for a Bamboo Instrument Making Workshop.

Kimihiro Kitamura guides Charley Forgeois (yes, her name's Charley) in filing a take bera. Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation.

The job of the day was to fabricate the very instruments the kids would play in the actual concert Tuesday night at Lincoln Center. A spacious, white-walled dance studio in Manhattan's East Village was set up with work tables, a gigantic bamboo marimba and a large taiko drum that would be played by Ondekoza, Japan's premiere taiko orchestra. Musicians from Ondekoza were in attendance, as were other musicians from the concert: Umezu Chibi Brass (a quartet of two saxophones, trombone and tuba); Ochi Brothers (a percussion duo), Sizzle Ohtaka (a vocalist ), Suguru Ikeda (a stringed instrument player from Okinawa) and Kimihiro Kitamura (originator of "Bamboo Orchestra" and specialist in the fabrication of bamboo instruments). It was Kimihiro Kitamura, dressed in a denim shirt, who primarily instructed the kids, translated by Kanako Hiyama, who was born in Japan but now lives in Brooklyn.

There were thirteen work stations laid out, each equipped with notched rails into which the bamboo stalks would fit for cutting and finishing. Bamboo from Japan had been flown in for the job, both green stalks, young and wide, and aged stalks, pre-cut into slats. Protective gloves were issued to prevent against splinters. Kids were coached in using the tools by the Japanese musicians, with a little help from their parents, who were encouraged to join in.

The kids had seen bamboo before (some said, in the zoo) but none could say they had touched it. They were surprised to learn about the bamboo's life: it's a grass, not a tree, and it can grow to about sixty feet high in about a month. Each piece of bamboo, it was explained, is an individual: its tone changes as it ages. The young musicians were to give voice to the bamboo.

Kimihiro Kitamura guides the kids in making take bera, or musical sticks. Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation.

Their first job was to create take bera, or musical sticks. First, you had to pick out nearly matching sticks from a pre-cut supply. The better ones, Mr. Kitamura explained, have a wide section above the rib. You had to match them as well as you could, then cut them to equal lengths by trimming with a Japanese saw.

Fitting the sticks into the notched rails (sugi), the kids cut them with a bamboo saw (take nokogiri) and smoothed them them with a file (yasuri) and sandpaper (kami yasuri). Knocking their curved sides together, take bera make a sound that's a lot like the wooden blocks you hear in western orchestras.

"Music is sound. It starts in silence," taught Ondekoza's Raiki Machida, who speaks perfect English because he was actually was born in Boston. "By breathing in and creating sounds, we all make sound together." And they did. A surprising unity and harmony emerged among the young ensemble. Machida conducted them, through gestures and pantomime, into first loud, then soft sounds. The Umezu Chibi Brass joined in. It was music!

Lainey Macken, age 9, plays piano but had never played anything like bamboo sticks before. "I liked it best when we were all playing fast," she declared. Milo Webster, age 6, said he felt proud. Lila Meretzky, age 13, felt like there was a "big connection in the room." She was not nervous. None of them were.

Isa Schmidt cuts out a hora pipe. Photo by Eva Ostrowska.

After a snack break came construction of a large wind instrument called the bamboo hora. Hora means conch, like those large seashells that become Neptune's horn in Greek mythology. The hora is made from a wide section of bamboo, three to four inches wide. Bamboo grows in sections, each separated by a fushi, or separation between the cells. The stalk is cut so the fushi remains on one side and what you get is a tube that is closed at one end by the fushi. On the open side, a one-inch hole is drilled and then smoothed with a file and sandpaper. To play the hora, it helps to have experience on the trumpet, because you blow into the hole as you would into a trumpet's mouthpiece. The tones don't vary much in pitch, but you make music by varying the length of the bursts. A wind instrument is not as easy to work as striking two sticks together, so naturally it was a longer process for the kids to feel able with the hora.

"Man, this is going to drive my mom crazy!," exclaimed Safouane Chestnut, age 8, celebrating his new-found ability to make tones. Indeed, every little boy blew his hora into his mom's ear, if she was there. (It was not a pleasure I saw them inflict on their dads.)

At the final part of the workshop, there was an ensemble-building exercise and a rehearsal of how they would perform in the concert Tuesday night. The kids struck their take bera in surprising synchrony. Improvising with the Ochi Brothers' drums, they were drawn into complex rhythms, sometimes answering a riff with three sharp raps, other times, seeming to exchange rhythms like a question-and-answer session. Ondekoza joined on the giant marimba, backed up by a large taiko drum. The kids, conducted by Raiki Machida, answered on their hora pipes, pleased with their new mastery of their big green horns. Umezu Chibi Brass joined in for a full orchestra effect.

Kids rehearse on their take bera, or musical sticks. Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation.

The show's director, Mitsuo Tamura, explained that when kids play music, there is no right or wrong way, just as there is no right or wrong in music. Sometimes music is an emotion, sometimes it is a prayer or a yearning. The kids are considered collaborators. They are also a prism into the community. "Overcoming the Disaster: Gratitude from Japan to the World" is an expression of Japan's bonds of friendship with the entire international community for its support during the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami. The emphasis is on community, like with a capital "C."

Before now, the workshop has not been held in conjunction with the worldwide concert series, but it has been pioneered in workshops in Soweto, Congo and Prague. "You understand a community through its children," said Tamura. "At other places where we did this, like Congo, it was hard to meet the community. There, it was was because of politics, there were barriers. Here it is different, of course. But in each case, we take the community by the hand through its children, and we will do it again here."

The kids were students of East Village Dance Project.