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The Most Powerful Traditional Instrument Demonstration Disc: Ondekoza

Dotou Banri (Long Journey of the Surging Wave) JVC XRCD2 (SVCD-1027)

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Publisher’s note, 8/7/2019: Originally published on July 6, 2004, this CD Review is brought up to date with a supplemental observation on track 5, “Yuki no Ashita.”  

1. Tou-tou 11:41
2. Monochrome II 16:04
3. Ho no Mai (Fire Dance) 10:28
4. Sakiyama Busi (folk song from Yaeyama) 4:11
5. Yuki no Ashita (Snowy Morning) 7:05
6. Dotou Banri (Ten thousand miles of surging waves) 8:19
This is the most powerful demonstration disc created via a traditional instrument, which will purge all criticism towards the format.

I bought this CD upon the recommendation of Mr. Akira Taguchi himself, the famed JVC sound engineer, and upon playing it at home, I thought the folks at JVC’s Marketing must have gone mad in releasing this strange-sounding CD. Yet, the passage of time vindicated the crazily creative minds behind this release.

Primary instrument featured in this XRCD2 release is the taiko, a predominant instrument of festivities. Meaning “flat drum”, the taiko is made with a cowhide stretched over the drum lip, with units measuring up to over 5 feet in diameter and sometimes raised to over 6 feet on stand, capable of producing an articulate tone in the smaller units, to thunderous rumbling in the larger “do-daiko’s”.

Though the taiko is featured in every track, the arguably most memorable track may well be the one featuring a vocalist, as in track 4, “Sakiyama Bushi” (folk song from Yaeyama), in which a mildly melancholy male vocal softly depicts a man’s longing for a reunion with his elderly mother in the midst of a festival.

While Asian countries have fallen behind Europe in musical development in the past millennium, Japan and China flourished incomparably in literature, and their preservation efforts and recent revival of traditional music are notable. More than often, the two countries’ music found expression in poetry. Thus, traditional Japanese music can be lyrical the same way its language is, where its unique structuring can lend aptly arranged vocalization as abundant a meaning and texture as English verses.

Below is a complete translation by Yoshi Segoshi of Sakura Systems for your enjoyment, as well as my arbitrary rearrangement of the words in approximation to the singing, which I hope will also further the appreciation of the musical presentation.

The song has four main verses, each being supplemented immediately by a separate lamentation containing, at each lamentation’s end, a repetition of the last few words from the verse. And if you manage to follow, please get the tissue out, for you may be “tear”-ing up at the end. The lamentations are almost as long as the main verse but don’t mean much, so I simply put them as the “Oh…”.

“Climing up to the top of the hill, where a play ground is,
You can see the Hateruma Island, where I was born,
As if seeing the mother in front,
My eyes are filled with flooding tears”
– translation by Yoshi Segoshi of Sakura Systems

At the hill’s top, lays a playground, and I climbed it

Oh- I did climb it

Hateruma Island, my birthplace, was visible in the distance

Oh- It was visible

My own mother, who gave birth to me, I could almost see

Oh- I could almost see her

With the view before me, tears flowed from my eyes

Oh- Tears did flow

This 4-minute folksong adaptation is accompanied effectively by the singular, shamisen (meaning 3-strings), and enriched most impressively by a faithful but subtle taiko in the background. Four minutes fly by when you resonate with the sentiments expressed; but can also be crawling slow had you no idea at what was being conveyed. DAGOGO is grateful for Yoshi’s picturesque translation.

This track is a system tester in dynamic contrasts and scaling, in the subtlety of the singing to the contrasted, sympathetic taiko in the back. The Tannoy TD10, in the company of PiTracer, Gemini Progression and Gaincard S conveyed the soft rumbling of the taiko without suffocating the vacillation of the vocal, and the Tannoy Churchill Wideband with PiTracer, DAC 5 Special, CAT-777 and PAT-777 scored further by projecting the air around the singer and approximating the size of the drum simultaneously.

As repetitious as the singing can sometimes seem in the fleeing minutes, one can nevertheless easily begin to sense the magic in the undistinguished male vocal by way of the variation in notes. Especially during the latter portion when he iterates how he is reduced to tears by just thinking of his mom, you can instantly echo along in that family bond.

As much as the genre a complete departure from the western vocalization, a few spins of the singular vocal track may just as well bring out the Shintoism in you. (I’ve hummed the chant many times in the shower.)

Should one begin from the beginning, the festive powerhouse “Tou-Tou” (track 1), will install itself as a demonstration-class production in the extreme dynamic contrasts and frequency extensions. Although no track in this XRCD will relinquish its claim to fame by doing away with even just one mighty taiko, nowhere else in this XRCD is the phenomenal instrument more profoundly felt, as four of them are employed.

Likewise, track 2, “Monochrome II,” supplies plenty of eyebrow-twitching moments in its demonstration of dynamic contrasts, though this time the soundstaging of multiple shamisen’s on the horizon may just prompt you to rebel against the wife-decreed prohibition of repositioning loudspeakers, and possibly even furniture. Track 3, “Hi no Mai,” concludes the initiation of a listener with another formidable display of taiko prowess, interjected by a fascinating dialog between a Japanese fue (flute) and Chinese guzheng, a type of zither. (The CD‘s booklet curiously calls the guzheng a “quin“, which stands for a different Chinese instrument but is probably a Japanese equivalent of guzheng).

After the first 4 system-testing tracks, “Snowy Morning” (Yuki no Ashita, track 5) follows, of which the liner note says “depicts a lone shakuhachi [Japanese bamboo flute] player walking aimlessly along playing his flute as the snow falls one night. It reflects on just what is the nature of solitude.” The contemplative playing invokes a confessing and reflective mood, to such effect as if the flutist becomes delirious of the monologue until he finally snaps out of it. This track is the ultimate system tester, pitching a lone flute against a taiko. The seeming feebleness of the flute in the XRCD-nisque tone of gold tore through the night-scape, ceremoniously guarded by a taiko in the near-subconscious manner until it ramps up to match the emotional intensity of the flute.

Few recordings require as much prowess in an audio system in dynamic and tonal contrasting in a faithful depiction of the instrumental dialogue. Large loudspeaker systems tend to reenact the taiko very nicely but distort the intricate flute. I played this track at shows before I founded the CAS, and it was usually the smaller loudspeaker systems that could preserve the delicacy of the flute, at the expense of the taiko.

The last track, “Dotou Banri,” is the title track which breaks with tradition in the use of synthesizer for background effects, imparting a haunting surrealism. Though meaning “long journey of the surging wave”, the music conjured up a bare, gloomy, volcanic wilderness to me, which is probably not an unfamiliar scene to nationals of Japan.

It is curious that Ondekoza should adopt such a commercialized arrangement that also probably renders the music unrecognizable to the genre the musicians supposedly holds true to. The bright side of this is the evident accessibility of the music, sounding most entertaining as well as westernized, making other tracks on the disc comparatively formal and traditional.

Each performance of this CD paints a vastly different sonic impression that is as picturesque as Van Gough’s invention. While all tracks are outstanding demonstration material, the subtleties and tranquility conveyed in tracks 4 & 5 are for the seasoned instrumental connoisseurs. Some will find the two tracks well worth the CD’s price, and yet others will fall in love immediately with the first 3 demonstration-class tracks instead.

In addition to the Tannoy speakers mentioned earlier, I was also able to squeeze some of the scale of the do-daiko’s out of the most dynamically extended loudspeaker in my household, namely the Genesis VI, with its ribbon tweeters, mid-bass units, and a trio of active subwoofers per channel. Yet, none of the speakers at my house was the prime candidate in reproducing the Ondekoza CD, so I have found refuge in the Audio Note AN-E SEC Silver’s playing, for the dimensionality and resolution, crossing over bottom-end information below 20Hz to the Genesis VI via the z-systems RDP-1 digital reference preamp and the Audio note DAC 1.1x, so that I, at least, wouldn’t have to give up bottom-end performance and resolution.

While this exceptional disc is primarily for those with Genesis I and loudspeakers of first-class dynamics, resolution and scale; the beauty and power imbedded is also wonderfully apt as a keepsake for occasional mind-soothing or house-shaking needs. I, of course, don’t play the first 3 tracks that often, because they are just too much. Of course, I do play them when I have guests and the right system just happens to be in place.

I’ve had tremendous fun playing this disc from time to time. The tremendous sound of 4 taiko’s from the first track is awe-inspiring, and the experience of feeling such naturally created sound is second to none. When you get to reproduce real stuff like that in your listening room, the notion of playing dinosaur roars seems absurd.

From the desk of Daisuke Yamada, Ondekoza’s manager:
ONDEKOZA’s Profile

Za Ondekoza

Hometown of Za Ondekoza has moved to the city of Mt.Fuji in Shizuoka. They subject themselves to the discipline which spontaneously generated from their group living and perform all over the world as “Fuji no Yama Ondekoza.”

Za Ondekoza was conceived by director Tagayasu Den, and organized on Sado Island in 1969.

In 1975 youngsters shocked their audience when they jumped on stage for its debut performance just after running the Boston Marathon. Their Taiko drum stages, including collaboration with Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mr. Seiji Ozawa in 1976, have overwhelmed their audience and been acclaimed.

Performance of Za Ondekoza is based on the logic “Sogakuron”, “Running” and “Music” are one, and it is a reflection of the drama and energy of life. Ondekoza’s unprecedented running tour, beginning in 1990 at Carnegie Hall in N.Y., was a compilation of its thought. Until the returning memorial concert at Carnegie hall in Nov. 12, 1993, 355 performances through running 1,071 days and 14,910 km were done.

After performing at opening ceremony of the Paralympics Nagano in 1998, a new running tour “Long Journey” (12,500km) in China began in April, looking for completion before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.

In 2002 January, Za Ondekoza was invited to the Christian Dior Haute Couture 2002 Spring-Summer Paris Collection. They performed Taiko drums by collaborating on the house mix music with D.J. Jeremy Healy upon the idea of designer John Galliano. This first attempt ever in fashion industry was greatly admired by audience gathered from all over the world.

For the memorial of Mr. Tagayasu Den who past away on the 11th of April, 2001. Za Ondekoza held the first Marathon Live Tour in Japan, running about 600km from Sado island to Fuji and had three memorial concerts during the tour in Spring, 2002.

Collaborating performance with world-famous female percussionist Evelyn Glennie in 2003 winter will be included in the documentary film “Heart Beat – The Rhythms of Evelyn Glennie” produced by German movie director Thomas Riedelsheimer and will come out in 2004.

In 2004 Za Ondekoza will go back to Boston Marathon where they debuted in 1975.

Running, Beating, and Dancing on the earth.

Their challenge still continues for the 21st century.

This disc is selected as one of Dagogo Editor’s Top Reference Discs.

Reviews on equipment used:

47 Laboratory 4704 PiTracer CD transport with two Power Humpties
Harmonix Reimyo DAP-777 20bitK2 DAC
Tannoy “Dimension Series” TD10 speakers
Tannoy Churchill Wideband speakers

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One Response to The Most Powerful Traditional Instrument Demonstration Disc: Ondekoza

  1. Miguel says:

    I had the opportunity of listen the first track of this recording at the California Audio Show 2015 in Millbrae, CA.
    I have played traditional flutes from the Andes Mountains for couple of decades, I must confess that this is the most impressive recording I have ever heard, the sounds of the flute are exquisite and extraordinaire, I have never heard so much reality of a traditional flute on a recording, the drums were also amazing… People who love pure sound… You must listen to this recording…
    Any recommendations how and where to obtain this XRCD2 recording?

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