Saturday, March 29, 2008

REALLY Japanese Music

I've been getting into REALLY Japanese music. That is, music that gets its inspiration from Japanese sources, rather than America, Europe, etc.

J-pop, J-rock and J-whatever-else aren't bad, of course, but they're all derivative of foreign styles. I want to listen to music I know is from the Land of the Rising Sun, and nowhere else. It's something you start thinking of after a while, living as a music fan in Japan.


The first REALLY Japanese musicians on my list are Asakusa Jinta, whose album Sky “Zero” was my favorite album of 2006. These guys have resurrected the sounds of the late-19th/early 20th century 'jinta' Japanese brass bands, and put them in a contemporary context by adding to the horns and accordion sound an electric rock guitar, drums, and, most distinctly, an explosive ska bass that pounds out beats like machine gun rounds. Their new mini-album Fes! Fes! Fes! shows that the first album was no fluke—this time they combine old festival music sounds with rock conventions to come up again with something unique.


Number two is Umekichi, a shamisen player/songstress who performs old popular songs known as hauta and zokkyoku ('old' as in, going back to the Edo and Meiji periods...). These were originally geisha songs listened to over sips of sake, and from there they went on to be performed at rakugo shows, comedic entertainment for the masses in Japan. Rakugo continues to be popular and its performances are like vaudeville shows—the comedic monologues are the main acts, but they are interspersed with various other entertainers such as guys who spin plates at the end of a pole, scissor artists that cut portraits out of paper, and traditional singers, which is what Umekichi does.

I bought one of her CDs expecting music that is quaint and traditional, but was pleasantly surprised to find melodies that are old-fashioned but appealing, and unexpectedly swinging rhythms. Umekishi's singing is high-voiced, nasal and sweet, and her style is playful but unsentimental: what I'd imagine geishas sound like when performing in tea rooms. I'd like to see her one of these days at the rakugo theater. I also heard she's toured the U.S. before—anyone seen her over there?


Moving on, number three isn't a 'musician' per se, but what she does involves music: Yamazaki Vanilla is a narrator of silent movies, a woman who is reviving a disappearing art. If you're in Japan you might have seen on TV, clad in a kimono and a blond short-bob wig, narrating black-and-white movies while plucking a taishogoto. Watching her working the crowds—fluently explaining the movie's setting, reading out the actors' lines, and mixing in humor and mentions of current events—I was able to begin to understand one reason why silent movie fans rued the introduction of talkies: watching a movie was much more of a community event in the days of narrated silent films.


Finally, one of the strangest and most fascinating Japanese pop culture developments these days is the emergence of Jero, the 26-year-old black (and one-quarter Japanese) singer from Pittsburgh, dressed in hip-hop fashion, who belts out excellent enka. The Times U.K. has a nice profile of him and enka; I didn't realize until I read it that the music mainly developed in the post-WWII era:

Although originally a form of 19th-century political oratory, enka in its current form began in the late 1940s when its singers and its audience were predominantly young. The music – in many ways the theme tune of the Japanese economic miracle and the birth of the salaryman culture – subsequently grew up with them.

This article and others make the point enka is becoming more popular with a younger audience due to Jero. Who knows whether enka will end up as anything more than a passing fad among the youth, but in any case it's a good thing that it's getting more attention. Enka will never be cutting-edge music, but I do believe that its lyrics are a window into what regular Japanese people (as opposed to Harajuku hipsters or the Roppongi rich) think and feel, and there's really no other music to listen to in some old, wood-built izakaya away from the big cities, over some hot sake and dried fish.


The cherries are in full bloom in Tokyo, and that's a good excuse to mention the words of bestselling erotic-romance novelist Junichi Watanabe: cherry blossoms are like a mistress, while plum blossoms are like a wife. Cherries are attention-grabbing, flashy but of short duration, like a fling with a lover, whereas the more subdued but long-lasting plum flowers are spousal, says Watanabe-sensei. He also says peach flowers are like cheating housewives, but I can't remember what his reasoning was on that...

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