Interesting mix makes up Murasaki Ensemble
by Andrew Gilbert
The koto wasn't born to rock and roll, but Shirley Muramoto has
discovered that swing may be its thing.¬ A master of the classical
13-string Japanese zither, Muramoto established the instrument's
incompatibility with rock through her own experimentation.
Back in 1989 she founded the Murasaki Ensemble with the unlikely
instrumentation of four kotos, electric guitar, flute and drum kit,
creating a band that was unique if sonically unwieldy.
"I felt like I was fighting to be heard with the other instruments,"
Muramoto said over lunch at Santa Fe Bistro in downtown Berkeley.
"It was a little too much.¬ And it was a bit of a hassle having four
koto players, trying to tune between numbers.¬ That's the thing about
the koto;¬ it has 13 strings, and we have to tune a lot."
The Oakland native learned how to play koto from her mother, a highly
regarded teacher who took up the instrument as a child while confined
in the Tule Lake and Topaz internment camps during World War II.
While fully versed in the instrument's classical repertoire, Muramoto
was determined to bring the koto into new musical situations, so when
the original band faltered she turned to the ensemble's flutist Matt
Eakle.¬ Best known as a longtime member of the Dave Grisman Quintet,
Eakle suggested incorporating several new players, and the Murasaki
Ensemble was reborn as an all-acoustic quintet featuring guitarist
Jeff Massanari, standup bassist Alex Baum and percussionist
extraordinaire Vince Delgado.¬ Over the past seven years, the group
has developed into one of the most fascinating jazz-related bands in
the Bay Area.
"I thought there's got to be a way to integrate the koto into
different kinds of music, but I didn't want to change it too much,"
Muramoto said.¬ "Besides June Kuramoto of Hiroshima, I really didn't
have many people to look up to.¬ She's a real trailblazer as far as
that goes.¬ Sometimes I'd try things like tuning it to Western scales
and people would say, "Wow, that sounds like a guitar, or a harp,'
and I didn't want to do that because you may as well get a guitar.¬ I
wanted to keep the character but put it in another context or genre.
So that's what we decided to do."
The Murasaki Ensemble plays a rare club date at Yoshi's on Monday,
celebrating Delgado's 70th birthday and the release of the band's
fourth CD, "Birds & Drums."¬ Covering everything from Duke
Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" and Horace Silver's "song for My
Father," to Malian composer Toumani Diabate's "Marielle" and Lennon
and McCartney's "And I Love Her," the group creates gorgeously
textured music drawing on a huge variety of rhythmic traditions.
The band also plays a good deal of original music, much of it written
by Delgado, a world music pioneer who has played a key role in
numerous Bay Area music scenes.¬ Growing up in a Mexican-American
family in San Francisco's Mission District, Delgado aspired to play
jazz, idolizing Gene Krupa.¬ Always drawn to new sounds, he began
exploring Middle Eastern music, which started a far-flung musical
journey that has taken him around the world.¬ He has collaborated
with¬ Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.
In a remarkable coincidence, he studied koto in the early '60s with
Madame Suwada, the same instructor who taught Muramoto's mother the
instrument in the internment camps.¬ In the Murasaki Ensemble.
Delgado plays a variety of percussion implements, including the riqq,
an Egyptian tambourine that can function like an entire percussion
section, and the Egyptian tabla, a ceramic drum with a fish-skin
"We all come from different backgrounds," Delgado said.¬ "We're all
Americans, so we all know blues and jazz, rock and hip-hop.¬ I've
been doing Middle Eastern music for 40 years and work with Arabic
groups and Greek groups, and I'm encouraged to bring that to the
table.¬ I have so much stuff floating around in my head, I love it
when people give me that wide open space to create."
March 13, 2003, Contra Costa Times