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Thanks to Simone Salmon, I had the opportunity a week or so ago to guest host a radio show on UCSB’s campus radio station, KCSB 91.9. I of course used the opportunity to share Okinawan music with whoever was listening… Probably did more talking than any music host ever. But I wanted to share with listeners (all, you know, ten of them or whatever) something more about the historical context, the meaning of the songs, and so forth…

It was just a one-time gig, but it was a ton of fun! I wish I had thought to try to pursue doing a regular radio show earlier on… But, then, that one night guest hosting also went so much easier because I had Simone manning the mixing boards and everything. Who knew running a radio show involved so many buttons and sliders and meticulous timing!?

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it!

Playlist:
1. “Kagiyade-fuu ~ Intro” by Mongol 800
2. “Asadoya Yunta” 安里屋ユンタ by Daiku Tetsuhiro 大工哲弘
3. “Asadoya Yunta” 安里屋ユンタ by Natsukawa Rimi 夏川りみ
4. “Nada Sou Sou” 涙そうそう by Yanawaraba やなわらばー
5. “Ka Nahona Pili Kai” by Kealiʻi Reichel
6. “Shimanchu nu takara” 島人ぬ宝 by Begin
7. “Shima uta” 島唄 by The Boom
8. “Nubui Kuduchi” 上り口説 by Ukwanshin Kabudan 御冠船歌舞団
9. “Wuduyi Kuwadisa” 踊くはでさ by Shimabukuro Masao 島袋正雄
10. “Tomari Takahashi” 泊高橋 by Noborikawa Seijin 登川誠仁
11. “Uchina Noir: Ghosts of Chibichiri Cave” by Joseph Yoshimasu Kamiya (available on BANDCAMP!)
12. “Hana – Subete no Hito no Kokoro ni Hana wo” 花~すべての人の心に花を by Kina Shokichi & Champloose 喜納昌吉 & チャンプルーズ
13. “Heiwa no Ryûka” 平和の琉歌 by Nenes ネーネーズ
14. “Miruku Yugafu, Undercooled” 弥勒世果報 ~ Undercooled by Sakamoto Ryûichi & Unaigumi 坂本龍一 & うないぐみ
15. “Kanpoo nu kweenukusaa” 艦砲ぬ喰ぇーぬくさー by Deigo Musume でいご娘
16. “Toki wo koe” 時を越え by HY
17. “Miruku Munari” ミルクムナリ by Hidekatsu 日出克
18. “Shichigwachi Eisa” 七月えいさー by Rinken Band りんけんバンド
19. “Iwai Bushi” 祝節 from a YouTube video that seems to have been taken down. So sorry to not be able to give proper attribution!! yikes!
20. “Snow in Okinawa” 沖縄に降る雪 (Okinawa ni furu yuki) by Miyazawa Kazufumi 宮沢和史
21. “OK” by Talvin Singh
22. “Tinsagu nu Hana Dub” by Ryukyu Underground
23. “Uchi-NanChamploo” うちなんちゃんぷるー by HIFANA (ft. Kotobuki)
24. “Ashimiji Bushi” 汗水節 by Okinawa University of the Arts Gamelan Ensemble 沖縄芸術大学ガムラン (see also this post from two years ago)
25. “Country Roads” カントリー・ロード (from the Studio Ghibli movie “Whisper of the Heart” 耳を澄ませば) by DJ Sasa & the Islanders
26. “Kajadifu Bushi” かぎやで風 by Harry Seisho Nakasone
27. “Tôshin Doi” 唐船どーい from this YouTube video uploaded by teamrimi

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PERFUME Live in LA

Photo my own.

Those who know me know that I pretty much never go to concerts – which is to say, standing up in a pulsing, shouting, crowd; loud; lasers and lights and smoke machines sorts of concerts. I /do/ go, fairly often, to sit-down concerts of so-called “world music,” and things in that vein; in the last couple years, I’ve seen Kealiʻi Reichel, Jake Shimabukuro, the Silk Road Ensemble (twice), Kodō, and the Vienna Philharmonic, among others. And, when I’m in Okinawa, I go to “live houses,” aka “shimauta bars” – touristy though they may be, still, it’s live Okinawan music, and it’s really fun. But, on the rare occasions that I’ve been to the other kind of concerts, I’ve generally found them to be just too loud, for one, and just somehow or other just not my thing.

But, I am *so* glad that my friends Yumiko and Carl suggested that we go see Perfume, live in concert, in Los Angeles. They were at the Wiltern Theater, and the show was just an absolute blast. In its aftermath, three days later, I still have the music and the visuals, and just a remnant feeling of the whole experience, still running around inside of me. I’m watching videos and listening to the group’s latest album – Cosmic Explorer – on YouTube, and as soon as I get to Japan in a couple weeks I am going to seek out a real physical copy. Now, for perhaps the first time, I really understand why people go to live shows, why they get so hyped up about them, why they enjoy them so much – and, why they follow bands, and albums, and why they get so hyped up about buying the merch. I made the mistake of not getting to know the album better before I went, and so unfortunately I only got really revved up during the two songs I knew (from earlier albums). In that moment, I understood why everyone else was already so revved up, throughout the show – knowing the songs better than I did, they were feeling that feeling I only felt during those two portions.

Photo my own.

I do wish I had known we were allowed to take photos. I’ve been to so many performances where they were not allowed, and so I just assumed they weren’t. If I’d known, I would have captured so many more moments – especially during the final song – the encore piece – which had just the most beautiful stage set + screens + costume design/aesthetic. But, so it goes. My huge thanks to those who took video and posted it up on YouTube, allowing me to share bits of the concert here.

I knew and loved Perfume already, from some years ago. Their songs “Polyrhythm,” “Baby Cruising Love,” “Chocolate Disco,” “Secret Secret,” “Nee,” and so forth are all just wonderfully energetic and catchy, and fill me with happiness. I also loved the robotic aesthetic to their dance style (and other aspects of their electronic sound, techno-electronic music videos, etc.), and the juxtaposition of that with cute, feminine, aspects of their hair, dresses, high-heel pumps, and so forth. Creative, unique, just wonderful. Not your typical J-pop, and certainly not your typical mainstream American fare.

A video of Perfume’s performance of “Story” at SXSW, 2015. Apparently, videos of last week’s LA concert are already getting taken down. :(

And all of that was well on show in this live concert. The live performance of “Story” (and the music video all the more so) was just pure techno wonderfulness. Perfume’s costume aesthetic, and robot-like dance moves were front and center. Indeed, they entered to a techno-style video, wearing Tron-like light-up outfits, and it just went on from there. I truly do love that aesthetic – it’s what makes Perfume Perfume, and actually just in the last couple days, watching some of their music videos from a few years ago, and comparing them to the concert, I really began to get a sense of how their style has evolved, matured, whatever we want to call it – and, yet, these fundamental attributes, that make them so distinctive, and so compelling, haven’t gone anywhere.

Ugh. The live version of this one has been taken down, too. Glad I saved/DLed it before that happened. Thanks once again to those who uploaded these videos!

But, in addition to that, on top of that, thinking about the concert, and also the more I listen to songs from the new album, what’s also really wonderful is just how varied it is. Perfume is by no means a one-trick pony, or a one-hit wonder. Within the bounds of that aesthetic (and sometimes venturing outside of it), they really do such wonderfully different stuff.Story” is the ultimate in the electronic, digitized, sort of aesthetic – indeed, it’s mostly techno sounds, bordering at times on machine noise, even, with tons of graphics, and a minimum, actually, of vocals or dancing. This, in contrast to “Cling Cling,” “Miracle Worker,” “Next Stage with YOU,” and a number of the other songs, which feature brightly colored dresses, and really focus on the girls, their voicemodded singing, and robot-inspired dancing.

Perfume – Baby Face (English Ver.) – Live in San Francisco

Perfume – Baby Face (English Ver.) – Live in San Francisco

Can’t seem to figure out how to embed this properly. Sorry.

I don’t know if this is weird, but, as much as I do love many of the songs overall, as whole pieces – the chorus, the melody, the overall thing that is each song – for whatever reason, I’ve gotten particular hooked on the brief instrumental sections. In “Baby Face,” this section features the wonderful sound of the clicks of some sort of wooden instrument – what I’ve been told is a synthesized sound of a pentatonic wood box. As much as I love the full and complex sounds of many of the other songs, I also love the simple, small, ton-ta-ton-ta-ton sound of this wooden box, and the cute hand-rolling to each side dance move that Perfume led us in. In “Star Train,” this is the whoa-oh, whoa whoa oh oh oh. And many of the other songs have something like it too – in “Cosmic Explorer,” they even sing it at the end, switching out of the fuller sound of the synthesized sounds, to the softer, “acoustic” sound of the girls singing it themselves.

I can’t even tell you how much fun I had at this concert. The ladies roused up the crowd, inviting us to sing and dance with them, and talking with us. They asked who had handmade Perfume “costumes” or “cosplay,” and seemed really genuinely impressed and enjoying seeing such passion in the fans. The three of them all demonstrated really good English, but they also selected someone from the crowd to even interpret for them, which must have been such a blast for her, even if it was nerve-wracking. (There was a great video of this, but that’s also been taken down.) I also especially liked the super-cute “Jenny ha gokigen naname,” a song from, apparently, way back in 1980, from a band called Juicy Fruits (I think I like the Perfume version much better. O_o) – which, as you can see in the video above, Perfume sings at their live shows as an opportunity for the crowd to get really involved and riled up, shouting the name of each girl as they come up.

Screenshot from a fan video of the concert, as Perfume performed “Star Train” as their final encore. Much thanks to whoever uploaded this, for helping capture this moment, and this incredible stage set. Glad I got the video, and the screenshot, before they were taken down by YouTube.

Finally, the whole experience came to its inevitable end. “Star Train,” which was the perfect piece to end on – a soft, kimochi wo komete (filled with feeling), nostalgic sort of song, which just really sort of touched me, leaving me (perhaps all of us) on a note of release, of relaxing and just enjoying the music, and then saying goodbye at the end of a intense fun time. Putting aside the pattern dancing, the girls sat on the steps of the stage set, or stood with mic-stands, in bright aqua dresses – the only bright color to be seen, providing a sort of shot of highlight, under an array of small lights hung from the ceiling to create the impression of a starry night sky. Video projected onto the back screen provided an English translation of the lyrics in a typewriter-style sort of font that lent, I don’t know what to call it, a certain aesthetic.

I think I understand now why people love concerts so much, and I can’t believe what I’ve been missing out on. Looking forward to seeing what concerts I might be able to attend in Japan this coming year.

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Somehow I didn’t hear about this until just now, and didn’t catch it when I watched Kôhaku myself, but apparently the Southern All-Stars’ performance of their song “Peace and Hi-Lite” at the annual New Year’s Kôhaku Uta Gassen event (broadcast on NHK, and watched by about 35-42% of Japanese households) earned the ire of many right-wingers.

This is the same band which wrote & performs “Heiwa no Ryûka” (“Ryukyuan song of Peace”) about which I’ve blogged over on my tumblr. It’s a pretty boldly political song, asking “who decided that this land is at peace?,” and then going on to speak of Okinawa under the American “umbrella,” of the way Okinawa’s people were abandoned, or forsaken, and how the wounds of the past have still not yet been allowed to heal (or, that Okinawa and its people have not yet been allowed to recover)… I wish they might have sung this at Kôhaku, especially right now as protesters against the military base they are building continue to be harassed and arrested at Henoko. But, I don’t think we can reasonably expect that such a thing would happen at a show like Kôhaku, which is so much about coming together as a country, to remember the previous year and look towards a positive future… such a political song would never play at an equivalently mainstream patriotic event in the US, either, would it?

Of course, the Japanese relationship with political satire (and the resulting relative lack of it in Japan e.g. as compared to the Daily Show, The Onion, and countless other satire venues in the US), goes far beyond that.

In any case, in the Southern All-Stars’ first Kôhaku appearance in 31 years, leader Kuwata Keisuke started by appearing with a stick-on Hitler mustache. Some have said it was more meant to reference a comedian, Cha Kato, and I hope it wasn’t meant as a direct intimation of comparison of Japanese Prime Minister Abe to Hitler, as that really is going too far, or is just misplaced, when it comes to just about anyone alive today. But, still, I think anything that draws attention to the fact that Abe’s policy positions & rhetoric smell of the authoritarianism and damaging ultra-nationalism of the 1930s, are more than deserved. Tell it like it is. Japan is seeing more protests today than our stereotypical imagining of the oh-so compliant (that’s not the word I’m looking for; what is it?) Japanese would ever have it – and for damn good reason. Get people mobilized, get people talking. Abe and his people need to go.

I won’t rehash any further the details of the event and right-wing reactions to it. You can read more about it at Global Voices Online, Japan Times, and the Asahi Shimbun (all in English).

What I will do, though, since no one else is doing it, is provide a translation of the lyrics. First, of “Peace and Hi-Lite,” the song they performed at Kôhaku this year:

I happened to look at the news today
The neighbors are angry
Even now no matter what dialogues we have
The various contentions don’t change

Textbooks run out of time
Before reading modern history
Even though that’s what we want to know most
Why does it turn out like this?

Let’s plant the seedlings of hope
Let’s raise love above ground
Until the flowers of peace bloom in the future … Blue [Melancholy/Depression]
Is it a pipe dream? Is it a fairytale?
To wish for one another’s happiness, etc.

Wouldn’t it be good to come together and help one another
check our history?
Raising a heavy fist
Won’t open hearts

A world ruled by an emperor without any clothes
Waging disputes
By convenient explanations ([claiming] a just cause) is … Insane
We should have learned by experience [being disgusted by] the 20th century, right?
This is just the flaring up of old sputtering embers

There are various considerations, though
Understand one another’s good points!

Let’s plant the seedlings of hope
Let’s raise love above ground
Being born into this beautiful world (hometown)
A sad past and foolish actions too
Why do people forget these things?

Don’t hesitate to love.

And, the lyrics to Heiwa no Ryûka (video above), an even more explicitly, directly, political song, about the Battle of Okinawa, and the continuing US military presence there today:

Who decided
That this land is at peace?
Even as people’s tears have not dried

Under America’s umbrella
We saw a dream
At the end of the war in which the people were forsaken

The blue moon is crying.
There are things which cannot be forgotten.

Let’s plant & grow love, for this island
For the people whose wounds have not healed
In order to it pass down

Who decided
That this land is at peace?
As atonement for one’s filthy self

Why do you refuse
To live like people?
You soldiers gathered next door.

The blue moon is crying.
There is a past which is not yet over.

Let’s plant & grow love, for this island
For the people who don’t forget the song
Until the day when someday the flower blooms

Thanks to J-Lyric.net for the Japanese lyrics. Translations are my own; my apologies for any mistakes or awkwardness in the translation.

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I still have a few posts to post about our “field trip” day, but for now, I think it about time that I skip ahead and post the following, which I wrote on my last evening in Okinawa this summer.

The main worship hall of Azato Hachimangû.

Monday, Sept 20. Okinawa.

Boy, today was incredible. After doing some laundry, packing my bags, and otherwise just coordinating things to get ready to fly out tomorrow, I poked over to Azato Hachimangû, one of the Eight Shrines of Ryukyu, which turns out to be quite close to my hotel. Had things gone a little differently, I might have actually seen three of the Eight Shrines today – and having already seen four on my previous trip to Okinawa, that would leave only the one, Kin Shrine way up in Kunigami. But, even having not seen those other two today, it’s okay.

Azato Hachiman Shrine was quite small, and just sort of tucked away in a residential neighborhood. So, my trip there was quite brief, just a sort of check it off the list sort of thing. By then it was already 10am or so, maybe later, I don’t remember, and I was trying to catch a bus at 12:23, so I knew I didn’t have too much time to do too much else. I had been thinking of going to the Okinawa Prefectural Library, to try to see if I could take a look at some original (primary source) documents, or to at least see what was on the shelves and get a sense of some books I didn’t previously know about, maybe make some photocopies. But even just walking there and back might have taken up the great majority of the time I had, and looking at books or documents could very easily take far more time than I had.

So, I decided instead to head over to Sueyoshi Park, to try to see Sueyoshi Shrine, another of the Eight Shrines. The park is fairly large, and situated right between Gibo and Shiritsubyôinmae stations on the monorail; what I didn’t know is that the park is actually quite mountainous, that there are very few signs or maps once you get into the park, and that the shrine is way over on the far side. Of course, if I had bothered looking closer at my map, or at Google Maps, rather than just heading out, I might have realized this. But, that’s the way it goes sometimes. I got into the park, and just sort of took a path, up, knowing that shrines tend to be located at the top of hills more typically than lower down, and basically just taking my chances. The staircase ended at a dirt path roughly cut through the greenery… I decided to check it out, and soon found a small stone sign, indicating the site of a princely tomb called Ginowan-udun – just a sign, along a forested path, with nothing else of any ruins or structures immediately visible. Cool, I thought. Nothing much to see here; clearly nothing much remaining of the site, but cool to know it was here. But I kept walking, and a stony path emerged, along with an old-looking stone wall. So we’re no longer walking on just pure dirt any more. And then, then, I see a much more serious-looking stone wall, and a set of stone steps leading up through the wall. Oh ho. What is this now? I turn the corner and get a better look, and – whoa. A very large traditional-style Ryukyuan “turtle back” tomb. Wow. I’m not sure the picture does it justice. To stand there, before this immense thing, so relatively intact and so hidden amongst the forest of this public park, just sitting there, hidden… well, it was quite a feeling. And I certainly would never have found this site except just by luck, as I did.

I then poked around a bit longer, in the hopes of finding Sueyoshi Shrine, but eventually had to just give up, as I found myself all the way over at another end of the park, and yet still completely the wrong side, having never come across so much as a sign or pointer towards the shrine.

I made it back to my hotel just in time, pretty much, to catch the bus. I had left a fair bit of time, but after walking the extra three or so blocks to the post office, waiting in line for the ATM, walking back to the general area of the bus stop, asking at a major hotel right in front of the bus stop about just where exactly the bus stop was, how to pay for or get on the bus, and whether or not I need a reservation, and finding them utterly uninformed, I ended up finding the bus stop on my own with literally something like 1 to 3 minutes to spare. Fortunately, the bus came ten minutes late. So, yes, by the way, if you’re ever in Okinawa, and looking to get to certain parts further north, the Yambaru Express Bus is actually a really easy and relatively inexpensive way to get to Kakazu (Ginowan), Nakagusuku (that is, the Nakagusuku bus stop on the side of the highway; I’m not sure about how convenient this is for getting to the castle), Nago, Motobu, Nakijin, and Unten Port (and to the aquarium, I’d imagine). It doesn’t run too often – today, if I had missed my 12:23 bus, the next would have been at 3:something PM; and on the way back, there were buses at 4:20ish, and 6:05, which was the last one for the day. Glad I got a ride back instead of having to deal with that. But, you don’t need any reservation, you just get on, take a ticket that shows where you got on, and then a display screen on the bus shows how much you need to pay for each exit. So, for example, when I got on, the ticket showed a number 4. Then, when I got off at Nakagusuku, the screen said “1: 500 yen, 2: 450 yen, 3: 430 yen, 4: 430 yen” or something like that, and so I paid my 430 yen, or however much it was. So you just drop the right number of coins, along with your ticket, in the collection box on your way off the bus. It’s a nice cushy tour bus style bus, and takes the highway, so it actually goes quite quick – got me to Nakagusuku in 20 minutes. Going all the way to Unten will take the better part of three hours, and as much as 2000 yen (approx. US$20), but, still, it’s good to know that it’s so relatively easily doable – renting a car to get around Okinawa is not as 100% required as I had been led to believe. Now, sure, 3 hours each way doesn’t make for a good day trip, so I don’t know about taking this bus just to go to the aquarium, all the way from Naha, but if you need to get to Unten to take a ferry to Izena or Iheya Island, where you’re going to stay overnight (I’m told you kind of have to, the ferries run that infrequently), it could be worth it. Or, just to get up there to then mosey around that part of the island for some time…

Anyway, returning to my story of today, I had met Garrett Kam, a fellow UH & EWC alumnus, the previous week, and Garrett, a dancer of traditional Javanese and Okinawan forms, had let me know about a kumi udui performance going on in Ginowan, at 2pm on Monday (“today,” the day I’m talking about).

Right: a poster for an April performance of Yukiharai at the National Theatre Okinawa. This was the same performance, by the same troupe/school, which I saw that day in September.

Kumi udui, to put it quite simply, is the chief traditional theatrical form of Ryukyu. It draws influences from Noh and Kabuki, and to someone more familiar with those forms, like myself, it definitely bears resemblances to both, and fits somewhere between the two, featuring bold colored costumes like kabuki, but also very slow, drawn-out chanted speech, and subtle movements, like Noh. It also has some connections with Chinese and Southeast Asian forms. I had seen kumi udui before on YouTube, but never in person, so this was very exciting.

Ginowan City Hall, right next door to the shimin kaikan (Community Center) where the performance was held.

I got to Ginowan about an hour early; less, really, once one takes into account the time it took to hike up into town from the Nakagusuku bus stop, which is right on the side of the highway, near a highway rest stop. Still, I had some time to spare, so I stopped into a local bookstore called Miyawaki Shoten (now that I look up the website, I realize it’s a national chain, not even based in Okinawa), thinking, oh I’ll just see what they might have. Turns out Miyawaki’s “local books” (read: Okinawan history, culture, etc.) section is quite good, including full runs of several series I’ve only seen bits and pieces of before (e.g. a series of short, popular history 1000 yen books on each of the kings of Ryukyu), as well as other books I’d never come across before at all. Resisting the urge to buy more than I could fit in my luggage, I ended up with just one thing, a thin volume of the magazine Momoto, focusing on sites in mainland Japan related to the Ryukyuan missions to Edo (how perfect, given my research topic!). Momoto seems a really excellent magazine – each issue is quite short, so without actually reading them I couldn’t actually say just how thorough or actually informative they might be, but on the surface, they do seem to cover a good range of topics, with issues on Shuri, on Naha, and on Reversion (in 1972), though some of the earlier issues focus more on Okinawan lifestyle and the kinds of things that don’t really pertain so much to my interests. But it’s a relatively new magazine, just a few years old, and on the surface (yes, I am judging books by their covers. What of it?), they at the very least have very nice design aesthetic to them, plus I’m just taken, so to speak, with the idea of such an Okinawa-specific magazine.

I had thought about exploring the town a bit more, maybe trying to see something of the outsides of the highly controversial Futenma Air Base, which is right there, occupying the center of the town, and thus was never more than a few blocks away from the places I was today; I was also thinking of trying to make my way to Futenma-gû, or Futenma Shrine, another of the Ryukyu Eight Shrines. But, time was pressing, so I skipped all of that and just made my way to the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan (which they translate as Civic Hall, though it really means something more like “citizens’ meeting hall). Turns out it was not a public or publicly accessible performance, but rather a performance in conjunction with the annual meeting of the pension “friends” group of the Ginowan branch of a Japanese Agricultural Coops organization (JAおきなわ・宜野湾支店 年金友の会), or something like that.

Not really understanding what was going on, I went in and explained I didn’t have a ticket, and asked if I could buy one, and to my surprise, the fellow asked me immediately, “Garrett-san?” “Ah, no. Garrett-san’s friend,” I answered, and before I knew it I had been taken to the actors’ dressing room (!!). I spoke with them very briefly, and got to take some pictures and watch them put on hair and makeup, as they very kindly and generously allowed me to just sit there and watch as I waited for Garrett. I suppose I should have taken greater advantage of this, to stay longer and see more of the process (and get more pictures) – as it is, I only have pictures of some earlier / middle stage of the process, which is still super cool; I can’t imagine I’ll ever see such a thing backstage at Kabuki-za, for example. But I don’t have pictures of any later stages, or indeed of the costumes at all, since I presumed there were no photos allowed during the performance. Sadly, since it was this weird special private event, there are also no posters, flyers, or websites about the performance to keep to help remember it, nor to share with you.

So, I went outside to wait for Garrett, and he eventually came, and he was then invited backstage again, to say hello to the Sensei, who he had met some years before. I managed to tag along.

The show itself was interesting, and quite enjoyable, though considerably lower energy than Kabuki can be – in this respect, it’s not so much “entertaining” in a direct way, but rather something you appreciate, or try to appreciate, as a cultural expression, as a practice/performance of a traditional form. The story, a new interpretation of a relatively traditional story, was at its core about a young woman whose mother has passed away and whose father has gone off on official business. Her evil stepmother, very much in Cinderella-like fashion, forces the girl to do difficult household chores, in the snow, without an outer kimono (i.e. it’s quite cold). Why there’s cold and snow in a Ryukyuan play, beats me. But, she eventually collapses due to cold and exhaustion, sees the ghost of her mother, and is then found, collapsed, by her brother, and then by her father. I may be missing a few bits, but basically, in the end, the father gets upset with the stepmother, and makes to kill her, but is stopped by the children, and they all make up (somehow) and become a happier family, the end. The chanting and movements were quite slow, highly stylized, and minimalist, like in Noh, but of course quite different in style, coming out of distinctly Okinawan traditions, and being chanted in Okinawan language (Uchinaaguchi). The costumes, though, unlike in Noh, were brightly colored, and quite beautiful. The young woman wore a white bingata robe, covered in multi-colored patterns, and under it, a red underrobe, while other characters wore similarly bold costumes. The musical ensemble – sanshin, kutu, drum, and I think maybe a few other instruments, played classical (koten) Okinawan music as I am familiar with, though no specific pieces with which I am familiar. … I’m not sure what else to say about the piece exactly. I am quite glad to have gotten to see it, and certainly look forward to seeing more kumi udui in the future. At first go, it’s certainly not as captivating as Kabuki can be, but then, it was only on my Xth time seeing Noh that I first had a real sort of “experience” with it, having/gaining a certain insight, a certain appreciation, that I hadn’t appreciated before. So, maybe after seeing kumi udui a few more times…

A video of Garrett’s “Okijawa Hi Sigh” dance piece, combining Javanese and Okinawan elements. Thanks for filming & sharing this video to YouTube user angeline158.

Garrett’s friends Chiyo and Yuko-san then gave me a ride, driving us all to Okinawa University of the Arts (Okinawa Geidai), where Garrett shared one of his fusion Javanese-Okinawan (“Okijawa”) dances with the gamelan circle. I was quite thrilled to get to come along, having passed by but never actually been inside Okinawa Geidai campus, and more to the point, having heard – years ago – of the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group, which takes advantage of the musical similarities between Javanese and Okinawan musical forms, scales, and such, to play Okinawan music on the Javanese instruments. I don’t really know why, or how to express it, but ever since hearing about this, I just wanted to visit and meet this group, and perhaps even play with them, so badly. And today I got my chance. And not only that, but somehow I’d had an impression that this was a very serious group – this is Japan after all, and an arts university – and that any interactions with them I might ever have might be highly formal, and sort of exclusive – like trying to talk to them after a performance and them being, understandably really, too important and too busy to care what some random white guy grad student wants to say. Maybe I’m dragging this out too long, making too much of it. But, in any case, in the end, today at least, with the gamelan circle (a student club, not a formal class), it was just about as laid-back, friendly, and welcoming as could be. After Garrett shared his dance, we practiced trying to play that song a few times, and I actually got into it, despite having not played gamelan for several years; I’m no good at it, of course, but so long as you’re just repeating over and over, it’s not so hard to get into the pattern, and that’s where it becomes wonderfully meditative and kind of relaxing, as you just play 3, 2, 3, rest, 7, 5, 7, rest, 7, 3, 2, 3, …. going through X sets of four notes each, at a regular pace, and then repeating the whole X sets, around and around, as it gets a bit faster, and a bit slower, again and again, until finally coming to an end.

The Okinawa University of the Arts gamelan group performing a Tanabata concert, July 2014. The piece I’ve cued up here is a version of the classic Okinawan folk song Asadoya Yunta, performed as you can see on a combination of Okinawan sanshin and Javanese gamelan.

These are the kinds of adventures/experiences I dream(ed) of when I think about continuing my involvement in academia. To get to meet and speak with someone like Garrett Kam, who’s doing such exciting fusion work, and who is so knowledgeable and thoughtful about multiple cultures and about their co-mingling; to get to go backstage at a kumi udui performance at the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan of all places; to get to hang out and even practice with the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group… as I’m not as directly, explicitly, involved in the arts as some people are, who knows if these kinds of experiences or opportunities will come as frequently or as easily as they might otherwise, but here’s hoping that they do continue to come. In particular, if the Okigeidai gamelan group is indeed as laidback and welcoming as they were today, here’s hoping that if/when I find myself in Okinawa for a more serious length of time sometime, that I might be able to join them more regularly, practicing together, and just building networks and friendships, and some sense of actual belonging & involvement at such a place as Okinawa Geidai… what a thing that would be.

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From the vibrant, colorful, and growing world of K-pop, back to Mali.

Not content to destroy ancient sacred sites and precious artifacts of Islam’s great intellectual past, the Islamist extremist rebels in Mali also banned music. Not just some music – not just music with certain political or moral messages – but all music.

As the New York Times reports today, in a short Op-Ed piece:

It has been almost nine months since Islamic militants in northern Mali announced that they were effectively banning all music. It’s hard to imagine, in a country that produced such internationally renowned music as Ali Farka Touré’s blues, Rokia Traoré’s soulful vocals and the Afro-pop traditions of Salif Keita.

The article goes on to explain the importance of music in Mali as a source of information, in largely illiterate communities, as a storehouse of oral traditions & histories, and as a key part of social traditions.

I have no words for the disgust, rage, and sadness I feel at learning about this additional dimension of the rebels’ thorough efforts to destroy Culture.

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I felt terribly underdressed in my t-shirt and jeans as Jero took the stage looking so slick in a royal blue matching suit – jacket, slacks, and vest – with matching blue baseball cap, a diamond-shaped pendant on a silver chain around his neck adding that dash of hip-hop flair, and white sneakers as spotless and shiny as if they were perfectly brand new. The balance between formal and hip could not be more perfect. How I wish I had a suit like that. Sometimes, often, what looks great on stage doesn’t really translate to everyday life. But this, somehow, this I think could work. And with enough self-confidence, I think I could pull it off properly.

Boy does Jero have style.

The night began, surprisingly, not with the performance, but with the interview portion of the program, as Jero sat down with John Wheeler, former executive vice president of Japan Society and Japan scholar in his own right. Wheeler played the role of James Lipton, asking Jero about his Japanese grandmother and half-Japanese mother and their influence upon him as a performer, as well as about difficulties he faces as a young, black, American, trying to make it in a musical genre that, some might say, is all about expressing a distinctively Japanese soul. I was pleasantly surprised to hear him say that he has been welcomed with open arms by the enka community.

Not that I truly pictured any of the performers, or fans, as cold or xenophobic types, particularly nationalistic, and arguing that only a Japanese could possibly understand enka. But, I guess the truly surprising and interesting part about this is that Jero says he often feels he is treated as if he were Japanese – because he is 1/4 Japanese, because he speaks Japanese, and perhaps most of all because he sings enka, people treat him as though he grew up in Japan and can be trusted to think the same way as they do. Thus, conversely to what we might expect (and what we foreigners experience on a daily basis), Jero says that he actually runs into the problem of people being shocked or confused when he makes some kind of linguistic or cultural mistake. Because they think of him as Japanese, as operating on the same assumptions and fundamental cultural understandings as someone born and raised in Japan.

Interesting.

I was struck by his skills of being onstage. After the interview, in between songs, he spoke briefly to the audience. That there was a tiny bit of awkwardness to all of this because it was in English was palpable. Jero is, of course, a native speaker of English, and as American, born and raised, as most people in the room, but still, it was clear that this was something he had much more experience doing in Japanese, and in fact that many of us (or myself at least) sort of felt should have been in Japanese – doing it in English, though understandably necessary, broke with the Japanese experience mindset we had entered into with the songs. Just like good theatre can carry you into its world, and make you forget your consciousness of being an audience member in a seat in a theatre, so here too the songs carried us into a world of enka, a setting where we expect Japanese greetings and commentary in between songs.

In any case, that aside (and of course we got used to it after the first moment or two), I thought it interesting how he has learned to do this sort of thing. To know what to say to an audience in between songs, to interact with an audience in this way. Just because you’re a good singer, just because you have a good voice, doesn’t mean you’re a good performer, and just because you’re a good performer doesn’t mean you’re necessarily good at this particular thing, this “hello, how is everyone doing? I’m so glad to be here tonight. Thank you for coming. This next song is really special to me because …” thing. There were moments when I felt like he was a young man still starting out, still learning to do this sort of thing, and not “struggling” per se, not at all, but experimenting, just playing it by ear and hoping it goes well. But, then, there were other times when he really seemed, if not the seasoned veteran, certainly the professional, who has done this numerous times and knows what he’s doing and is perfectly comfortable on stage. Jero had his big break in 2008, and as recent as that seems in my mind, it’s been a whole four years since then. He’s had three or four singles, and at least five cover albums. Plenty of opportunities to practice speaking in public, beyond just being a good singer.

Jero’s debut single, Umiyuki:

I feel bad to share such an old & standard video. I love Umiyuki, but there are so many other songs… The suit he wears in this video is particularly, well, something.

The songs he sang the other night were incredible. Some, songs written for him, debuted by him, such as Umiyuki (one of my personal favorites), and his newest single, Yoake no kaze; others, old enka standards. But while I didn’t really get much out of listening to him do these covers when I listened to them on mp3, or on YouTube, the first time around, now that I have seen him perform them in concert, somehow it was quite different, and I feel a rejuvenated interest in buying his cover albums and listening, whether it’s new songs or old standards. Enka can be a difficult genre to get into, or rather, a difficult one to stay with, once the novelty fades. The first few times you hear enka, the emotionality can be quite powerful, or impressive, touching, or interesting. But soon it all starts to sound the same. I find that for me it comes in waves. I really enjoy enka best when I haven’t heard too much of it in a while. It’s like Coca-Cola that way.

Jero mentioned a new music video in which he transforms into a samurai. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

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We had the pleasure a week or so ago of a concert, and small workshop, with the Tsugaru Jamisen group Abeya, who came here to Hawaii as the last stop on a tour of the Western United States in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the gift of cherry trees from the government of Japan to Washington DC. Here in Hawaii, where the cultures of Okinawa, and of “central” Japan (i.e. the “mainstream” or “core” cultures of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka) are so often the focus, this felt like a particularly special opportunity. The Abeya troupe is based in Tokyo, but the Tsugaru jamisen they play, the instrument, the music, and the style, derives from northern Japan, specifically from an area called Tsugaru near the northern tip of Honshû, in the Tôhoku region. Being that I’m practicing Okinawan sanshin (though I’m still pretty bad at it), and have an interest in nagauta and gidayû shamisen (the styles of shamisen played in kabuki, bunraku, and by geisha), this was a really fun opportunity to learn about, and experience, a shamisen on a different end of the spectrum.

Have you heard of the Tsugaru shamisen? Even if you think you haven’t, you might be familiar with it because of the work of the Yoshida Brothers, who play Tsugaru shamisen, using the instrument, its playing style, and elements of traditional Tsugaru music to create amazingly energetic and powerful new, non-traditional music:

Abeya, I think, sticks to more traditional sounds, though they also compose new pieces and sometimes improvise entirely; they stick to more traditional sounds even in doing this, but still, to my ear, what the Yoshida Brothers are doing isn’t really that far off… at least in some pieces.

Someday maybe I’ll do more research on the Tsugaru shamisen (keep an eye out on the Samurai-Archives Wiki!) – I know I certainly intend to read up a bit on the more standard forms of shamisen, and on the Okinawa sanshin – but for now, here’s just some of the basics I gathered from watching the concert, and from the workshop:

The tsugaru shamisen takes the same basic form as other forms of shamisen – it has three strings, three long, straight tuning knobs at the top, a long neck, a roughly rectangular body, and is played with a large plectrum (J: bachi) that looks not entirely unlike a rice scoop. However, while I’m not sure if the Tsugaru shamisen is larger overall (i.e. longer), it’s definitely much thicker in the neck, and looks heavier and thicker overall, and the catskin used for standard shamisen is replaced with dogskin (is dogskin thicker and more resilient, perhaps?). As you can see, the style of playing is much faster, more energetic and powerful than in many other forms of traditional shamisen/sanshin playing. Yes, it’s true that the playing can get quite fast in Okinawan folk music, or at times in kabuki or bunraku music, but for the most part, I think that overall it tends to be slower and more sedate. Especially when you consider the volume, power, and deepness of pitch with which Tsugaru players shout. Kabuki and bunraku shamisen players shout too (yoo!), as do Okinawan sanshin players (ii ya sa-sa!), but with a very different kind of energy.

I was going to try to insert a pictorial comparison of three kinds of shamisen here. But I think what might be more useful, so you can see how they’re played, and the size relative to the person playing it, and hear what they sound like, would be simply a series of videos of performances. The Tsugaru example I’m showing here is just a silly parody sort of thing, but I think that, visually, it’s excellent for showing how large and thick the Tsugaru shamisen is.


The Internet meme “Bed Intruder” song on Tsugaru shamisen.


A traditional song played on nagauta shamisen (the shamisen used in kabuki, and the one use most commonly by geisha)


A good friend of mine performing a classical (not folk/pop) Okinawan song on Okinawa sanshin, the instrument from which the Japanese shamisen was developed.

Tsugaru players also hit the body of the instrument with their bachi a lot more, and perhaps harder, using the body of the instrument as a percussion instrument to a much greater extent than in other shamisen/sanshin forms; this is done in nagauta & gidayû shamisen as well, though not as much, and is not done at all with Okinawa sanshin, which have a much more delicate snakeskin that wouldn’t hold up to such a beating. Because of the power with which the body, and the strings, are struck, the instrument often has to be re-tuned mid-song, though, admittedly, this happens with other forms of shamisen as well. One final distinction of which I am aware is that Tsugaru shamisen is often played by strumming the strings with the left hand (the hand not holding the plectrum, the hand that normally handles the fingering). “Normally,” on many string instruments, from the Okinawa sanshin to the guitar, the left hand simply handles the fingering, holding down the string in different places to lengthen or shorten it, so that when it is strummed with the pick in the right hand, it makes a higher or lower sound. Yet, here, often, the right hand will simply beat on the strings or the body, making percussion sounds, while the left hand actually strums the strings. It was so unexpected to me that I did not notice it at all until it was explained to us as something distinctive about the Tsugaru style (I asked, and they said this is done in nagauta and other styles as well, though not nearly as much).

The Abeya troupe consists of the leader/sensei Abe Hidesaburô, his sons Abe Kinzaburô and Ginzaburô, a young woman named Nemoto Maya, and two younger performers, Andô Tatsumasa and Gokita Ryû. I was really curious to ask 19-year-old Andô in particular how he got interested in this, and so dedicated to it. He must have been practicing for years already to be as good as he is, meaning he must have started at age 12, or 15, perhaps earlier, or elsewhere in that range. … The answer may very well be something pretty straightforward; all things considered, while many traditions do lament the lack of interest among young people, and the worry of not having people to inherit and continue the tradition, it’s really not at all out of the ordinary that there should be someone, an Andô, who is interested, even if 20 or 50 or 100 other kids are not. So, maybe he’s just that interested, as I am, as this guy or that girl may be as well; maybe he grew up participating in local festivals (matsuri) as many kids do, and maybe it simply grew out of that. [EDIT: Now that I look at his profile on the Abeya website, I see that he was surrounded by folk music from a very young age, due to the influence of his grandmother. He grew up practicing various instruments, songs, and dances, and became National Champion of yasugi-bushi (a song often associated with the dojô sukui dance) even before meeting Abeya, with whom he started performing in 2010. Gokita Ryû has a similar story.]

Above: Abeya, performing “Tsugaru Jongara Bushi,” the most representative, most well-known, mainstay of the Tsugaru repertoire.

One of the things I thought most interesting about the Abeya troupe – other than the main aspect of simply enjoying their music and being interested in the music, and the instruments and all of that – is that they represent a side of the Japanese performing arts world that we don’t normally hear about, or talk about, much. Focusing on the more formally incorporated and organized arts such as Noh and kabuki, where there are a very limited set of schools or lineages, and where status or promotion, recognition of your skill, is handled and designated entirely within the established hierarchies, we miss that there is another type of performing arts that functions quite differently. Many performing arts throughout Japan, including Tsugaru shamisen, Okinawa classical sanshin, Okinawa folk music, Okinawan dance and certain Japanese folk dances (I mention all of these Okinawan examples only because I’m familiar with them and how they function), while they may have schools and lineages of sensei to one extent or another, are on the whole much more disparate than something like Kabuki or Noh. Especially given that most of these traditions are *folk* traditions, and are therefore played by more or less anyone who can find someone to teach them. Tsugaru shamisen is, I gather, played throughout many villages, at various festivals, for private parties…

And so, since basically anyone can learn it, and play it, there has developed a system of competitions. I guess I’m getting into too much complexity here, since in some arts (many of the Okinawan folk arts), there are in fact official “exams” that one has to pass in order to officially be allowed to call oneself shihan (師範, “teacher”), or to earn certain ranks. In Tsugaru shamisen, so far as I understand, winning these competitions is merely a matter of pride (and a sizeable monetary prize), and doesn’t really connect in with rankings or qualifications. One does not have to pass through certain levels in order to be permitted by “the school” to teach, or to be considered to stand at a certain rank or anything like that. There are two competitions each year, I think, one in Tokyo and one in Tsugaru. Kinzaburô, Ginzaburô, and Nemoto Maya have all won the top prize, after which one is not allowed to compete again. Tatsumasa Andô has apparently been named National Champion, not in shamisen (yet), but for his performance of a particular folk dance, the dojô sukui, or “fish-catching” dance.

I’m not really sure what more to say about these competitions, but only that it is a different side of the performing arts world of Japan – a much more “popular”, or folk culture, level as compared to the more stratified, “traditional,” and self-contained forms we normally think of when we think of “traditional performing arts,” e.g. the worlds of the geisha, and of Noh, bunraku, and kabuki.

The informality, or “folk” quality, of the performance was very much in evidence, in a good way. Classical concert music (e.g. on koto, or for that matter on nagauta shamisen) is wonderful, and it has its own beautiful, formal, high-class sort of feel to it. But this was different. Here, we were encouraged to applaud right in the middle of pieces, whenever we were particularly impressed by something, and one particularly enthusiastic audience member even shouted out things like “ganbare, 19-sai!” (go for it! 19-year-old!) during a section where the members of the troupe “competed” in improvisational riffs. There was a fair bit of joking around, as the two brothers Kin and Gin postured at being better than the other one, and in a few other bits, and audience participation was very much encouraged as we moved into the matsuri bayashi section, where the group played festival music and asked us to shout out certain parts (don koi sho! souran souran!).

Though I was disappointed to not get to try my hand at the Tsugaru shamisen itself, as I have gotten to do with instruments at certain other workshops, it was a really great experience, and I look forward to more concerts like this. It’s kind of rare, I think, that we get such kinds of performances (sponsored by Japan Foundation, complete with their own banners and flyers and seemingly the full and complete set dressing, instruments, and costumes) by a group from Japan, rather than by a local group (though I love the local groups, too!), and I look forward to seeing more of these kinds of events back on the mainland, after I leave the islands in a few weeks.

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