We were watching the live upstream feed of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s closing set at the No Nuke music festival outside of Tokyo last Sunday when my wife noted how well the members of the band have aged. It’s true. All three not only look terrific, they’ve also consistently been making excellent music the past few years. Would we could all be so vital when we reach our sixties.
Thanks to his work in film music and acting (cf. The Last Emperor), Sakomoto Ryuichi is the best-known member outside Japan. With his strong commitment to environmental and anti-nuclear activism, he remains one of the great moral authorities in the world of Japanese popular culture (I’ve been thinking about “moral authority” in pop music a good deal these days). He also continues to write and record challenging yet beautiful music, moving effortlessly between the worlds of pop, classical, and even Brazilian music. Here he is performing his composition “Thousand Knives” live in Europe from his world tour in support of his 2010 CD, Playing the Piano. On the tour, which we were caught here in Chicago, he played two pianos: one with his hands, the other by way computer programming and sampler.
Like Sakamoto, Hosono Haruomi continues to float between genres. The hero of chapter four in my recent book, he last year released HoSoNoVa, a delightful CD–and his first album with Hosono singing all the tracks in 38 years! It includes about half original numbers and half covers–including Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Desert Blues,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy Bones” and Leiber/Stroller’s “Love Me.” As that list suggests, Hosono continues to explore the possibilities of hybrid crossings of musical styles. Backing musicians include some of Hosono’s old cronies (Suzuki Shigeru from Happy End, Hayashi Tatsuo from Tin Pan Alley, Van Dyke Parks) and some new faces as well (Yoko Ono, Cocco, Nakamura Mari). Very nice.
When I first encountered YMO back in the 1980s, I thought the band consisted of Sakamoto Ryuichi and two other guys. Then, as I discovered Happy End and Hosono’s solo work, I revised that view: YMO, I decided, consisted of Sakamoto, Hosono, and some other guy whose name I could never remember. Then, about seven years ago, I finally discovered Takahashi Yukihiro. The turning point was the Sadistic Mika Band reunion: I hadn’t connected the dots until then and realized that Takahashi came out of that legendary band. When I saw them in concert in 2006, I was struck by the intelligence and beauty (not an easy combination to pull off) of Takahashi’s compositions. Since then, I’ve been a fan of his terrific new outfit, pupa. I also very much like Last Train to Exit Town, the new CD he put out last year with Suzuki Keiichi (late of the Moonriders) under the name “Beatniks.” As I’ve written here before, what really strikes me about Takahashi’s recent music is his ability to combine electronically generated sounds and acoustic instruments into a lush, organic sound. Maybe YMO was really Takahashi and two other guys all along?
I hope these three guys keep on making music for decades to come. I mean, look how good they looked and sounded last weekend. Hosono sure plays a mean bottle:
In the last few days, the Japanese press have been reporting on a discovery I was involved in of a set of previously unknown recordings made in Sacramento, California around 1950 of a number of Japanese singers in concert. You can see the story in Japanese in the Yomiuri, Nikkei and Asahi newspapers, among others. In English it’s run in the Japan Times and the Mainichi.
The press coverage has understandably focused on the recording of the June, 1950 concert by then thirteen-year-old Misora Hibari and her mentor, Kawada Haruhisa. It’s a remarkably clear recording of the full concert, almost ninety minutes long. But the collection also includes recordings of concerts by a remarkable range of popular musicians from the day: Yamaguchi Yoshiko (known during the war as “Ri Koran”); the “Queen of Boogie Woogie” Kasagi Shizuko together with her mentor, composer Hattori Ryoichi and his sister, singer Hattori Tomiko; Watanabe Hamako together with Kouta Katsutaro; and the Akireta Boys in their postwar incarnation. There are also a number of recordings of performances by local Japanese-American musicians from the Sacramento area. The quality of the recordings vary from concert to concert (unfortunately, the Kasagi/Hattori concert recording has the lowest quality), but most are in remarkably good shape.
The recordings were actually discovered by a retired Bell Canada sound technician who collects old recording devices. In August, 2008, he purchased two boxes of wire recordings in an online auction from a seller in California, without knowing what the contents were. When he received the reels (twelve in all), he digitized them and began to figure out that they were concert recordings of Japanese performers. Although he speaks no Japanese, he was able to figure out the names of most of the performers and that the concerts themselves were held in Sacramento. Through an Internet search, he found my name because of a paper I delivered at a conference several years ago on the 1950 American concert tours by Misora Hibari and Kasagi Shizuko.
He contacted me in the summer of 2009 and described his discovery. To be honest, I was a first highly doubtful–I thought perhaps he had discovered recordings of concerts made in Japan that somehow happened to fall into the hands of someone in California. But he was kind enough to send me copies of the recordings. When I started listening to them, it was clear within minutes that these were indeed recordings of Sacramento concerts. It’s still not clear who made the recordings or for what purpose, but since they were clearly recorded directly off the stage microphone, it seems likely that it was someone connected with the Nichibei Theater, the venue in Sacramento that is mentioned in many of the recordings.
I’ve been working with the owner and other colleagues since (notably, Loren Kajikawa of the University of Oregon and Christine Yano of the University of Hawaii) to try to figure out how best to present this archive to the world. We did a roundtable panel at the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting in Toronto this past March and had a very good reception. The owner has since decided to donate the entire collection of recordings to the UCLA library. We have also sent a copy of the Misora Hibari concert to her management office in Tokyo, and I am currently working to find contact information for representatives of the other performers who appear on the recordings so that we can send them the files, as well.
I’m still in a state of disbelief about the discovery. I’d spent a good deal of time thinking about the 1950 concert tours. The U.S. Occupation lifted the ban on overseas travel by Japanese citizens in late 1949, and Japanese musicians scrambled to arrange American tours. Misora Hibari was invited to Hawaii by veterans of the 442nd Infantry Regiment and 100th Combat Battalion, the famous Japanese-American U.S. army units, for a charity show. From Hawaii, she traveled to the mainland for a concert tour on the West Coast. (More information about the Misora Hibari and Kawada Haruhisa 1950 tour can be found in a very helpful Japanese-language book,『川田晴久と美空ひばり―アメリカ公演』）. The other performers crossed the Pacific shortly thereafter for their own tours.
Incidentally, I recently attended a dinner at UCLA where Senator Daniel Inouye was a guest of honor. Knowing that Sen. Inouye was a veteran of the 442nd, I asked him if he remembered the 1950 Hibari visit to Hawaii. He confirmed not only that he remembered it, but that he had been at concerts.
The recordings are significant in a number of ways. They give a remarkable snapshot of the state of popular music in Japan, circa 1950. To my knowledge, there are very few similar concert recordings from the period in existence. Moreover, they give a very palpable sense of the rapidity by which Japan was converted in the American imaginary from wartime enemy into Cold War friend. To my mind, the most intriguing aspect of the recordings is their significance for Japanese-American cultural history. I find it astonishing that a mere five years after their release from wartime internment camps, Japanese-American audiences in Sacramento and elsewhere were able to indulge so publicly and so gleefully in their cultural ties to Japan.
I’ve just learned from the Tokyo Shinbun that Ito Emi, one of the twin sisters known as The Peanuts (ザ・ピーナッツ), has passed away. She was 71 years old. The Peanuts debuted in 1959 with “Cute Flower” (Kawaii Hana), launching a string of pop hits built on the sisters’ vocal harmonies that carried them through their retirement in 1975. Many of their songs contain an international flavor, such as “Coffee Rhumba” (1962), their cover version of “Moliendo Café”:
Their signature number was undoubtedly “Vacation of Love” (Koi no bakansu, 1963):
The Peanuts were also an omnipresent on Japanese television in the 1960s. They made numerous appearance in the U.S. and Europe, as well. Readers might recall their rather odd recurring role as miniature fairies in the Mothra monster movies.
The Peanuts’ music holds up remarkably well today: terrific harmonies, attractive arrangements, and excellent choice of material. I thought about including a chapter on them in my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, but in the end ran out of time. Maybe someday I’ll get around to writing about them: they are essential figures in the history of Japanese popular music.
RIP, Ito Emi.
UPDATE: A friend has sent along a link to this wonderful clip, a collection of scenes from “Shabondama Holiday” (Soap Bubble Holiday), the 1960s tv show that featured The Peanuts.
Apologies for the radio silence around these parts in recent days. It’s been a busy, fun couple of weeks since last I posted here.
I was in Tokyo for six days last week, meeting with other scholars and visiting archives and bookstores. I also had a chance to get together with the good people at Byakuya Shobo, the publishing house that will be bringing out the Japanese translation of Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop next month. It’s the same team that was responsible for the Japanese edition of Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler a few years back.
Along the way, I also attended Day 10 of the May sumo tournament. I was disappointed that the new Kakuryu bento lunchbox was sold out by noon, but had an enjoyable day at the Kokugikan nonetheless. I also saw a couple of current films while in Japan: Waga haha no ki, adapted from Inoue Yasushi’s semi-autobiographical novel about a novelist’s relations with his aging mother and featuring a very strong cast headed by Yakusho Koji and Kiki Kirin; and Rentaneko, an engaging independent film by Ogigami Naoko (of Kamome Shokudo fame) about a young woman who rents out cats to lonely people. It’s a low key, often humorous, meditation on the pleasures and agonies of repetition in everyday life. Mark Schilling’s review for the Japan Times can be found here.
I flew back to Chicago last Saturday and was immediately plunged into adventure: trying to negotiate my way from O’Hare International Airport to the South Side through a maze of traffic closures in effect because of the NATO Summit.
This past Monday night, we took the whole family downtown to see the reunited Beach Boys in concert at the Chicago Theatre. Once again, the commute was a challenge: the Metra trains didn’t start up at 6:30 as promised, and Lake Shore Drive was still shut down. After some hasty improvising, we managed to get there in time. The show was terrific fun. The first half was heavy on early surf numbers, but things really came alive after intermission. Highlights included a lovely version of “Disney Girls,” a plaintive “In My Room,” and the final encore number of “Fun Fun Fun,” when Brian Wilson came out from behind the grand piano to (at least temporarily) strap on a bass guitar and resume his original position in the band.
My fifteen-year-old daughter, who takes her singing seriously, complained that they were using Autotune to correct pitch on the vocals. I pooh-poohed the idea, but when I got home and did some Googling, I found out that many Beach Boys fans are up in arms about the same issue. Either way, it was a fun and historic show, as Greg Kot noted in his review for the Chicago Tribune.
The group’s celebrations of California surf and car culture framed the opening set, but it was Part 2 where the music cut deepest. It began with the core quintet gathered around Wilson’s piano for a mission statement: “Add Some Music to Your Day.” Then it reclaimed the beauty of the band’s more melancholy and complex late ‘60s and early ‘70s work. “Heroes and Villains” melted into intricate, multi-part harmonies that brought smiles to the faces of the participants as Wilson waved his arms with uncharacteristic vigor. “Good Vibrations,” with its plush harmonies and outer-space sound effects still sounded futuristic. […] In turn, the Beach Boys made falling in love sound both sacred and tragic – their joy tinged by sadness, their despair lifted by hope. And sometimes, as suggested by Brian Wilson’s performance Monday of “Sail On, Sailor,” it becomes too much to bear.
A couple of other odds and ends:
The Atlantic has a nice story by Patrick St. Michel about the trend toward hits by young children in J-Pop, including a mention of my new book. You can read the article online here, and if you haven’t yet checked out “Make Believe Melodies,” St. Michel’s fine blog on contemporary pop music in Japan, you should do so right now.
JERO, the African-American Enka singer who was raised in Pittsburgh singing Misora Hibari numbers with his Japanese grandmother, will be making his New York debut in a concert/talk appearance at the Japan Society next month. Details here. It’s been a while, so to refresh your and my memories, here’s his wonderful 2008 debut single, “Umiyuki” (Ocean snow):
I’ve created an online companion for readers of my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, including sound samples, links to video clips, and other goodies. You can check it out here. If you have any suggestions for improvements or additions, please send them along.
In the meanwhile, the Japan Times newspaper (13 May 2012) has run a nice review of the book by Kris Kosaka. Kosaka concludes:
Stylistically, Bourdaghs’ work beats consistently up-tempo, direct, clear prose revealing his nearly 35 year engagement with Japan. Bourdaghs’ analysis reads quickly yet fully covers an important historical span of modern Japan. With the Japanese translation to be in published in June by Byakuya Shobo Publishers, Bourdaghs’ work will soon be heard by Japanese audiences as well. For music, history, or cultural fans of contemporary Japan, this book is a chart-topper.
You can read the full review here.
Now that her band Tokyo Incidents is history, Shiina Ringo isn’t standing still. She has a new single out, “Jiyu e michizure,” in which she taps into her punky shrieking-guitars vein. I kinda like it:
J-Rock veterans Grapevine will be providing a free live Ustream feed on May 2 of the final date from their current concert tour, direct from Club Quattro in Shibuya. Details here.
The fine blog, “Make Believe Melodies: The Latest On Music From Every Corner Of Japan,” tipped me off to Ç86, a free download compilation of current indies’ rock bands from Japan, available from International Tapes. Uneven, of course, but it includes some good stuff, and you can’t beat the price.
Last week, we attended a terrific sold-out show by Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Chicago Theatre. For the most part, I agree with Greg Kot’s concert review in the Chicago Tribune. The concert began with the duo backed by a band of supporting musicians from Cuba–but a bad mix often drowned out the guitars, especially Gabriela’s. The band departed the stage after five or six numbers, and then we got to the highlight of the show: two excellent, versatile guitarists strutting their stuff, and I do mean “strut.”
Another highlight was the occasional patter between songs. Rodrigo went first, and then a few numbers later Gabriela stepped up to the mike. She apologized that she might be repeating things Rodrigo had already said, “but I never listen when Rodrigo’s talking.”
The band came back for the final set of numbers, and the sound was much better this time around. The concert came to a rousing conclusion with “Tamacun,” followed by an extended encore (including a teaser version of “Stairway to Heaven,” the group’s viral video hit).
I like “Tamacun” quite a bit, but I also notice a strong resemblance to another song: the Southern All Stars’ 1996 hit “Ai no kotodama.” Or am I perhaps just hearing the shared Latin roots of both bands?
You can decide for yourself. Here’s Rodrigo y Gabriela performing “Tamacun”:
And here are the Southern All Stars with “Ai no kotodama.”
In my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Pre-History of J-Pop, I trace the hints of coming revolution that seemed to reverberate within guitar noise in Japan circa 1968–and the ultimate absorption of that political edge into the new commercialism of 1970s rock. My primary focus in that section of the book is on “Group Sounds,” the Japanese version of 1960s rock–teen-idol bands like the Tigers, the Spiders, and the Tempters.
As culture industry commodities, mainstream Group Sounds bands remained resolutely apolitical. So it’s a pleasant surprise to encounter the latest recordings by Sawada “Julie” Kenji, former lead singer of the Tigers and a very successful solo act since the early 1970s. After the breakup of the Tigers, Sawada enjoyed a string of solo hits–mostly pop ballads that traded on his flamboyant image (something akin to, say, Elton John)–but you didn’t turn to “Julie” expecting biting political commentary.
That’s all changed now. Check out, for example, the very catchy “F.A.P.P.” (the initials stand for Fukushima Atomic Power Plant), a resolutely anti-nuke song on Sawada’s new maxi-single, “Sangatsu yōka no kumo” (The clouds on March eighth):
And if you think it’s just a one-off deal, here is Sawada’s gospel-tinged defense of Article 9, the anti-war clause of the Japanese constitution: “Waga kyūjō” (the title revolves around a pun: 「我が窮状」 vs. 「我が九条」, ‘My pain’ vs. ‘My Article 9’):
Good on you, “Julie.” GS, I love you.
This morning, I poked my head in at the website for the World Happiness music festival to see who was on the bill this year. This is the annual one-day event organized by Yellow Magic Orchestra, with YMO as headliners and a changing roster of supporting artists, all hand-picked by YMO. We very much enjoyed the 2010 edition, and we might well be in Tokyo again this August.
This year’s show will take place on August 12. In addition to YMO, the artists on the bill announced so far include Grapevine, Original Love, Tokyo No. 1 Soul Set, and Sakamoto Miu. The last name was entirely new to me, so I did some checking around. Then it clicked: I’d heard in the past from friends that the daughter of Sakamoto Ryuichi (YMO) and Yano Akiko was also a musician. It’s her, of course.
Born in 1980 during the heyday of YMO’s fame, Miu released her first full album in 1999. She now has six albums to her credit, include the just-released Hatsukoi. The latter includes her latest single, on which she sounds very much like a genetic hybrid of her mother and father’s styles.
Perhaps I’ll be hearing more of her work this August in Yumenoshima Park in Tokyo.
Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop is the “featured book of the week” on the Columbia University Press blog. Among other things, they’re giving away a free copy, but hurry: the contest ends this Friday. Details are available here.
In celebration, let me leave you with “To My Dear Friends” (Waga yoki tomo yo), a 1975 hit for Kamayatsu Hiroshi. Kamayatsu is one of the heroes of my chapter four, “Working within the System: Group Sounds and the Commercial and Revolutionary Potential of Noise.” The tune, composed by Yoshida Takuro, was the biggest hit of Kamayatsu’s solo career, which followed his stint as resident musical genius for 1960s’ garage rockers, The Spiders.
Kamayatsu was the son of Tib Kamayatsu, a Japanese-American jazz singer whose career in Tokyo dated back to the 1930s. He debuted in the late 1950s as a country-western and rockabilly singer before joining the Spiders. He was one of the first Japanese rock-and-rollers to really “get” the new Merseybeat sound when it exploded onto the scene in 1964 and went on to compose many of the Spiders’ hits. In his seventies now, “Monsieur” Kamayatsu remains an active force on the Japanese music scene today. One of my biggest thrills as a music fan came in 2006, when I ended up sitting a couple of rows away from him in the balcony for a show by the reunited Sadistic Mika Band. It took enormous will power to stop me from cornering him to gush about how much I love his work.
Incidentally, Kamayatsu was (and is) a huge Kinks fan. Listen to the opening riff from the Spiders’ 1966 recording of “Little Roby,” lifted more or less directly from the Kinks’ “Set Me Free.”