Charting new musical territory

From left to right: Alcvin Ramos, Bernie Arai, and Chris Gestrin.| Photo courtesy of Densabi.

Densabi takes the stage at Visual Space on March 10, bringing their improvisatory blend of traditional Japanese instruments and ambient electronic music. The electro-acoustic musical approach of the trio, composed of Alcvin Ramos, Bernie Arai and Chris Gestrin, centres around the beauty of impermanence and decay.

“Each performance is never the same. We never know what will manifest until it happens, which is very exciting, I feel! It comes and goes instantaneously like a fleeting thought,” says Ramos.

An organic and electronic experiment

Ramos had been experimenting with both electronic ambient music and shakuhachi when he first met the other members of Densabi. He first met Arai, who was also studying the traditional japanese flute at the time, followed by Gestrin, a close musical colleague and friend of Arai.

While Ramos’ role in the group is centred more around organic instrumentation, including the shakuhachi and other traditional Japanese instruments, the three share a passion for, and background in, various kinds of electronic music, with Arai experimenting with digital electronic music, such as running music programs through a Nintendo Gameboy set-up, and Gestrin working with analog synthesizers, keyboards, and even AM radio run through different musical effects.

When the trio, all with their own extensive musical backgrounds, came together in the mid-2000s, each had their own expertise, influences and approaches to music to bring to the table.

“I can’t remember exactly when we started, but it has always been the three of us, and we have always given each other the freedom (and encouragement) to bring whatever sounds/processes to the group,” says Arai.

Wabi-sabi: beauty in imperfection

Although each member fills a general, but flexible role, there have been few, if any, strict “rules” or limitations on what anyone can bring to the creative process. That said, the name of the group does hint at some of the general themes one can find within a Densabi performance.

The name “Densabi” is a Japanese combination name, of Ramos’ creation, which comes from “den” which translates as ‘electronic’, and “sabi”, from the word “sahbishii” which roughly translates to ‘sad and lonely.’ Ramos notes the different connotations this new name can take on.

“Since we use a lot of dated technology to create our sound, and enjoy a sort of twisted decaying sound, I thought DEN-SABI would be a cool name, which can be translated as ‘Decayed Electronics’ or ‘Electric Sadness’,” says Ramos.

The term ‘Sabi’ is also incorporated into the term “wabi-sabi”, a Japanese aesthetic concept that translates roughly to ‘beauty of imperfection’, a concept which Ramos says is, despite the trio’s lengthy musical experience and aptitude, a strong element of the trio’s musical approach. Indeed, both Densabi and “wabi-sabi” also emphasize the theme of impermanence, a feature central to their improvisation-heavy performances.

“With this band, everything is totally improvised,” says Gestrin. “Because of that, each concert is unique. At least, the sound or ‘vibe’ is similar as we have a sound that is unique to Densabi. Even if we use different combinations of equipment, I think we still have a consistent sound.”

Arai notes how it’s this improvisatory and experimental sonic course, guided by the aesthetic principles of wabi-sabi, that allows the group to explore different sounds and musical paths.

“The fact that we play instruments that range from ancient (shakuhachi) to obsolete or outdated (‘80s video game systems) to classic vintage (analog synths) to contemporary (laptops) relates [to wabi-sabi]. Personally I like the idea of degeneration and decay as a guiding principle for making sounds in this band. I like to try and “decompose” (in the organic sense, not the musical composition sense) the sounds I am generating in order to develop them with the band,” says Arai.

With such abstract yet tangible musical goals, and the musical experience and experimental drive to achieve them, Densabi is sure to chart new musical territory with each new performance to come.


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