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SFCM’s Akira Tana’s Otonowa Ensemble Plays Japanese Folk Songs Like You’ve Never Heard

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Created after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, the group’s sound is a unique blend of folk melodies on traditional Japanese instruments and jazz.

September 21, 2022 by Alex Heigl

By Alex Heigl

Jazz is, at its heart, a syncretic tradition, combining African rhythms and pitches with Western harmony. So why not add some Eastern elements to that as well?

That’s the blend you’ll hear at a performance of SFCM Roots, Jazz and American Music (RJAM) drum faculty Akira Tana’s Otonowa ensemble, giving a masterclass at SFCM on Sept. 21 following a string of other performances in the Bay Area.


Otonowa (translated as “Sound Circle”) has its roots in a tsunami relief fundraiser in the summer of 2011. Featuring Bay Area bassist Noriyuki “Ken” Okada (born in New York but raised in São Paulo, Brazil, and Japan) and Japanese-born San Francisco flutist-saxophonist Masaru Koga, the trio played jazz arrangements of Japanese folk songs dating back centuries.

The group took their sound across the Pacific in 2012, performing for communities in Japan still recovering from the earthquake and tsunami. Pianist Art Hirahara rounded out the ensemble the following year.

Tana did not study traditional Japanese drumming, though he jokes that he can “get up there and fake it, just like when I speak Japanese.” (His setup for performances includes traditional Japanese fan drums.)

“Everyone brings in their ideas and arrangements of songs” whenever the group gets together, Tana said. “For me, being born and raised in the United States—although my parents are from Japan—I was never introduced to these songs or melodies. Some of these children learn growing up, but I didn’t, so it’s all new for me.” For the Japanese song “Sakura” (“cherry blossom”), Tana said the group approaches it as a modal jazz waltz, like John Coltrane’s famous rendition of “My Favorite Things.”

On their very first trip to Japan, the group met a trumpet player in high school, who, along with his brother, had been separated from their family for two days. Over the years, they’ve continued to play with him—and in fact, he’s on Otonowa’s latest recording—and he’s now pursuing a career in jazz after being introduced to jazz by the group 10 years ago. “That’s very gratifying,” Tana says.

Learn more about studying drums with Akira Tana or SFCM’s RJAM department here.