Stomu Yamashta, World’s Greatest Percussionist

The cult-musician's 1971 record ‘Sunrise from West Sea’ foregrounds deep connections into Japan’s jazz-rock underground.


WordsMiranda Remington

YAMASH'TA & The HORIZON, ‘SUNRISE FROM WEST SEA’ (1971). Courtesy of Wewantsounds.

Amongst a lineage of Japanese musicians who have fused East and West in music, Stomu Yamashta—a legendary percussionist who once entranced the entire classical music world with his acrobatic drumming—holds a singular and spectacular case. 

The special re-issue of Sunrise from West Sea, a live album recorded at Tokyo’s Yamaha Hall in 1971, released for the first time since 1971 by French label Wewantsounds, resounds his trajectory as a distinguished classical performer foraying into Japan’s free-jazz and psychedelic rock underground. Yamash’ta & the Horizon was a spontaneous group formed alongside Masahiko Satoh, a pianist responsible for some of the era’s most experimental jazz records, as well as Takehisa Kosugi, electric violinist and key member of the wildly eccentric Taj Mahal Travellers ensemble.


A Cosmic Cacophony

Telling the story of a classical percussionist’s gradual involvement in underground music, the record is a dizzying foray into the kind of psychedelic soundscapes that flourished amongst the era’s hippies and avant-gardes, resounding with electric koto and organs, chanting, confused human cries, theremins and radio noises as much as Stomu Yamashita’s own spontaneous collisions. Recorded very shortly after his fated meeting with Masahiko Satoh, an explosive union which prompted outrageous outbursts like albums Metempsychosis (1971), Sunrise from West Sea reveals an expanding kaleidoscope erupting from his drums. 

Its textures suggests the stimulation of nascent modern art-music and its details in rhythms and timbre are dextrously improvised. Its controlled negotiations between noise and silence concretise links between Buddhist philosophy and traditional percussion, maintaining them throughout a strikingly forward-thinking masterpiece. 

Stomu Yamashta’s esteem as a musical genius began at a very early age, being born into a musical family with his father being the director of the Kyoto Philharmonic Orchestra. His unique drumming style —nimbly moving across his stage and swaying his big curly hair to perform highly complicated pieces— gathered the attention of internationally famous composers, including Thor Johnson, Peter Maxwell Davies, John Cage and Hans Werner Henze amongst others.


Preeminant Pulses

1969’s Time Magazine captures one of his performances with monumental praise: ‘The star of the evening was Solo Percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta… After a menacing roll on the bass drum, Yamash’ta picked up speed and energy, began to ricochet from one instrument to another. Hair flopping, arms flying, he nudged, banged, tickled and teased the instruments. At one point he flailed away with both hands, simultaneously blowing onto bamboo sticks, kicking the prayer bells and rubbing his body frenziedly against the gongs. After it was all over, the audience gave him a standing ovation.’

Chiming well with the world-renown composer Toru Takemitsu, it was he who introduced Stomu Yamashta to Takehisa Kosugi, who had been travelling the world with the Taj Mahal Travellers, a nomadic collective who performed extensive drone-improvisations in spontaneous settings. Alongside him and Hideakira Sakurai, a virtuoso on the electric shamisen, the pianist and experimental jazz legend Masahiko Sato (also known for composing soundtrack for the cult-anime film Belladonna of Sadness) Stomu Yamashta’s ensemble took part in a deep session in front of a special invite-only audience of selected artists, musicians and friends, lasting from midnight to dawn. While unfolding as a never-ending soundscape in itself, Sunrise from West Sea offers only a fragment of this legendary six-hour session, a musical oddity of legendary status with a growing retrospective following amongst international collectors.


Sunrise from West Sea (1971) by Yamash’ta & The Horizon is available for purchase from Wewantsounds’ official bandcamp page.


Courtesy of Wewantsounds.

Courtesy of Wewantsounds.

Courtesy of Wewantsounds.

Courtesy of Wewantsounds.