New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: japanese music

Discovering Japan Without Graham Parker

The coolest thing about the new Rough Guide to the Best Japanese Music You’ve Never Heard compilation- streaming at Spotify – is that some Okinawan acts are represented. Okinawa is to Japan what Ireland is to the British isles; more rugged but also in a lot of respects more passionate and earthy, in terms of music at least. While this compilation was not assembled by anyone with Japanese heritage, it’s a very entertaining playlist and a decent introduction to the esoteric, surreal side of Japanese music. Most of these tracks are upbeat, many of them infused with sardonic humor. Obviously, Japan also has deep roots in innumerable other styles, notably noiserock and jazz improvisation, neither of which are represented here.

Utsumi Eika, with Munekiyo Hiroshi & Sui-i-test Sound kick off the playlist with Don-Don Bushi, a slinky mashup of traditional pentatonic min-yo folk music and cabaret, played with a jazz rhythm section but also bamboo flute and shamisen. It’s a wonderful night for a Tokyo moondance.

Yan, by Boomdigi Otemo is a tongue-in-cheek hip-hop/mim-yo mashup. Aragehonzi work a surreal blend of Tunisian rai, min-yo folk and rap in Detarame Kagura. Tsukudanaka Sanpachi follow with Eh! Eh? Eh!? Janaika, ska-punk with a pennywhistle.

Shigeri Kitsu do the same in Tokyo No Your, except with reggae and a steel pan in lieu of the pennywhistle; it’s over too soon.

The trippy, hypnotic, organ-and-tonkori-driven Okinawan psych-folk of Oki Dub Ainu Band‘s Suma Mukar is a real find and a triumph of sleuthing for the playlisters here.

The one-chord jams keep coming with Amamiaynu’s otherworldly, rustic Kyuramun Rimse. Okinawan sanshin player Kanako Horiuchi and Malian kora player Falaye Sakho contribute the vamping, spiky, cross-pollinated Hana Umui/Yaboyae. Rikki’s Kuro Usagi Haneta is an even more surreal, waltzing mashup of min-yo and twangy Americana.

Emiko and Kirisute Gomen reinvent a 60s Japanese tv theme as the cheery if skittish surf-rock hit Shoten. Chanteuse Lucy – of Lazygunsbrisky – is represented by the expansive, determined shuffle Hiyamikachibushi, with its a lively web of stringed instruments and a wickedly catchy new wave hook: if radio played this stuff, it would be the single.

Okinawan acoustic surf-punk legends the Surf Champlers’ previously unreleased version of Misirlou is as surreal and adrenalizing as you would expect, complete with haphazard shansin tremolo-picking. With its stately sway and guy/girl vocals, Tetsuhiro Daiku’s Kuroshima Kuduchi is both the most rustic and hypnotic number here.

Hantabaru, by Aragaki Mutsumi Naakunii is the album’s starkest recording, although the insistence of the vocals and shansin has plenty of drama…and stormy samples from the seaside.

Shamisen player Etsuko Takezawa contributes an elegantly spacious, rainy-day solo diptych, Ano Hi e no Michinori. The playlist winds up with avant garde act Cockroach Eater’s trippy, circling vocal/flute/vibraphone theme Saboten no Wakusei.

And here is where the Rough Guide playlisters may be thinking further ahead than many of us realize. Sure, digital music as a saleable item tanked years ago. But if you think that Spotify is going to last forever, whether as a free or on-demand service, you’re living in a dream world.

Japanese culture, happily, seems to be in a stronger position to survive than many others, at least in the short term, as the needle of death takes its toll. So far, Japan has largely resisted it. But word to the wise: if there’s a recording that means a lot to you, from any style of music on the planet, it’s worth owning in some kind of hard-copy form. Get it while supplies last.

Haunting, Intense, Politically Potent Pan-Asian Inspired New Sounds From Jen Shyu

Jen Shyu’s music is hypnotic, frequently nocturnal, incantatory and informed by ancient myths and traditions spanning across Asia. Inspired by those traditions, Shyu hardly limits herself to the kind of separation between artistic disciplines which so often dominates those practices in the west. Much of the music on her haunting, otherworldly new album Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses – streaming at Bandcamp – is a soundtrack for even more ambitious multimedia projects.

Throughout her work, Shyu has always focused on commonalities, drawing on artistic and cultural influences from Taiwan, East Timor, Indonesia, Japan and beyond. This album shares that universality yet is also her most personal one. It’s rooted in the here and now, a response to bereavement and tragedy, addressing the sudden loss of Shyu’s beloved father as well as the murder of Breonna Taylor and the lockdown. Here Shyu sings, narrates and plays Japanese biwa, Taiwanese moon lute and piano, joined by her Jade Tongue ensemble with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.

In the opening suite, Living’s a Gift, Shyu becomes a one-woman choir delivering a pastiche of lyrics written by choir students at MS51 in Brooklyn’s South Park Slope during the grim early days of the lockdown. The band waft and dance gently behind her as she mashes up classic soul balladry, punchy indie classical, acerbic theatricality and a little hip-hop. If there’s any music that’s been released since March 16 of last year that gives voice to the relentless psychological torture that children in New York have suffered at the hands of the lockdowners, this is it: “Hope for the best, expect the worst,” as one of the kids blithely puts it in the first segment. No wonder suicide among young people is up sixty percent over the past year.

Akinmusire plays a solemn farewell over Maneri and Morgan’s stark, microtonal washes, Shyu’s piano driving a seething undercurrent in Lament for Breonna Taylor: the lyrics are from Taylor’s mom Tamika Palmer’s remiscence about her daughter’s plans to become a nurse before she was gunned down in a home invasion by Louisville police.

The Human Color, an understately lustrous piano ballad originally released in 2009, reflects on the enslavement of Chinese alongside Africans under the conquistadors in 19th century Cuba. A Cure for the Heart’s Longing, a more intertwining ballad spiced with spiky moon lute, is a setting of Javanese poetry by legendary wayang artist Sri Joko Raharjo. Shyu reprises a similar mood later, with more of a nocturnal sweep, in Finally She Emerges.

Shyu’s voice reaches an imploring, chilling intensity in Body of Tears, an anguished account of the moment she was informed she’d lost her dad, rising from troubled grace to anguished insistence. The stark, shamanistic When I Have Power is arguably the most powerful track on the album, Shyu singing from her high school diary. At 15, while selling candy on the bus on the way home from school, she was confronted by a kid who harrassed her and used a racist slur. “When I’m famous, I’m going to set things straight,” she resolved.

Display Under the Moon, a traditional Japanese biwa song, has fiercely plucked, operatic drama, a soldier in the moonlight dreading the next day’s battle. Plus ça change

The album’s final three tracks are dedicated to Shyu’s dad. Father Slipped into the Eternal Dream, based on a parable by Zhuangzi, is a kinetically soaring exploration of how to carry on in the face of bereavement and despondency. The lyrics reaffirm that our capacity to feel such emotional intensity is what makes us human.

With Eyes Closed You See All, a towering, bustling piano-fueled tone poem of sorts, channels hope and feminist determination to shift the paradigm toward equality. Shyu closes the album with Live What You Envision, a carpe-diem theme that picks up from elegantly plucked multitracks to a fierce coda.

For a listener who doesn’t speak any of Shyu’s many Asian languages, it’s a treat to be able to understand the lyrics without a cheat sheet, and to hear her assert herself as a great song stylist in the Betty Carter tradition. The only thing better than listening to this often harrowing record would be to witness what she would do with it onstage if she could. Hmmm…Shyu’s a native Texan, and Texas is one of the free states…

It’s a Great Summer for Middle Eastern Music in New York

While much of the New York City parks system is on the highway to privatized hell – both Central Park Summerstage and the Prospect Park Bandshell series are selling ticketed seats to free concerts now – we haven’t yet reached the point where free summer concerts here have been whitewashed and yuppified to the point of irrelevance. Meanwhile, serendipitously, there have been some new publicly accessible concert series popping up, keeping the hallowed tradition of free summer concerts here alive.

One public space that’s been flying more or less under the radar until recently is Bryant Park. It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the transcendent performance by slinky Middle Eastern ensemble the Bil Afrah Project, who opened the final night of this year’s Accordions Around the World festival there. Obviously, it would have been fun to stick around for the whole night, which ended with a wall-to-wall sea of revelers celebrating Colombian Independence Day.

The park’s overseers had the good sense to put the festival in the hands of tireless, intrepid impresario Ariana Hellerman (publisher of the irreplaceable Ariana’s List of free summer events). Over the course of the month, she drew from her roster of two hundred of New York’s finest accordionists (yes, there are that many) for a series of performances that reinforced the instrument’s portability across cultures, a powerful if compact vehicle for musical cross-pollination. 

In barely a half hour onstage, the Bil Afrah Project – who dedicate themselves to recreating Ziad Rahbani’s iconic 1975 Bil Afrah suite of reinvented Lebanese and Egyptian love and love-gone-wrong ballads- raised the bar for the rest of the evening dauntingly high. Rahbani has since gone on to be called the Lebanese Bob Dylan, although many others, none of whom sound anything like the American Nobel Laureate, have been given that label. Rahbani – son of famous chanteuse Fairouz and songwriter Assi Rahbani – was nineteen when he pulled a band together to record it. The suite doesn’t have much of the acerbically fearless political sensibility that characterizes his later work: its populist message is much subtler, grounded in its achingly wistful, sometimes melancholic, sometimes bucolic themes.

Group members, notably oudist Brian Prunka, accordionist Simon Moushabeck, ney flutist Bridget Robbins and violinist Sami Abu Shumays took turns playing plaintive taqsims as segues between songs. The most incisive, intense of these was from buzuq player Josh Farrar, who remained very prominent in the mix. John Murchison, a connoisseur of Middle Eastern bass, made his debut concert on kanun a memorable one as well. And riq tambourinist Michel Merhej Baklouk, who played on the original album, was present and added an almost defiantly crescendoing solo toward the end of the suite as the edgy chromatics, uneasy microtonal modes and graceful sweep of the music rose and fell over the pulse of Sprocket Royer’s bass and Jeremy Smith’s darbouka. Then emcee Rachelle Garniez took the stage and treated the crowd to some similarly incisive banter and her own noir-tinged material.

The performances on the festival’s next-to-last night fit in perfectly with its eclectic sensibility as well. Over the course of the early part of the evening, Erica Mancini played jaunty oldtimey swing, then made noir mambo out of the old standard St. Louis Blues. Shoko Nagai began with airy, austere Japanese folk themes and then went deep into the dark, kinetic chromatics of the klezmer music she loves so much.

Will Holshouser, best known for his exhilarating speed and high-voltage solos, flipped the script with his own thoughtful, methodically shifting originals, occasionally alluding to Indian modes: as a pioneer of the pastoral jazz revival, he deserves far more credit than he’s been given. And a beautiful blue-eyed blonde in the crowd called out Eduardo de Carvalho for the masculinity of his playing. That’s not to say that the other performances weren’t strong, but there was plenty of muscle in his confident, impassioned, unselfconsciously soulful, rustic runs through a mini-set of forro and tango.

Circling back to the Middle Eastern theme, there are a couple of upcoming shows that shouldn’t be missed. On July 29 at 8 at the Lynch Theatre at 524 W 59th St., haunting Lebanese oud-playing brothers the Trio Joubran  perform a homage to their late collaborator, the incendiary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 tix are still available. And on August 10 at 10 PM, legendary, ageless Armenian-American jazz reedman Souren Baronian leads his amazing band at Barbes.

Charan-Po-Rantan’s Accordion Intensity Stuns the Crowd at Joe’s Pub

Monday night at Joe’s Pub, any perception that Japanese sister duo Charan-Po-Rantan were merely cute, adorable, kooky real-life anime characters vanished the second that accordionist Koharu cut loose a vast, deep river of minor-key melody. Dressed in almost-but-not-quite-matching pastel cartoon pastiche outfits and matching headpieces, she and her singer sister Momo delivered a dynamic and often ferocious set of mostly original Romany and klezmer songs…in Japanese. But their charisma and tunesmithing transcended any linguistic limitation. It’s a fair guess that less than half the crowd spoke that language, or Romanes for that matter.

Momo spent the entirety of the show with a pretty hefty stuffed pig under her arm. Was it actually attached to her outfit? As it turned out, no, but that didn’t become clear until more than halfway through the two’s tantalizingly brief hour onstage. The show started beguilingly but slowly, the sisters seemingly taking their time on getting a handle on how to approach this refreshingly multicultural, demographically diverse downtown New York audience. Quickly, the energy went to redline when they brought up Alicia Svigals for an absolutely feral rip through a familiar Romany folk dance number (it wasn’t Djelem Djelem, but if you’re a fan of Balkan music, you’ve definitely heard it). Svigals, a founding member of the Klezmatics, possessed with chops as spine-tingling as they are elegant, seized the opportunity to revel in volley after volley of microtones and scrapes and glissandos. She would return late in the set for a Charan-Po-Rantan original that was only slightly less intense.

The two built momentum as the show went on, then dipped to what ironically might have been its high point, a gorgeously bittersweet, waltzing lament. Momo briefly left the stage to Koharu, who took her time building a darkly bouncy loopmusic instrumental, eventually capping it off with wistful vocalese over a playfullly offcenter beat. Although the duo’s originals were the most ornate and rawly exhilarating of the material in the set, they also played a handful of covers. A popular video game theme and variations drew chuckles from the crowd, as did a cover of the old 50s hit Sukiyaki. The only miss was a cheesy Neil Diamond song that’s been done before as J-pop – and only about half the crowd seemed to recognize it.

At the end of the set, Momo finally left the stage with what seemed to be a fifty-foot mic cable and went into the crowd, teasing the guys, standing on chairs and holding the audience rapt with her powerful, melismatic delivery. Where Koharu gave everybody chills with her rapidfire rivulets and stormy cloudbanks, her sister proved every bit as powerful with a similarly expansive range from the very top to the darkest lows in her register. Charan-Po-Rantan are playing a live score to the original Godzilla at the Japan Society tomorrow night, April 28 at 8 but the show is sold out. For fans of awe-inspiring accordion music and low-budget monster movies, there’ll be a waitlist at the box office at 333 E 47th St. starting an hour before the show.

A Rare NYC Show and Some New Tunes From the Brilliantly Surreal Balkan/Japanese Dolomites

True to his Romany-Japanese heritage, accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Stevhen Koji Iancu’s band the Dolomites play a surreal, distinctive mashup of Balkan and Japanese folk sounds. And psychedelic cumbias, and surf music, and creepy instrumentals that sound like video game themes from the 80s. There is no other band in the world remotely like them, due in part to Iancu’s genre-warping vision, and also to the rotating cast of characters in the group – it’s safe to say he’s got a deep address book. That may be due as much to his previous work with Gogol Bordello and Balkan Beat Box as his inimitable, individualistic style. The Dolomites make a rare New York appearance toinght, July 24, headlining a carnivalesque quadruplebill at around 11 PM at Bizarre Bar, 12 Jefferson St. in Bushwick: take the J/M to Myrtle Ave. Vaudevillian New Orleans oldtimey swing band the Slick Skillet Serenaders open the night at 8, followed by rustic folk noir group Outlaw Ritual and then bluegrass fiddle act Kaatskillachia. Cover is $10.

The band’s latest release is an ep, The Japan Years, Vol. 1, comprising material from 2006 through 2009. It’s the first in a series of three short albums due out over the summer, chronicling the band’s output through 2014. This one’s all-acoustic, just accordion, bass, percussion and vocals – and tuba on one of the tracks as well. The first, meaning “don’t give up” in Japanese, sets the stage, a phantastmagoricl, eerily Satie-esque accordion march, Iancu throwing in some throat-singing for extra global bizarreness. The second, titled simply Why, makes a slinky cumbia out of a carnivalesque Romany tune and almost imperceptily accelerates to warp speed. The next number is ostensibly a rumba, a dark, dramatic Cuban theme muted and spun over a wryly pulsing, cumbia-tinged groove. The slyly shufling final track, meaning “splash,’ is closer to cumbia. Fun, catchy, beguiling stuff, and you don’t have to speak Japanese or Romanes to dance to it. Watch this space for the second and third installments in the series, which will no doubt be up at Bandcamp at some point along with the rest of the Dolomites’ eclectic catalog, this one included.

A Pensive, Quietly Dynamic, Relevant Album of Japanese-Tinged Themes from Kojiro Umezaki

Kojiro Umezaki‘s axe is the shakuhachi, the rustic Japanese wood flute, an instantly recognizable instrument that can deliver both ghostly overtones and moody, misty high midrange sonics. Umezaki’s background spans the world of folk music and indie classical – he’s a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble -and is a frequent collaborator with groundbreaking string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Umezaki also has an album, Cycles, out from that group’s violinist Johnny Gandelsman’s maverick label In a Circle Records and streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of originals along with reinvented themes from folk and classical music. As you might imagine, most of it is  quiet, thoughtful and often otherworldly, a good rainy-day listen.

The opening track, (Cycles) America reimagines a theme from Dvorak’s New World Symphony as a solo percussion piece for Joseph Gramley, who opens it on drums with hints of majestic grandeur, then provides loopily resonant vibraphone. The album’s thoughtfully spacious second track, 108 is where Umezaki makes his entrance, joined after a terse, slowly crescendoing intro by Dong-Wan Kim on janggo drum and Faraz Minooei on santoor. It builds to a swaying and then rather jauntily dancing groove with hints of South Indian classical music as Umezaki chooses his spots.

The traditional Japanese lullaby that follows is as gentle – and ghostly – as you might expect from a melody that could be a thousand years old, a graceful solo performance. Umezaki then delivers a circular, uneasily looping piece modeled after a famous 1923 post-earthquake work by Japanese composer Nakao Tozan, bringing it into the present day as a tense, distantly angst-ridden contemplation of a post-3/11 world.

On For Zero, Gramley plays lingering vibraphone  interspersed with the occasional emphatic cymbal crash or fuzzy wash of low-register synth. The album’s final track is a new version of a collaboration with Brooklyn Rider that originally appeared on the quartet’s 2010 album Dominant Curve, alternating between raptly inmersive atmospherics and edgy interplay between the quartet and the wood flute, a shakuhachi concerto of sorts.