Archive for July 2007

A jaunt through Japanese music

July 16, 2007

I’ve taken to using YouTube as my radio. The sound is usually FM quality, and thanks to broadband, most streaming videos load in a jiffy. What draws me the most, however, is the variety: a server that has at least an hour’s footage of the musicians at Disney World deserves a gold star at the very least. What most excites me, though, is the foreign music. The Internet’s become quite popular all over the world, so one find classics not only from America and England but also from Brazil and Germany and Uruguay. So, over the last month I’ve gained a passing familiarity with Japanese music, and I thought I’d share some of my favorites with you all. Anyone who claims it’s superior to Western music is a fanboy, but there are still some great tunes.

Disclaimer: the most advanced music theory class I’ve taken is Intermediate Theory, and I don’t know any Japanese, so I apologize if I come off as a n00b here.

One thing I’ve noticed about Japanese pop is that it doesn’t have as much local color as its Latino equivalent: indeed, it sounds just like American music much of the time. I suspect this is because ancient Japanese music is completely different from our own concept of music. Melodies sometimes aren’t clear, or else they go in circle. Here in the West, we classify this kind of thing as “meditation music,” and I can see that.

The music I’ve heard from these times is of individuals, not groups, and features certain instruments in particular.

Koto: the most famous Japanese instrument, and I imagine its sound is what many people associate with the East. It’s a five-foot long, 13-stringed instrument, and each string has a bridge which can be moved to change the pitch – like a more complete guitar capo. It sits on the floor, and the player picks the strings from his knees. This is Kazue Sawai playing “Midare.”
Shakuhachi (like a pan flute): This clip gave me the strongest impression of the amelodic style. Don’t feel obliged to listen to the whole thing as it’s 9 minutes long.
Taiko (“great drum”)
Shamisen (like a banjo): The Yoshida Brothers, “Kodo”
I had to throw this in. It’s called Shamisen vs. Tap, “tap” as in tap dancing. It has a great beat, and it’s one of the most interesting “fusion” videos I’ve seen.

Most of the other Japanese music on the server is from the pop era. It roughly sounds like ours with the jazz and hip hop influences were tuned way down. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the I-V chord progression, the bread and butter of Western music, is less prevalent; I’ve played I-IV most often. Lyrically speaking, most songs are about love. About half of them catalogue nature imagery, like all good haiku do, and it’s stylish to slip English phrases into songs. From a culture standpoint, neon hair and was big for a while, and their idol machine is as good as ours. In America, one of the best ways to make a song popular is to get it on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and this is even more common in Japan, where pop music makes up the soundtrack for even the animated shows.

My favorite female singer is Rimi Natsukawa of Okinawa. Her voice is so pure that when I first heard it, I wanted to go to confession. She’s most famous for her interpretations of her island’s folk songs. Here are a couple: Shimauta (lyrics) and Satoukibi Batake (lyrics).

My favorite male is Masayoshi Yamazaki, a singer-guitarist. I can’t think of anyone who sounds like him. His One More Time One More Chance is one of the most tender ballads I’ve heard. This is a great duet of his, and here’s an endearing clip of him meeting Paul McCartney.

For bands,

Some other recommendations:
Ring of Ruby by Akira Terao, which sounds it was a karaoke classic. As recently as a week ago there was a great Masayoshi cover of this on the server, but it’s gone for the moment.
March 9th by Remioromen
-The Pillows: Hybrid Rainbow, Ride on Shooting Star. I think this band would have the best chance to break through in America.
Sukiyaki, the first Japanese song to make #1 in the US.
Tank! by Cowboy Bebop, probably the most popular anime song in America.
Asa ga mata kuru by Dreams Come True, despite the video.
-Akon’s remix of Sweet Sweet Sweet by Dreams Come True
It’s Gonna Rain by Bonnie Pink. Come to think of it, all the songs associated with Rurouni Kenshin are solid.
Yume no naka e
Tentai Kansoku by Bump of Chicken. “Sharin no uta,” not on the Tube at the moment, is another great song of theirs.

Finally, I’d like to give a shoutout to this Yankee who records a song in flawless Japanese each week. Nice work.

So, I hope you find something in this entry that you like and that you explore the world’s musical archives even more than I have!


A belated review of “Night at the Museum”

July 15, 2007

One of the classic novel types is the bildungsroman, in which a youth matures into an adult. Usually, he must undertake long journeys or perform great deeds to prove his value to society. Recently, American films have inverted this genre in an interesting way, and “Night of the Museum” is another example. In this story, the hero is a father who either has a low-paying job or can’t hold down a job at all. For this reason, his wife has left him for another man who has less personality but higher social status, and she’s taken the children with her. Thus, the father must undergo hardships and do great deeds to regain the love and respect of his children. Rather than having the child prove himself to the adults, in our story, the adult must prove himself to the children.

Since the Sexual Revolution, broken families have become more common so this storyline has become rather common. Here are a few examples: Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” “Liar Liar,” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Most of these are comedies, which shows that the writers feel more comfortable addressing this sensitive subject in a humorous way. This makes sense both for male comedians who want to ease into roles with more emotional depth and for children and male viewers who can’t sit through soap operas. (In dramas aimed at women, the stock “bad parent” is the domineering mother.)

There were quite a few divorcees in black and white films, but most were childless. Since the Sexual Revolution, though, broken families have become common and public discourse about them even more common. Do the statistics, coupled with our new style of bildungsroman, indicate that adult males are less responsible now than they were before?

Something else that jumped out at me during “Night at the Museum” was that each male figure, from Theodore Roosevelt to Attila the Hun, revealed his own insecurities. These scenes were humorous, but the screenwriter who has Attila crying on a crooning Ben Stiller’s shoulder sees a different world than the one who writes John Wayne movies. In other words, we don’t take gender roles as seriously anymore.

As for the movie? It was colorful and lively, and you have to love a feature film that pumps up the Museum of Natural History, but not all its jokes are original. The museum curator (Ricky Gervais) has the best lines, and Robin Williams is less cloying than usual. I’m glad a new generation of children got the chance to see Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney before they’re consigned to the museum forever. I give it two and a half stars out of four, which translates to a mild thumbs-up.