An unconventional and versatile drummer with a passion for twisting time, banging on metal objects to hear their colors, and blending the old and borrowed with the bold and new, Masuko remains best known as the source of the "astonishing centrifugal force” and “breathtakingly complex rhythms” (The Cleveland Plain Dealer) that made Ithaca, NY’s alt-rock-mountain-music unit The Horse Flies an internationally beloved cult band.
His forty+ year career has encompassed solo work, recordings, live performances, and collaborations across five continents with diverse artists ranging from David Byrne and Les Miserable Brass Band to Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura, the Zamir Chorale of Boston, Richie Stearns, Tapestry, and Telltale Crossing, among others.
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Born in 1952, Masuko soon disappointed his mother, a professional organist, who had fantasized he would become the bowing-half of a violin-piano duo with his sister. Though he dabbled in violin and danced to opera and ballet scores in the living room throughout childhood, then routinely snuck out of his boarding school dorm to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes in Tokyo jazz clubs as a teenager, Masuko didn’t consider making music until Ginger Baker’s sound on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” EP led him to take up drumming at 19. He graduated from the Osaka University of the Arts, receiving its Distinguished Performer award, in 1978.
While finishing university, Masuko freelanced with the Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestras, where he encountered the sonically-adventurous compositions of Krzysztof Penderecki and Harry Partch. Inspired to experiment, Masuko began improvising free-form compositions, mixing the vocabulary of contemporary orchestral percussion with what he was learning of Noh drumming from Master Takayoshi Hoshi.
He came to Boston in 1979 to study improvisation with Ran Blake and George Russell, among others, in Gunther Schuller’s Third Stream Program at the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC). Increasingly interested in jazz and world music, Masuko added to his list of influences musical legends such as Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, as well as countless unnamed musicians on recordings he studied of musics from the Afro-Cuban, Balkan, Brazilian, Venezuelan, Columbian, klezmer, Irish, and Turkish traditions. Fascinated with hand drums, Masuko studied West African dance and drumming with ethnomusicologist David Locke, and Arabic music and percussion with Karim Mohammed.
From there, one opportunity led to another.
The other founding members of Les Miserables Brass Band, with whom he would record three studio albums, play festivals such as Jacob’s Pillow (Becket, MA), The Last Laugh (Montreal), and Heimatklänge (Berlin), perform with Lester Bowie and The Klezmatics, and tour with David Byrne in The Knee Plays in Brisbane, Chicago, New York City, and Tokyo in 1988;
THE HORSE FLIES
In 1986, while on a salsa gig at the Pinewoods Dance Camp (MA), Masuko first jammed with the old-time string-band foursome who would become his primary musical collaborators for over thirty years:
The Horse Flies. After stretching their Americana sound by adding session players to their debut album Human Fly, The Flies (then Jeff Claus, Judy Hyman, Richie Stearns, and John Hayward) wanted to add a permanent drummer, were instantly taken with Masuko’s creativity and groove, and asked him to join.
After recording 1991’s Gravity Dance (MCA), a top-40 record on the Gavin and CMJ charts also nominated for a New York Award, Rolling Stone hailed the new Flies as “a band that's earned a buzz” for their “swirling, addictive songs.” The Chicago Tribune called their distinctive sound “a mélange of rock, folk, and minimalism,” while The Village Voice deemed it “[d]emented, post-modern mountain music.”
Masuko toured and performed with The Horse Flies throughout the US, Canada, and Europe at clubs, theaters, festivals, and events including, among others:
- CBGB's (New York),
- Telluride Bluegrass Festival (Telluride, CO),
- Festival International de Louisiane (Lafayette, LA),
- Independence Days (Berlin, Germany),
- Big Beat Festival (Vienna, Austria),
- Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life (Washington, DC),
- Philadelphia Folk Festival (Philadelphia, PA),
- Vancouver Folk Festival (Vancouver, Canada),
- Winnipeg Folk Festival (Winnipeg, Canada),
- Tonder Festival (Denmark),
- Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (Hillsdale, NY), and
- Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance (Trumansburg, NY).
The Horse Flies also appeared on a number of US television and radio programs, such as MTV News, MTV’s Week in Rock, E-Town, and NPR’s Prairie Home Companion and Mountain Stage.
To date, The Flies have recorded three other commercially-released albums with Masuko: the critically-acclaimed Until the Ocean (2008, Pest Control), In the Dance Tent (2006, Live and Kicking), and Two Traditions (1999, Callin' the Kettle Black).
DANCE + TEACHING
Answering a knock on his NEC practice room door introduced Masuko not only to a modern dance student seeking a drummer, but also to a new means of exploring gesture, rhythm, and improvisation that would prove a key part of his career. Masuko’s facile groove and responsiveness to dancers made him a much sought-after dance accompanist at colleges such as Boston Conservatory, Boston University, Emerson College, and Harvard University, and for studio classes at the Boston Ballet, the Dance Complex, and Green Street Studios, among others.
Additionally, after adding percussion, The Horse Flies sound attracted an array of dancers—including collectives such as Rhythm and Shoes and the Second Hand Dance Company, who frequently joined them on stage in the 1990s. Under the moniker The Second Hand Band, Masuko, along with cello-innovator Hank Roberts and fellow Flies Richie Stearns and Peter Dodge, improvised music for the Second Hand Dance Company’s performances at NYC’s New Victory Theatre.
Meanwhile, accepting an invitation from Ran Blake to teach ensembles at NEC in 1989 put Masuko on the path to becoming a respected drum teacher and introduced him to new collaborators. For twenty-six years, Masuko taught drums, percussion, and ensembles at the Longy School of Music and other colleges and community music schools in the greater Boston area.
While at Longy, Masuko’s work with celebrated Dalcroze teacher Lisa Parker led to relationships with music educators in Japan, for whom he routinely offers frame drum clinics and movement-and-music workshops in Tokyo, Nara, Osaka, and Matsuyama.
- Tapestry, Catt and Tosic’s award-winning women’s vocal ensemble;
- HourGlass, their early music-meets-world folk ensemble with string wizard Andrew Blickenderfer and guitarist Tom Noren;
- BalMUS, a Balkan-driven world fusion group founded by flautist Nicola Radan;
- Le Bon Vent, accordionist Jeremiah McLane’s French-influenced sextet; and
- Telltale Crossing, the trio’s 2020 experimental alt-world-folk-fusion project with rotating collaborators including fellow Horse Flies Richie Stearns and Peter Dodge, and Crooked Still's Corey DiMario