Friday, May 6, 2011

Music at Sakura Matsuri

I've talked about the flowers and cosplayers at last weekend's Sakura Matsuri at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, so now it's time to talk about the music.

I had the chance to see and hear familiar acts as well as become fans of bands I saw for the first time.

Soh Daiko
Taiko drum

Taiko drumming troupes are among the most exciting performers at Japanese festivals. Soh Daiko was formed way back in 1979 by members of the New York Buddhist Church, and they've been fixtures of the festival circuit ever since. I've seen them perform many times, and they never fail to captivate an audience with their energy, precision, and rhythm.

Sachiyo Ito and Dancejapan
Sachiyo Ito (right) with one of her Dancejapan students

Sachiyo Ito is one of the few performers to appear at every Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. (This year marked the 30th anniversary of the event.) Ito Sensei is a longtime New Yorker, teaching Japanese and Okinawan dance and performing at events such as this. 

I was unable to see the entire performance of Ito Sensei's company, Dancejapan, but I managed to snap a few pictures during the singing of "Warabi Gami," an Okinawan song. 

Luckily I was able to see a lot of the Dancejapan members after the performance.

Ito Sensei and her dancers were popular with festival visitors, complying with many requests to pose for photos. In the above photo Maria is wearing bingata, a dazzling and colorful kimono from Okinawa.

Neo Blues Maki
My uncle Sadamasa has a karaoke machine in his home. A former taxi driver in northern Okinawa, Sadamasa Ojisan used to have karaoke sing-offs with his fellow cabbies. He described them as "friendly competitions," but I could tell by the fierce look in his eyes that they were probably cut-throat mashups. Hence the karaoke player. Sadamasa Ojisan's specialty was enka, nostalgic ballads popular with older Japanese folks, such as my 80-year-old uncle. And Neo Blues Maki.

The members of Neo Blues Maki are much younger that Sadamasa Ojisan, and their appreciation of the art form goes beyond the slight sappiness of traditional enka. Lead singer Kayo Yoshioka's enka vocals are set against the backdrop of the band's funky blend of rock, soul, and R&B. To understand the difference, I offer a comparison.

Here's something Sadamasa Ojisan would enjoy:

Not bad, and it's seems like the kind of music that would appeal to older people. Now, here's a YouTube clip of Neo Blues Maki:

As traditional enka singers do, Yoshioka wore a kimono onstage at Sakura Matsuri.

I was intrigued by this style, this way of blending traditional music with something completely different. Yoshioka was stunning, graceful in her movements and gestures yet powerful when booming out enka tunes.

My view of enka has forever changed.

I simply can't resist chindon.

It's marching band music, but not quite like what you'd see at halftime of a college football game. And happyfunsmile isn't a typical band. Playing an eclectic mix of Okinawan pop, J-pop, enka (there's that word again), and folk, happyfunsmile delivers a smorgasbord of music.

The chindon-ya of happyfunsmile leads the BBG's Parasol Society Promenade

I'd read about happyfunsmile, and I was intrigued because they play Okinawan tunes. Yet Saturday was the first time I'd ever seen them. Wow. The sheer energy of their performance was infectious. When I saw them leading the BBG's Parasol Society Promenade, the expressionless sanshin player caught my attention. When I saw them setting up onstage a couple of hours later, I thought, "This is going to be, well, interesting." I mean, one of the two female singers wore a giant pink Afro. Saxophone. Okay. Trumpet. Sure. Accordion. Seems Irish. Tiny sanshin. Fascinating. Chindon. Huh? Well, it's a mini drum set with a cymbal, a snare drum, and – in happyfunsmile's case – a taiko drum that's worn over the shoulders. The lead singer was wearing a white jumpsuit. 

In true you-can't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover form, happyfunsmile was a hit. I loved them. The lead singer, Brian Nishii – he of the white pantsuit and who I thought was American but is actually Japanese – made us feel as though we were all friends hanging out together at a party. We were participants in the concert, not merely viewers. Nishii had us up on our feet doing calisthenics, and then he jumped in the crowd and made people form a circle to perform an Obon dance. I was floored. 

They were happy. They were fun. They made me smile.

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