On Ensemble

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About On Ensemble

Established in 2002 On Ensemble is one of the most respected ensembles in the taiko world. Led by childhood friends Shoji Kameda and Masato (Maz) Baba, On Ensemble is recognized for infusing the powerful rhythms of taiko with a wide range of musical influences from jazz and rock to central asian overtone singing. Their fearless musical exploration has expanded the artistic range of the taiko and has taken these ancient instruments into new realms. The group’s unique sound has been praised as “completely original and brilliantly conceived.” Modern Drummer magazine calls On Ensemble “an exciting taiko ensemble looking at new ways to apply traditional Japanese drums.” On Ensemble was the first American taiko group to be invited to perform at the National Theater of Japan for the prestigious Nihon no Taiko concert series.

Shoji and Maz were taught taiko at an early age (8 and 6) by Maz’ parents, pioneering taiko players Jeanne Mercer and Russel Baba. The duo has been playing and making music together for over 30 years and are recognized as two of the brightest stars in the taiko world. Together with the other members of On Ensemble they combine their study and deep appreciation of Japanese traditional music with equally formative experiences as DJs, jazz musicians, electronic music producers, and rock bassists to produce, record and perform some of the most compelling and creative taiko music. The group has released three critically acclaimed albums, Dust and Sand, Ume in the Middle and Bizarre Heroes and their music was featured in the award winning short film Yamasong.

From outdoor festivals and large concert halls to intimate art spaces, On Ensemble shares its unique music with audiences both young and old. The group tours regularly to large metropolitan areas and small rural communities and has a 15 year history of touring and performing. Past performances include the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts (Cerritos, CA), the Maui Arts and Cultural Center and University of Hawai’i Hilo (HI), California Worldfest (Grass Valley, CA), Chico World Music Festival (Chico, CA), Athenaeum Theater and the Old Town School of Music (Chicago), Grand Performances and the Aratani Theater in downtown Los Angeles, Shibuya O-nest (Tokyo), National Theater of Japan (Tokyo), Freight and Salvage (Berkeley, CA), Edmonds Center for the Arts (WA), Juan De Fuca Festival (WA) the Oregon Bach Festival (Eugene, OR), an Ohio Arts Council IMPACT tour with performances in Medina, Archbold, Cincinnati and Urbana (OH), a tour of Montana and Idaho with stops in Mountain Home, Salmon, Sandpoint, Dillon, Missoula, Helena and Whitefish.

In 2005 On Ensemble released its first studio album Dust and Sand to critical acclaim. The independently produced album spent several months on the New Age Reporter charts reaching as high as number three in October of 2005 and received national airplay. In 2007 the ensemble released their first live CD and a DVD of their performance at the Cerritos Center. In 2009 On Ensemble released its second critically acclaimed studio album Ume In the Middle. In 2010 the group collaborated with director Sam Koji Hale to create a short film based on the On Ensemble track “Yamasong” from the album Ume in the Middle. The film was produced by Heather Henson and was screened at over 30 film festivals winning Best Fantasy Short and Best Animated Film at the Dragon*Con Independent Film Festival. In 2013 the group released their third studio album titled Bizarre Heroes and was invited to perform at the prestigious Nihon no Taiko concert at the National Theater of Japan. In 2017 the group released a collaborative live album Rotations with Chicago based Ho Etsu Taiko.

For all of their avant-garde musical explorations, On Ensemble is supported by one of Japan’s most important traditional-culture bearers, Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten, instrument maker to the emperor of Japan. This support empowers On Ensemble to utilize authentic finely crafted Japanese instruments in its fearless exploration of taiko.


Educational Outreach

Each year, On Ensemble visits dozens of schools to provide educational outreach activities. Providing context for the group’s music and insight into Japanese drumming in particular, On Ensemble’s lecture-demonstrations are tailored to a variety of settings, from elementary school gymnasiums to university lecture halls.

On Ensemble school presentations are exciting, interactive demonstrations of the powerful Japanese drums known as taiko. The 50-minute presentations intersperse cultural and musical background information with dynamic, live music. The performance utilizes Japanese percussion, string, and wind instruments. Students learn about “traditional” and “contemporary” influences and how the drums made their way from ancient origins to their current use in ensemble taiko. Students participate in the oral tradition of taiko, learning rhythms by vocalizing. At the end of the performance, selected audience members join On Ensemble on stage for a hands-on attempt at playing the big drums.

Workshops and Classes

On Ensemble’s members are widely-respected teachers and the group maintains a busy schedule of taiko workshops and hands-on courses. On Ensemble workshops provide in-depth instruction in a variety of topics covering taiko technique, composition, and music theory. The group organizes an annual workshop tour, teaching taiko in cities across the country.

On Ensemble’s taiko courses provide structured, hands-on instruction to taiko players in the Los Angeles area. Previous offerings include, “Improvisation 101”, “Ridiculous Rhythms”, and “Multi Drum Technique”. Most courses are designed as a supplement to taiko players’ studies in other groups, focusing on a specific skill set and the fundamentals and practice concepts necessary for improvement.


Member Biographies

Shoji Kameda

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Shoji is a Grammy nominated musician, composer and producer and founding member of On Ensemble. He started playing taiko at the age of 8 and has played continuously since. He was selected through a highly competitive process as an Asian Pacific Performance Exchange fellow, collaborating with master artists from the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the USA. As the group’s primary creative force he has produced On Ensemble’s critically acclaimed CDs Dust and Sand, Ume in the Middle and Bizarre Heroes. He also composed an original score for Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story, Audience Award winner for Best Documentary at the Slamdance Film Festival. He was featured in the music of the hit NBC TV show “Heroes” performed with Stevie Wonder at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and received a Grammy nomination with jazz fusion band Hiroshima for his work on their album Legacy. His track “Yamasong” was the inspiration for Sam Koji Hale’s short film of the same name which won Best Animated Film and Best Fantasy Short at the Dragon Con Film Festival. After the success of the short film Shoji composed an original soundtrack for the full length sequal “Yamasong: March of the Hallows”.  He has collaborated with musicians from around the world including projects and tours to Malaysia, Java, Bali, Mongolia and French Guiana. He continues to be involved in a number of projects as a composer, musician and producer including a trip-hop duo with Grammy Award winning composer Christopher Tin called Stereo Alchemy. His compositions for taiko are performed by groups around the world and he is highly sought after as a taiko instructor and composer. Shoji has partnered with other leading taiko artistis and instrument maker Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten to create kaDON.com an online venture dedicated to making high quality instruction, repertoire and instruments accessible to the entire taiko world.


Masato (Maz) Baba

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Masato is considered one of America's most outstanding taiko talents. He began taiko training at the age of 6 when his parents, Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer, founded Shasta Taiko. As a member of Shasta Taiko, he gained the valuable experience performing, teaching, and touring throughout his formative years. Masato polished and refined his taiko skills for over 7 years touring world-wide with renowned American Taiko Master Kenny Endo. He also served as the Youth Director of Endo's Taiko Center of the Pacific based in Honolulu. Baba then studied taiko in Japan with Nihon Taiko Dojo and fue (Japanese bamboo flute) with Kyosuke Suzuki of the Wakayama School. He has toured the United States, Japan, Macau, and Germany and has recorded with many of North America’s leading taiko artists. He was featured in the David Mamet film “Redbelt”, performed at the Academy Awards and performed with Alicia Keys on the TV show “X-Factor”. In addition to being a founding member of On Ensemble, Maz lends his talents as Musical Director to TAIKOPROJECT and serves as lead instructor and workshop leader to several Los Angeles-based taiko groups.


Eien Hunter-Ishikawa

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Eien Hunter-Ishikawa is a Portland, Oregon based musician, composer, and educator specializing in taiko, shinobue, and percussion. Recognized for his musicianship and versatility, he integrates his training in jazz, Western percussion, and traditional Japanese music for a sound that evades classification. Eien was born in Saitama, Japan and was first taught by Saburo Mochizuki, a preeminent Japanese classical percussionist and a founding member of the renowned taiko ensemble Sukeroku Daiko. He toured and recorded extensively as a member of the Robert Hohner Percussion Ensemble at Central Michigan University, followed by earning his Master of Music in Percussion Performance at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. During his seven years in Hawaii, Eien performed as a member of the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble and taught classes at the Taiko Center of the Pacific. Currently, Eien is working to make Edo Bayashi (traditional festival music of Tokyo) more accessible outside of Japan through a partnership with his longtime teacher Kyosuke Suzuki of Wakayama Shachu. Eien is an in-demand instructor and has made his wide-ranging educational content available to everyone through the articles, instructional videos, and online lessons offered on his website.


Abe Lagrimas Jr.

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Abe Lagrimas, Jr. is a musician, composer, educator, and author who plays the drums, vibraphone, ukulele, and received his degree in Music Education at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. In 2012, he competed in the highly prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition and has worked with many different artists such as Eric Marienthal, Eric Reed, Kamasi Washington, Dontae Winslow, Barbara Morrison, Michelle Coltrane, Jake Shimabukuro, Kenny Endo, and continues to be an in-demand session musician in Los Angeles. As a solo ukulele artist, Abe received a Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award (Hawaii Music Award) and released multiple albums in the United States, Japan, and S. Korea. Abe has been featured at ukulele festivals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Palm Springs, Reno, Chicago, New York, and Hawaii. His international performances include Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Great Britain, and toured extensively throughout China performing in twelve different cities. Abe is also the author of the first ever ukulele instructional book and curriculum titled “Ukulele Ensemble, Beginning Ukulele - Level 1” published by Consonus Music Institute. His latest book "Jazz Ukulele: Comping, Soloing, Chord Melodies" (Berklee Press & Hal Leonard) is available on Amazon. He is currently endorsed by Ko'olau Ukulele, Kaminari Cables, Fusion Bags, and Elite Acoustics.

Press Quotes and Reviews

“Rhythm is the backbone to all forms of music, but nothing compares to the powerful, driving rhythm of Japanese taiko drums. On Ensemble, an American taiko group, is touring to Ogden for the first time to bang out any predisposed assumptions on what taiko should sound like.”

On Ensemble Gives Taiko a New Tradition
Raychel Johnson, Standard Examiner
January 31, 2015
Click here for the full article.

“On Ensemble is not your typical taiko group. And the music they create is not your typical taiko repertoire…  while taiko forms the major base for their music their sound is much more complex than just Japanese drums. Throughout the evening, they managed to add koto, fue, melodica, trap set, cajon, frame drum, gamelan, chappa and throat singing to the mix, creating a unique and mesmerizing sound…  On Ensemble takes taiko way beyond is folkloric roots and moves it into new frontiers.”

On Ensemble: Taiko and Beyond
Stan Shikuma, International Examiner
July 8, 2013
Click here for the full article. 

“… a bit like progressive rocker Beck in that way, taking a familiar sound and reinterpreting it for a new generation.”

Taiko In Transition
Alex Isao Herbach, Staff Writer, Rafu Shimpo – Los Angeles Japanese Daily News, Friday June 29, 2007
Click here for the full article.

“This is one of the most innovative and musically fresh groups ever to take the stage in the big hall (Cerrios Center for the Performing Arts)…”

Taking Taiko and Cerritos to Another Level
Glen Creason, CerritosInk, March 5, 2007
Click here for the full review.

 

“Their work combines 21st century experimental sound with centuries-old Noh and Kabuki music… With the combination of ancient drum rhythm and the scratching on a turntable, the piece was a mix of old and new that took one from a primeval place to a contemporary dance floor. The combination was a great mix, technically precise, and the unique sound was delightful to hear.”

The Beat Goes On at the Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival
Brenda Knepper, AllAboutJazz, October 19, 2005
Click here for the full review.


Album quotes and reviews

“Mashing Japanese taiko drumming, Central Asian throat-signing, American hip-hop and international electronica into a sonic blender, Los Angeles-based quartet On Ensemble has carved out a peculiar niche next to experimentalists as different as Sigur Ros, Tortoise and The Cinematic Orchestra. On Ensemble’s most recent effort, Ume in the Middle, is an interesting hybrid that should appeal equally to fusion aficionados and left-fielders in search of something stranger than the average jazz-hop fare found on indie labels like Ninja Tune. Coupled with the band’s educational outreach, taiko is quickly finding a home in schools as well as headphones.”

Scott Thill, Underwire the Wired Magazine Blog

 

“The Los Angeles band is actually a taiko group that plays the traditional Japanese drumming style (as well as throat singing and bamboo flute) at a high level of musicianship and mixes it with current sounds and styles, like DJ scratching and crazy cyncopation. The results are noisy and arty, with sounds that range from meditative to happy, and resemble electro-tinged theater soundtrack music…”

Eric Nakamura, Giant Robot Magazine

 

“Truly interesting and innovative stuff. On Ensemble is the quartet consisting of Masato Baba, Kristofer Bergstrom, Shoji Kameda, and Kelvin Underwood. These four individuals are heavily integrated into the world of music with hefty connections as far as the arm can reach. They are well-respected teachers, workshop leaders, and composers as well as performers. Ume In The Middle is a beautifully packaged album featuring a die cut front insert as well as a clear plastic sleeve that caresses the jewel case. The exquisite packaging is a perfect fit for the music contained within. Ume features nine tracks full of boundless imagination. Some of the tracks are surprisingly accessible while others are rather progressive and spontaneous. Instead of going for one style or sound, these folks apparently just let their imagination run wild. The results…are intriguing and strangely hypnotic… After hearing too many generic pop bands, this one comes across like a cool blast of fresh air…”

LMNOP Review Staff, LMNOP.com

 

“On Ensemble is an exciting taiko ensemble looking at new ways to apply traditional Japanese drums… Be it English lyrics, throat singing, melodically rhythmic koto passages, traditional flutes, or electronic manipulation, the exciting range of taiko drums solidly supports the pieces. From the deep tones of the largest taiko to the intricate patterns of the shime daiko the compositions are interesting with plenty of exciting drumming.”

Martin Patmos, Modern Drummer Magazine

 

“Their music incorporates the explosive drama of Japanese taiko drums, dazzling percussion, bristling electronics and World music themes. There are a number of surprising interpretive vocals on the album that keeps the music fresh and exciting… assures a standing ovation (at least from me) for the group.”

RJ Lannan, New Age Reporter

 

“With their latest release, Dust and Sand, On Ensemble propel the art form into mesmerizing territory with a swirling amalgamation of flutes, koto, turntables, and Tuvan throat singing astride propulsive poly-rhythmic drum patterns. The result is an album that is completely original and brilliantly conceived…”

Brian Moore, TransformOnline

 

“Using traditional taiko (Japanese drum) music as a springboard for their contemporary world fusion mix, On Ensemble beautifully combines folk, jazz and rock into a tightly-woven fabric making full use of acoustic potential before adding tasteful electronic colors. Their music has a calm and meditative center about it- there is a steadiness, a wholesome, humble beauty that journeys inward for more variety as opposed to adding on ideas from the outside. Featuring both instrumental tracks and those with vocals, their innovative vocabulary bends and refreshes the imagination.”

CDBaby.com Editor’s Pick


Presenter quotes

“A stellar performance from On Ensemble. The high energy, tremendous enthusiasm, sharp wit, disarming charm, and unmatched skill had our sold out audience raving!”

Michael Anderson
Director of Artistic Administration, Oregon Bach Festival
 

“On Ensemble brought their virtuosity of the taiko art to the SummerSounds stage. They worked collaboratively, efficiently, and never missed an opportunity to make the performance better. Shoji and the crew were more than accommodating to the production’s musical needs and rose to meet each challenge with enthusiasm and flair. I wouldn’t hesitate to work with On Ensemble again, as their professionalism and mastery in their craft is unparalleled.”

Sarah Little
Education Project Manager, Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

 

“The Aratani World Series was thrilled to have On Ensemble in our inaugural season. This company delivers a diverse and artistically mind blowing performance. Shoji Kameda does an excellent job contextualizing the program from the stage and every member is spot on in terms of virtuosic technique and theatrical presentation. Audiences jumped to their feet begging for more. A young, energetic program with broad appeal, we were proud to present On Ensemble.”

Judy Mitoma
Series Producer and Curator, World Festival of Sacred Music

 

“On Ensemble was a pleasure to present and the concert program was extremely well received by the students and teachers. Infusing the art form of taiko with a myriad of influences, the music is unique and compelling. The members are remarkable musicians and have a true passion for their work. Beyond their energetic music, one highlight of the performance was a question and answer session with the young audience, which the ensemble approached with sincerity and encouragement. With outstanding musicianship and thought-provoking discussion, it was exactly the kind of experience we strive to offer our participants… I would recommend On Ensemble highly for any presenter looking for an engaging and enlightening world-music ensemble.”

Theresa Willis Peters
Program Coordinator, Design for Sharing

 

“As I sit at my desk, writing my final report for a grant written over a year ago, I am trying to reflect on our past season. Finally, I reach that time of year back in March when we brought in On Ensemble.  I think about the outreach they performed for our local charter school, engaging the students and faculty so completely that no one was prepared, nor wanted to stop when the bell rang and their time together was over. Remembering further into the evening, at our public performance,I can see our captivated audience. Every seat was filled and in the end completely emptied as every person stood and cried for encore! The quad of taiko drummers not only pulled our audience into their world for 90 minutes,but jumped head first into ours, asking about our vibrant community, praising our hospitality and congratulating our love and support of the arts.”

Sally Cruser
Executive Director, Mountain Home Arts Council

 

“The contemporary music of On Ensemble blended with traditional Taiko made this a totally new experience! Aside from the incredible talent and energy of the On Ensemble, we found them to be a presenter’s dream. From their enthusiastic outreach performance to the question and answer session that followed, the On Ensemble was a total joy!”

Marlene Hendrickson
University of Montana Presents

 

“On Ensemble and Patrick Graham were, without a doubt, the most successful performance in the history of The Loft.”

Todd Roach, Director
The Loft, Brattleboro, Vermont

 

“On Ensemble’s performances for the Music Center were a grand success! I wholeheartedly recommend the work of this exciting company and look forward to bringing them back for a return engagement.”

Barbara Leonard, Artistic Dirctor
Music Center Education, Los Angeles, CA

 

“On Ensemble is an amazing group of artists who are performing some of the most innovative taiko compositions today.”

Johnny Mori, Producing Director for Performing Arts
Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Los Angeles CA

 

“The members of On Ensemble did a phenomenal job, especially during the matinee for grades K-6, in educating the audience on taiko history and sparking an interest in collaborative music making. We were very fortunate to have On Ensemble share their innovative compositions with our community – it was an honor to work with such passionate musicians and truly kind people.”

Courtney M. Hiatt, Media and PAC Series Manager
Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington

 

“… it is my pleasure to recommend the On Ensemble’s work to music presenters and festivals that you might approach for future collaboration and presentation. The project that we presented was extraordinary from start to finish… Congratulations, thanks again, and I highly recommend your work to those interested in hybrid New Music projects and Taiko drumming.”

Richard Simas, Artistic Director
Theatre La Chapelle, Montreal, Canada

 

“Students and teachers alike were energized by your outstanding presentation of traditional taiko drumming interwoven with world music sounds. Their enthusiasm carried over to a full audience turnout for our public performance. So many of our students brought their families to see and hear you again. This is the ultimate compliment to your wholehearted effort for our school assemblies.”

Terry Yagura, Executive Director
Arts for the Schools, Tahoe Vista, CA

 

“… a young, Taiko-rooted ensemble that has gained considerable recognition through its work in our local Japanese-American community. For anyone considering presenting this ensemble, we can recommend them highly. They were very professional in their dealings with our promotion and production staff, were pleasant to work with during the performance and, most important, gave us a great show.”

Michael Alexander, Executive/Artistic Director,
Grand Performances, Los Angeles, CA

 

“The standing ovations at the end of the finales together were truly well earned and reflected the visceral excitement that your work generated from the audiences. Your performance was truly a powerful vision of the future potential of taiko and you are four of the most talented young taiko performers in North America.”

Rick Shiomi, Artistic Director Theater Mu, Minneapolis MN