Bay Area Innovator Celebrates 25 years of the Murasaki Ensemble

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murasaki ensemble2By BRIAN M. WONG

Murasaki Shikibu was one of the first recognized women writers in all of Japan. Her talent and pioneering spirit are reflective of the composing and arranging talents of Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto-Wong, bandleader of the Murasaki Ensemble.

A koto master with her credentials from the Chikushi Kai in Fukuoka, Japan, Muramoto was inspired by the iemoto (headmaster) of the school and her son, Ichiro Sakamoto, who incorporated Western instruments into their compositions. Their compositions included works with koto and orchestra, koto and guitar, original compositions, and arrangements of popular songs and tango music.

Muramoto began looking for new ways to follow in that tradition and to expand the repertoire of koto music in America. Her creative impulses led her to write new music for the Koto, to explore the world of improvisation, and to create an intimate, vibrant chamber group sound that would reflect her connections to the Bay Area, and her hometown of Oakland.

Enter Matt Eakle, Jeff Massanari, Alex Baum, and Vince Delgado, the current core group of the Murasaki Ensemble, whose diverse musical talents have excited thousands of music fans throughout the Bay Area in venues such as Yoshi’s in Jack London Square, Kimball’s East, Art and Soul Festival and Mr. E’s, and festivals like the Fillmore and Union Street Festivals, Sausalito Art Fest, and Festival at the Lake.

The group always evokes an inspiring sense of musical passion, drawing listeners in with its enchanting melodies, Middle Eastern grooves, and free-spirited improvisations.

Muramoto has been playing and teaching the koto in the Bay Area for 38 years. Her creative vision is that the koto would be an instrument that can be played and enjoyed by people all over the world, not just Japanese people. She cites koto player June Kuramoto of the band Hiroshima as an early influence on how to include koto with Western instruments.

Muramoto stresses that she sought musicians and instruments with a sound that complemented the natural sounds of the koto. Her ambition also reflects her desire to find the best local talents, working and blending to create a diverse variety of sonic textures: from blues to jazz, funk to dance music, odd meters to ethereal explorations.

Matt Eakle is one of the most accomplished performers on his instrument. Getting his start on the flute in the Roosevelt Junior High School Band in Richmond, Calif., he went on to perform with the David Grisman Quintet, Linda Ronstadt’s Fiesta Mexicana, Jerry Garcia, and Stephane Grapelli, among others. Eakle’s technical virtuosity and fiery solos have made him one of the premier flutists in the Bay Area. His rapid-fire lines and thrilling improvisations are sure to get you on the edge of your seat.

Jeff Massanari, originally from the little town of Goshen in northern Indiana, went to Boston’s Berklee School of Music and later moved to California, settling in West Oakland. He quickly established himself in the jazz world and became one of the most in- demand guitarists in the Bay Area. He has performed with Paula West, the Johnny Nocturne band, and Swing Fever, among others, and toured internationally in Italy, Sweden, Japan and Guam.

Alex Baum began his illustrious career by playing in Top 40 R&B bands while a high school student in Allentown, Pa. His musical talents have since led him to performances throughout the U.S., Japan, Europe and Canada. He has lent his unconventional string bass techniques to a variety of groups over the years, including stints with Zero, Pine Top Perkins, Johnny Adams, Lockjaw Davis, Sweets Edison, Brenda Boykin, and Dan Hicks, and as a regular in the Johnny Nocturne Band.

Vince Delgado is a master percussionist and composer who has played music for over 65 years. He is a jazz musician and Middle Eastern musician who has studied classical North Indian music extensively. He was the executive director of the Ali Akbar College of Music in 1968 under the guidance of the great sarodist Ali Akbar Khan. He has appeared on Saman Yolu Television in Istanbul with renowned oud player Necati Celik; in Paris, the U.S. and Canada with Zakir Hussain; in India with John McLaughlin; and in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jazz artists Delgado has worked with include Larry Vuckovich, John Santos, John Handy, and Eddie Marshall.

There will also be special guests: Shoko Hikage, Karl Young, Michelle Kazuakimi Suwabe, Debbie Kashihiro Barker-Brune, Carol Kasumi Takao, Brian Kazuhiro Wong and students from Muramoto’s koto studio. Bring the whole family as this will be a concert they will not soon forget!

Murasaki Ensemble 25th Anniversary Concert
Sunday, June 22, from 4 to 7 p.m.
Oakland Asian Cultural Center, 388 Ninth St., Suite 290, Oakland
$15 general admission, $10 students and seniors
Tickets available at murasakianniversary.eventbrite.com

There will also be light food and refreshments included. Free T-shirts will be given out with ticket purchase while supplies last.

For more information, contact Brian Wong at [email protected] or call (510) 482-1640.

Supported by the Oakland City Council and funded by the City of Oakland’s Cultural Funding Program. Co-sponsored by OACC and Murasaki Productions.

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