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Mixing Blunt Words With New Age Serenity : Kitaro, the once-reticent composer/performer, is now voicing opinions that may offend some in his Japanese homeland

April 01, 1990|DON HECKMAN

Kitaro stood at the center of a cyclone of energy--an island of calm surrounded by flurries of chaos. He had just finished a performance before media representatives to promote his world tour, and the huge sound stage in Valencia was still clouded with smoke from visual effects.

The diminutive composer/performer, characterized by his fine-boned stature and a glistening mane of black hair reaching to his waist, had barely stepped away from the two-story-high bank of electronics, keyboards and percussion instruments before he was surrounded. Pouncing on him were cameramen, reporters, public relations people and a small platoon of JVC businessmen in dark suits who are here for the U.S. part of the tour.

Fielding all their questions, requests and comments with a bemused expression and elegantly polite bows of his head, Kitaro managed to satisfy the enthusiastic crowd, which finally dispersed. As Kitaro left the stage, he glanced toward a group of friends, winked, and did his own version of a buck-and-wing step toward the spread of food.

It was a characteristic gesture from a composer/performer whose meditative New Age music and guru-like image contrast dramatically with his love of golf, professional football and rhythm & blues. Far from being a one-dimensional musical sage, Kitaro, who admits only to being in his "mid-30s," is a strongly opinionated, well-traveled artist who feels that everything of this world is connected with everything else.

His compositions, which combine the plangent scales of Japanese music with the rich orchestrations of the West, underscore his belief in the intrinsic connection between cultures. In performance, as in everyday life, he seems most comfortable at the heart of the vortex, his plain garb, calm demeanor and soaring keyboard melodies contrasting dramatically with the vigorous activities and striking rhythmic patterns of his musicians.

Described by Encyclopedia Britannica as "the quintessential musician of the New Age," Kitaro has been one of the most globally visible Japanese artists to emerge in the last decade. His mid-'70s work with synthesizers resulted in a cult following that soon expanded into a worldwide audience. In 1987, the year of his last North American tour, he sold more than 12 million albums worldwide with titles such as "Astral Voyage" and "The Light of the Spirit," as well as more esoteric titles in Japanese. In 1988, his single, "The Field," was nominated for a Grammy award.

But Kitaro's image has changed since his last visit to the United States. He doesn't seem to be just a reclusive composer living in a thatched-roof farmer's home at the base of the Japanese Alps.

No longer shy and retiring, interested only in discussing his music, he comfortably displays the sophistication of the world traveler he has become. Yet he remains intensely private.

A growing articulateness with the English language has allowed him to express some strikingly un-gurulike thoughts. To put it bluntly, he is not at all happy with the current state of affairs in his home country.

"The Japanese have an inside problem," he explained. "Economically, they think only about money. They don't want to think about other countries' problems. We have so many problems in the world--like with the rain forest and the hole in the ozone. Japanese industry helps make those problems, but they don't want to worry about it. They want to make money. They don't have a sweet heart for the Earth."

Nancy Fleming, public relations manager of JVC of America, which is sponsoring Kitaro's tour, was surprised by the composer's comments. "We're working with Kitaro," she said, because we felt that he, as a Japanese artist, represented an excellent cultural exchange between JVC and the rest of the world. I think it's a little unfair for him to generalize the way he has, but JVC sponsors Kitaro because of his music and his artistry and not because of his economic beliefs."

Kitaro was no less direct with his feelings about Japanese performers. "Most Japanese artists come to the U.S. to perform on a festival, or just for one event," he said. "I don't think they want to make relationships with Americans, they just want to do their performances.

"I like to feel that I can make relationships with people in any country. We may talk different languages, but we feel the same things. But other Japanese artists don't feel the same way. They think too much like businessmen."

Perhaps wisely, given his comments, Kitaro 's current plans call for him to move his recording studio to the United States in the near future. It will allow him, he feels, to make closer connections with other musicians, his record company and his friends around the world. Actually, his two most recent albums were partially recorded in the United States. "The Light of the Spirit" was co-produced with the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart, and "Kojiki" features the ad hoc symphony at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch near San Rafael.

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