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With Maki Takafuji at Sanzen-in Temple in Ohara.

”Jeff, it’s interesting, after all our projects together, that we are now talking here about music and culture in Onjuku, Japan,” said my friend Ricardo Gallardo of the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble during an early morning coffee looking out on the Pacific Ocean.

“You and Jan must meet my friend Maki Takafuji when you go to Kyoto. She lives there, teaches in Nagoya and is a great advocate for new music, and she commissioned Steve Reich for the famous Nagoya Marimbas.

But before we get to Kyoto, I should to tell you about why Ricardo and I were talking on the Pacific coast of Japan in Onjuku.


The beach at Onjuku while I talk with Ricardo Gallardo.

Jan and I had no problem accepting Tambuco’s invitation to join them for a concert during their recent Japanese tour in the small village of Onjuku, found about an hour away from Tokyo. We were in Japan for numerous meetings for the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble so the idea was a good one.

Onjuku is special. México and Japan had a chance meeting in this small coastal town in the 17th century as the galleon ship San Francisco ran into a storm and hundreds of Mexican sailors were almost drowned, swimming in freezing cold water against all hope to try to find land.

And then literal saviors appeared, out of a film by David Lean or Steven Spielberg. Women abalone divers, known as Ama, noticed the distressed Mexican sailors and swam en masse into the ocean to help them to safety, hugging the shivering and freezing castaways to return them to a normal thermal body temperature, a life saving embrace.

Did I mention that these Japanese mermaids swam bare breasted? It’s in living memory that this custom has come to end. Perhaps mermaids truly exist? The thought must have gone through the minds of those shipwrecked Mexicans.

I’ll give you some photos, because this magical rescue story from the 17th century is history, not legend. If you want to make a movie about cultures meeting, your welcome. After Tambuco’s success with the gigantic opening sequence of Spectre, the last James Bond film directed by Tambuco fan Sam Mendes, this idea might not be far fetched!


The flags of Japan and México in Onjuku fly together on the Pacific coast.


The magazine Shimbun and its story by author John Harris about the Ama divers saving lost Mexican sailors at Onjuku on the Pacific Coast.


The Onjuku statue commerating the 17th century embrace of Ama divers with Mexican sailors.

And there is more. Tambuco, as my readers might recall, received the Japan Prize a few years ago, which included an audience with the Emperor of Japan at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, perhaps the biggest protocol meeting of Ricardo’s career. But I always love new characters. Let me introduce retired violinist Yuriko Kuronuma, who, you guessed it, lived in México for many years, playing the violin concerto of Carlos Chávez with Chávez conducting,  a composer dear to all of our hearts. And she got to know Ricardo Gallardo in Coyoacán, the most delightful area of México City.

Is that Oaxacan mole I smell cooking in Japan?


Ricardo and Yuriko at a post concert party.

When it became time for Yuriko to return to Japan, she decided on the retirement community of Onjuku so she could, as she put it, look everyday across the Pacific at México. As far as performing arts opportunities go, however, the term retirement community is misleading. The theater in Onjuku, technically in Katsuura, could host the Berlin Philharmonic with pride. Only in Planet Japan!


The impressive auditorium in Katsuura, Japan, near Onjuku.


World class acoustics for Tambuco at a well  received concert.

And as if they tried to point out that music is boundless, Tambuco offered a concert that included amazing works for found objects, or no objects at all, perhaps in honor of those long ago 17th century shipwrecked Mexicans. One piece literally was made of clapping, dancing, singing that offered an advanced degree in the need for people to express themselves in sound, without any intstruments needed. Rocks and stones, found in Onjuku, also made up the melodic contour of another piece, along with two works by Steve Reich.

After the concert, we were whisked away to the home of author and Canadian journalist John Harris, who was hosting a delicious Mexican meal in Tambuco’s honor. He’s lived in Japan for many years and is the best and the most generous host, sporting a wonderful bevy of friendly house cats as well. Yuriko and friends cooked up a meal in John’s kitchen worthy of Puebla or Oaxaca, which for Jan and me was a most welcome change in cuisine after a few months in Asia.

I had to pinch myself. Authentic Mexican cuisine, down to the last detail, in Japan, prepared by Japanese. Photos don’t lie, so enjoy the following short gallery. Absolutely authentic!


Guacamole, chips and salsa at the home of John Harris.


Jan toasts a shot of tequila with Yasufumi Horie, who made the guacamole.


Host John Harris ot Toronto ready to pour the cava.


Mole enchilada in Japan made with love by Yuriko Kuranuma.


Violinist Yuriko and violist Jan sharing genuine rapport over tequila and mole!

Naturally, all these encounters with Ricardo and Tambuco are not random. We are sure that the timing will appear on the calendar for another important reunion, either in the Americas or in Asia or both. But we never put the fees and the logistics ahead of the idea.

It’s worth telling you that Ricardo initially turned the Bond production team down because the shooting schedule conflicted with already contracted Tambuco concerts. He obviously relented, but I wasn’t surprised that he needed a cooperative negotiation with the Bond staff to reconcile Tambuco’s existing schedule. That’s a good lesson to learn if you run your own ensemble. Keeping your commitments is essential to success. Even when a Bond film comes your way!

Little did he know that director Sam Mendes had done his homework and was a long distance admirer of Tambuco’s work. He knew instinctively that they could provide the right music for the opening sequence of Spectre, the most gigantic beginning in the history of the Bond franchise. Sure enough, composer David Newman flew to México City to reconcile schedules allowing Tambuco to participate in the Day of the Dead opening sequence and keep their prior commitments, as the Tambuco opening had to play over loudspeakers during filming in México City.

That’s hard to turn down!


Director Sam Mendes, on the Bond set in México City, is a fan of Tambuco.

I’ll be outlining more new characters from my time in Japan, as Jan and I lay more groundwork for the long term strategy of the ever improving Hà Nội New Music Ensemble in Việt Nam. Various people are coming together, one friend knows another, our commitment will continue in Hà Nội, and surely great things are on the horizon.

But, as far as new characters are concerned, we enjoyed a great time reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones in Onjuku. Here’s a brief gallery to introduce you to some of the new characters of my blog posts as we partied late into the night together.


Friendly smiles between Jan and Alfredo Bringas.


Happy we are all together, a Japanese reunion for us all to remember!


The two making it happen: Edison Estrella Cobo and Masako Okamura.

Unsing heroes are always present, and for Tambuco on tour in Japan that means the dynamic duo of Tambuco assistant Edison Estrella Cobo and their agent, Masako Okamura. Edison oversees all the cartage and stage placement of their involved concerts. He’s learning Japanese, is from Quito in Ecuador and essential to the success of their performance. Tambuco’s Japanese manager, Masako Okamura, has indeed seen it all during a long career in arts management. One client deserves special mention.

Masako was the artist representative for composer Toru Takemitsu.

Let that sink in. Spending time with her is always a delight and an honor. Jan and I always send her best wishes and enjoy any chance we can to have a little of her energy and experience rub off on us.


With art curator Naoko Mikami and artist Baptiste Tavernier.

I was seated between art curator Naoko Mikami and her husband artist Baptiste Tavernier, who live in Taipei on Taiwan. Naoko runs the website Art Curator Japan, introducing Japanese artists and foreign artists influenced by Japan to a wide audience. They’ve done art shows in Taiwan and Japan and will be branching out to France in the near future. It was wonderful sharing my work in Hà Nội with them, and our long interaction with the visual arts in Los Angeles gave us a wonderful introduction together.

And one other detail that relates to my post. Naoko’s grandmother was one of the last Ama divers in Onjuku, providing personal testimony to all the stories and legends about the rescue of the 17th century shipwrecked Mexicans of the galleon San Francisco.

So it seems mermaids do exist!


Tambuco and the bamboo gamelan and Maki Takafuji.

“Are those bamboo gamelans I hear, Mr. Bond?”

My fictitious Bond villain isn’t far off track, because after all of our partying together in Onjuku, Ricardo told me, without exception, that Jan and I would have to meet Maki Takafuji in Kyoto. You can see her in the center of the above photo behind Tambuco. Because there are only two bamboo gamelan ensembles, called Jegog, one in Bali in Indonesia and the other replicated by the Japanese in Nagoya, Japan.


Extraordinary designs on a bamboo gamelan in Bali.


Only two bamboo gamelans exist, in Bali, Indonesia and Nagoya, Japan.

So as I filled Ricardo in on my role moderating the first New Music Gathering Asia in Hong Kong, we began information sharing. Did he know the people in Jogjakarta? Kuala Lumpur? Laos? As our discussions about the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble and Japan mature over the next few years, I suspect that not only Tambuco but other Japanese musicians will be coming into sharp focus, as some upcoming posts will demonstrate. And to facilitate the intersection of Japan and Indonesia with Việt Nam?

Time to meet Maki Takafuji, the masterful percussionist who oversees inspiring Tambuco masterclasses in Nagoya, leads the bamboo gamelan and commissioned Steve Reich’s iconic Nagoya Marimbas. We are just getting started!


Tambuco rehearsing with the bamboo gamelan in Nagoya.

I’ll return soon with another post about our first meeting with Maki, which took place in Kyoto, where she lives.  It’s a post you won’t want to miss, as she took us to Sanzen-in Temple in Ohara, a little north of Kyoto proper but not far either. Sanzen-in Temple is one of the most important places on Planet Earth for any musician. The Japanese tradition of Shomyo singing originated here, imported no doubt from China by Buddhist monk Ennin, who was also a head monk at the nearby mountaintop redoubt of Enrakuji Temple, the Zen temple that originated the concept of walking meditation.

But forgive me, I’m getting ahead of myself. Take a look at Maki’s idea of an introduction for us to Kyoto. We are on the eastern side of the Kyoto basin, Higashiyama, or the Eastern Mountains, looking across to the west in Arashiyama, the Storm Mountains. No wonder Kyoto was Japan’s ancient capital!


Maki and Jan at Shogun-zuka viewpoint looking towards Arashiyama in Kyoto.

”Let me take us first to the Shogun-zuka overlook,” said Maki when she met us at our hotel. “We have a clear morning and it will be a good place to start. The only problem is that Ricardo is not with us!”

Best. View. Ever.

What a first day together, stay connected and I’ll be back with stories and eye candy photos from autumn in Kyoto as we visit one of the oldest homes music has on Planet Earth. Sanzen-in Temple is a virtual correlate to Gregorian chant in the west. Yes, with scores printed one year before the first Gregorian chant manuscripts in the West.

Cultural exclusivity is finished in our era.

At least it came to end for me, dreaming at Sanzen-in Temple with Maki Takafuji as my guide.

Best, best, best,