Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Rodrigo y Gabriela vs. Southern All Stars

Posted in J-Pop,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the April 20th, 2012

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.”

The Politics of Group Sounds Revisited

Posted in J-Pop,Music by bourdaghs on the April 11th, 2012

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 y??ka 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 ky?j??” (the title revolves around a pun: ?????????? vs. ??????????????, ‘My pain’ vs. ‘My Article 9’):

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Good on you, “Julie.” GS, I love you.

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A Few Days in New York City

Posted in Art,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the April 7th, 2012

I flew into New York City on Wednesday afternoon. Right after checking into my hotel, headed over to the Barrymore Theatre on West 47th to catch “Death of a Salesman,” directed by Mike Nichols with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Willy Loman. Hoffman’s portrayal has elicited a wide range of reactions, from gushing celebration (e.g. John Lahr’s review in the New Yorker) to puzzled dissent (e.g. Chris Jones’ review in the Chicago Tribune).

After seeing the production, I understand the uneven reaction. There’s a mannered quality to Hoffman’s acting here: several times in the evening, he falls silent for four or five seconds, and it’s not clear what’s going on behind Loman’s blank face: confusion, doubt, rage? If you can accept the mannerisms, you begin to accept Hoffman’s Loman, even as you never quite identify with him. The supporting cast is generally strong, and the set uses the classic original design by Jo Mielziner. But ultimately I find myself thinking that I don’t much like this script. It’s celebrated as one of the great American plays, and yet I find it forced, humorless, and altogether too pleading in its earnestness. I find my response odd. I’m usually a sucker for Cold War liberal humanism and its middlebrow masterpieces: I could sit and watch Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals all day. But Arthur Miller leaves me cold.

Thursday morning, I headed over to the Japan Society to catch the excellent “Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 19201945” exhibit. The show is, I think, mistitled–perhaps intentionally, to capture the attention of a certain audience who might not come if it were more properly called “Japan’s Modern Moment.” But lots of excellent pieces–in particular sculpture and (a pleasant surprise) covers of popular sheet music books for harmonica players. The show continues until June 10.

Thursday’s lunch brought me to Mariella’s Pizza, just south of Columbus Circle. The guys behind the counter provided a theatrical experience rivaling what I’d seen the previous night on Broadway, and the pizza was pretty good, too. Then I caught a cup of coffee and lively conversation with a friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years who was full of entertaining stories, as usual.

Thursday evening, I gave my lecture at the Donald Keene Center at Columbia University: “Rethinking Natsume Soseki’s Theory of Literature as World Literature.” Nice turn out for the talk, and lots of good questions and comments afterward. That was followed by a very enjoyable dinner with Columbia faculty and grad students. Thanks to all who came out for the event.

Friday morning, I headed to the Asia Society for its remarkable exhibit, “Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857.” I’d just been reading Aamir Mufti’s “Orientalism and the Institution of World Literatures” (.pdf file here) in which he discusses the importance of the Fort William College project in the formation of modern cultural identities, both European and Asian, and now in the exhibit I was seeing the remarkable artistic legacy of the final century of the Mughal empire. The exhibit runs through May 6.

Friday was lunch at Shake Shack on W. 77th, followed by a pleasant walk through Central Park with a couple of old friends (the weather was perfect throughout my trip) and then I was off to LaGuardia Airport and back home to Chicago. I got a little reading done on the flight, but mostly listened to tunes: Charlie Mingus, Aimee Mann (we talked about her Magnolia soundtrack on our stroll through the park), and Kids These Days.

It was, in sum, a lovely three days and only strengthened my long-standing desire to spend a year or two living in the City. Someday.

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