Old and New: Tsugaru-jamisen Rock

I will never forget walking down the streets of Turin, Italy, with my husband, in search of classical Japanese koto and shakuhachi music. One Italian music seller, eager to help us, got so excited she offered to track down an actual shakuhachi instrument. We explained we only wanted recordings of the instruments, so we could experience the sound. Importing an actual shakuhachi to Italy was a bit beyond our budget.

Although traditional Japanese recordings were tough to find in Italy, every corner newsstand carried Japanese manga, in translation. Italy was an interesting place to become Japanophiles. But you know a better place to indulge our love of all things Japanese? Tokyo. We were so thrilled to have the chance to visit there this May.

We’ve had some of the most moving entertainment moments of our lives with Japanese pop culture: manga and anime, video games and video game soundtracks.

And there’s something about traditional Japanese culture that’s so deeply peaceful and beautiful. Celebrating cherry blossoms in the spring, our experience at Mt. Takao, where we hiked amid shrines and temples to a beautiful vista at the summit.

It’s impossible to spend any time, either in Japan or with Japanese media, without noticing the striking juxtaposition of old and new, traditional and modern, in Japanese culture.

The Wagakki Band goes all out to celebrate this juxtaposition of old and new. They play classical Japanese instruments– but don’t expect classical music. This band rocks.

Wait, can the koto really rock? Check out the video to their song, Senbonzakura.

Two of the instruments played in Senbonzakura are the classical Japanese instruments whose music we longed to experience back in Italy. The shakuhachi is the instrument with the beautiful, breathy sound, that looks roughly like a recorder. The koto is the horizontal, harp-like instrument that comes in several sizes. There are also special Japanese drums, wadaiko, which you may have heard referred to more commonly as taiko drums.

The instrument I didn’t know is the tsugaru-jamisen. It looks like a squared off guitar with small body, long neck, and wide tuning pegs. It’s known for its percussive playing style. I’ve known the sound for years, as played by the Yoshida Brothers. But finally seeing the tsugaru-jamisen jamming to the beat brings a huge smile to my face.

The blend of modern bass, guitar, and drum set with these traditional instruments makes a compelling sound. The video to Senbonzakura shows that this musical blend is no accident. From the instruments to the composition, from the dancing to the outfits worn by the musicians, it’s clear that The Wagakki Band is having a blast playing with the juxtaposition of old and new.

Band photo:

Author Daiima

This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

New Heart, Only a Heartbeat Away

During my teen years, when kids form deep attachments to their favorite bands, I was forming deep attachments to classical orchestral music. I bought every album I could find by my favorite trombone soloist. I told high school friends that, if I had to get married someday, it would be to trombonist, Christian Lindberg!

It wasn’t until I met the man I would actually marry, that I began to explore the world of music beyond the trombone. A critical step in my non-classical education was a trip to the music store. I trailed my future husband around the store, at a total loss what to pick. The selection of my first ever pop album came down to a choice between his suggestion of two artists: David Bowie, or Sheryl Crow.

I didn’t know much about either artist. My handsome guide was a Bowie fan, but I had seen the video to Sheryl Crow’s Everyday is a Winding Road, and really liked it. My hand reached out for the Sheryl Crow album, and the rest is history. Sheryl Crow went on to become the soundtrack to my grown-up life. If I look through my iTunes library, her albums C’mon C’mon and Wildflower have more tracks hearted on them than not.

This weekend, for the first time ever, I got to hear Sheryl Crow perform live, on the tour for her brand new album, Be Myself. She walked on stage playing that very first song I’d heard and liked, Everyday is a Winding Road.

The great thing about an album is that you can listen to it anytime: as a celebration, while you dry your tears, or just dancing around the house dusting. But live performance brings a whole new dimension to the music you love. I learned that the track Long Way Back was the later-in-life companion to Everyday is a Winding Road. Knowing that, I heard the music and lyrics in a whole new way. Every musician on stage was such a fantastic live performer. An awesome onstage dual guitar jam at the concert gave me a new favorite song: Heartbeat Away.

When I got home I couldn’t wait to heart the track in iTunes. I couldn’t ask for anything more from a live concert than to come home with a new favorite song, and a more personal and visceral connection music I already loved.


Am I a fan of One Direction?

One warm night in April, my husband called me out of the bathroom. I came, dripping toothpaste, to see what all the fuss was.
The fuss was Harry Styles performing on Saturday Night Live. Styles and his band gave a fantastic life performance. Thanks to streaming video, we were were watching SNL neither on Saturday nor live, and we enjoyed the live renditions of Sign of the Times and Ever Since New York over and over.

In the weeks before the album release, we went a little Harry Styles crazy. We read his interview in Rolling Stone. We listened to an interview by the guy who interviewed Harry Styles.
Styles makes a good story. Famous pop idol from British boy band (One Direction) strikes out on his own, and has more to say when he writes and performs than anyone expected. The 23 year old’s songs show a love of the music that came before him, and strike deep emotions across a wide spectrum audience. This May finally having the whole album to experience was such a joy.
But the story doesn’t stop there.
Fast forward about two weeks after the Styles album release. I’m playing music around the house non-stop for hours and hours on end, trying to cover noise from a construction project. The music was meant, more than anything, to soothe our unnerved kitty cat and relieve his stress from the noise. I gave over curation of the household soundtrack to Google Music and my cat.
The Google Music station that calmed him the most was Reflections of a Singer-Songwriter, featuring Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon. Nothing wrong with our cat’s taste in music, but as the same songs started to repeat, I lost interest in the tracks.
Except for one. There was one song which, the more I heard it, the more I fell in love. It was a simple, heartfelt ballad. There’s nothing I can point to that makes it special, other than its sincerity and sweetness.

By the end of the day I was obsessed. I had to figure out what song this was, who wrote it, and how I could find more of their music.
The song was This Town by Niall Horan. To my great disappointment, he’d only written two songs. We went into research mode, who is this guy, Niall Horan? Why does he have so few songs?
Turns out Niall Horan is just getting started with his solo career. But he’s hardly new to the music scene. Niall Horan was a member of One Direction.
One Direction, the same boy band that launched Harry Styles.
I was surprised and delighted to learn the connection. To be honest, I’ve never listened to One Direction. I’m outside their target demographic. To encounter two new solo singer/songwriters, who speak straight to my heart, each in their unique idiom, then to find they came from the same band, makes me more than curious to dig into One Direction. I don’t know whether or not I’ll connect to their music. At the very least, I can make note of each and every one of their members, and start watching for them to appear on the solo scene!

Photo credit:

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


English: One Direction performing in Glasgow

Source https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcen27/21406455113
Author https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcen27

Days of Future Passed

Not only is 2017 the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it’s the 50th anniversary of Days of Future Passed by the Moody Blues. The Moody Blues is on tour to celebrate the anniversary, and I was so excited when my husband got us great last minute seats to see them perform!

Coming from a classical music background, I hear Days of Future Passed as a luscious orchestral tone poem. I wasn’t sure what kind of experience I’d have with the band playing live to a recorded orchestra.

The combination of hearing the band play live, and watching the graphics they chose to display on the big screen behind them, gave me a whole new understanding of several songs on the album. When “Evening” played, I saw images of commuters on a busy street. As the commuters navigated the crowds, the two percussionists on stage drummed out a military march. I suddenly had a whole new perspective on the track, I could hear all the good people of the world marching from the daily grind at the office toward home. Next, “Twilight Time (Evening)” struck me as far more psychedelic than it ever had before. I also loved that the band included a live flute player, who drew together the themes from the different parts of the day. And I experienced how fully the vocal drives the beauty and longing of “Nights in White Satin.”

2017 has been the year I really delve into learning more about 60’s pop and rock, and the more I learn about music of that time, the more I love it. Turns out I couldn’t have picked a better year to be enthused about the great albums from this era!

The Phantom of the Opera Made into a Movie!?

Lately as I’ve been falling asleep, melodies learned by heart in childhood have been playing in my head. As a girl I was totally and completely obsessed with the musical, The Phantom of the Opera. I listened to the original cast recording over and over and over again. I read the book by Gaston Laroux. My family drove more than four hours so I could see the musical performed live. Looking back, it’s not such a mystery why the story gripped my imagination. I was a young musician with great potential, overflowing with passion for my art, and I had no idea how to navigate a career in the professional music world. If only I’d known that I, like the Phantom‘s protagonist, Christine, would never find true happiness in that world.

My well-worn Phantom of the Opera cassettes are long since lost, but I checked in with streaming music services to see if I could find the album. To my surprise, in addition to the original cast recording, I came across a film soundtrack. Someone actually made a movie out of the musical! Since I (still) know the original cast recording by heart, I  was eager to compare film soundtrack with my beloved, original cast recording.

The film version rocked up the score a little, but not too much. Andrew Lloyd Webber excelled at telling his story with music, and not much needed to be changed. I’d had so much trouble imagining the role of Christine without original cast member, Sarah Brightman, for whom the role was originally written. In the film soundtrack, Young Emmy Rossum’s Christine was less virtuosic than Brightman’s, but I actually preferred it. Rossum imbued her singing with so many different colors and emotions. She could be shy and girlish, flirty, terrified, womanly– and that’s from listening to the soundtrack, never having seen the film– she expressed everything in song. Likewise, this Raoul expressed a lot of personality using a more subdued, character-driven singing style. I was less convinced by the Phantom in the film soundtrack. My Phantom will always be Michael Crawford. His over the top theatricality embodies the the character, the obsessive recluse, lost in the melodrama of his own misery, living in the margins of the world of the stage.

Having heard the soundtrack, I would absolutely watch the movie. I have a feeling finding it online will be a whole lot easier than the four hour drive made to see the musical on stage all those years ago!