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Photo by Foto NinjaReal ninjas wouldn't royally blow itlike this.
Joey Maramba—a.k.a. Indo Ninja—was supposed to be on a mission, which was going to be easy. With Robert Shaffer—Outdo Ninja—he would illegally park a car in the bohemian northern California college town of Santa Cruz, load in a bass guitar, drums and some amps following their show at a nightclub called the Cube, then slip unnoticed into the night. No sweat.
So they found a deserted-looking driveway—perfect. But then a police cruiser pulled in behind them. The hippie-town detectives informed the ninjas they were trespassing into somebody's house. The ninjas were drunk. They were wearing kung-fu clothes. The alibis started gushing. So try explaining this to the cops and this music critic. What kind of ninjas are you guys?
It's something called "sonic martial arts," according to Maramba. And if that sounds vaguely Asian-porno-soundtrack, Maramba protests—he's doing something else. Shaffer and Maramba's band Ninja Academy is on a crusade.
"It's not that I hate guitars," says Maramba.
"But guitars suck," Shaffer gleefully interjects.
Maramba wants to convince the music world the bass can be a lot more than the plonk-plonk-plonk sounds that make up the rhythm section of most rock bands. Sure, bass is rhythmic, but bass can be melodic, too—and bass can lead.
At a recent gig at the Anarchy Library bar in the bland suburb of Downey, Maramba and Shaffer are wearing black ninja outfits and playing an instrumental as stormy as the most blistering hardcore punk, then flipping into something as melodic and jazzy as Dave Brubeck.
Maramba typically stands in front of audiences looking still and stoic, then falls on top of an amp, summoning a lightning bolt of feedback. It should be a freak show, but the world is listening to Ninja Academy: snippets of Ninja Academy's songs "Bounce" and "Jungle Wabbit" were played on the soundtrack of MTV's Real World: Philadelphia. Chalk up a victory for the bass-guitar anti-defamation league led by Chairman Maramba.
He was born in the Philippines and grew up in El Monte. His mom, a piano teacher, wanted him to play classical music, but he wanted to play rock. In 1986, he got a bass guitar for Christmas, and he started figuring out how Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order and jazzbo Jaco Pastorius played both melody and rhythm on their bass guitars. It's simple.
"It's not a jammy thing. It can be chorus, verse, chorus, verse," he says. He strums and picks a melody for a few bars, then he slaps out a rhythm. Classical guitarists and pianists follow a similar method of interpolating rhythm with melody.
While they continued to play in other bands (and work day jobs; Maramba is a music teacher and Shaffer is an ESL teacher), they liked exploring the bass-and-drums thing, so they kept on doing it. Now they find lots of similarly minded bass maniacs eagerly awaiting their gigs in small clubs across the West Coast.
Oh, and about that MTV residual? They aren't holding their breath for big money.
"It should buy us dinner at Sizzler," Shaffer says.
Ninja Academy at DiPiazza's, 5205 E. Pacific Coast Hwy, Long Beach, (562) 498-2461. Fri., 9:15 P.M. $8. 21+.