concert review: Heavenese meshes Japanese soul, gospel music

Kharissa Forte

The Gem Theater at 18th and Vine was packed Sunday, Oct. 21, for a free concert by Christian Japanese group Heavenese.  Organized by Christian radio station, 107.9 FM the Fountain, proceeds from merchandise sold at the concert went to aid victims of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan.  Heavenese is a 13-person act led vocally by a married duo, wife Kumiko and husband Maré, who also is the group’s pianist.

The group isn’t well known in the U.S., but the theater was nearly full as enthusiasts of Christian music came to hear Heavenese’s innovative sound.

Signed to Sheila E.’s record label, Heavenese gives credit to its founder, gospel singer and producer Andraé Crouch, for creating a sound “that meshes Japanese soul music and gospel music into a new art form.”

The group’s unique style is a creative collision that blends popular western qualities of gospel and hip-hop with traditional Japanese instruments.

The traditional instruments included taiko  drums—a wide drum that resembles a giant bongo, a skakuhachi—a bamboo flute that looks similar to a clarinet, and a shamisen—a Japanese string instrument that seems to be a fusion of a banjo and a small percussion instrument.

Along with the traditional instruments, the group is complete with lead and background vocals, drummers, a keyboardist, bass guitarist, saxophonist, rapper and a tap dancer who executed a remarkable solo routine.

The show began with an enticing video of Japan’s Christian history. The film featured a musical score, giving the theater an opening-night action movie feel.

A brilliant act by the group’s male and female drummer duo  followed. The duo performed a difficult choreographed dance while simultaneously playing the drums. The two executed a variety of tricks, leaping over their drums and flipping drumsticks into the air, all while in rhythm.

Between sets, onlookers were astounded by live samurai fight scenes. Three men battled each other with swords and a staff-like weapon called a “bo.”  The audience gasped at dangerous maneuvers and applauded the routines.

Each set was entertaining, but the most exciting part was when local Christian rapper J-Blast joined Heavenese on stage as a fill-in for three of the group’s original songs.

“The rapper that’s a member of the group couldn’t make it,” J-Blast said, “so they asked the station if they knew anyone that could write to their songs to fill in. I was blessed to be asked to do it. I had to say yes.”

The show concluded after an outro set, but the crowd wanted more. Heavenese returned to perform one last song. The audience members jumped to their feet, clapping, dancing and singing along in one unified groove.

“There was nothing missing,” said Sierra Warren, a UMKC alumnus and co-host of the station’s holy hip hop radio show Concrete Truth. “Every instrument played such a special role in the overall performance. It was overwhelming, in a good way.”

The concert opened with popular Kansas City acts from Pastor AD3, Price Wright & One Voice and New Life in Christ Choir. Hosted by the gregarious Ed Rollins, founder of HIS WILL Open Mic Nights, spectators were energized with anticipation.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Rollins said of Heavenese’s performance. The group dazzled the audience with its multi-faceted styles, ranging from traditional Japanese sounds to an accurate portrayal of reggae and a flawless cover of “You Are Good” by the gospel hit-maker Israel & New Breed.

For more information on Heavenese, visit the group’s website at www.heavnese.jp.

[email protected]