Chin-don: The most seriously silly music since Spike Jones
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, January 20, 2007
ANYONE WHO THINKS the Japanese can’t be as goofy in the pursuit of a good time as anyone else should see and hear a chin-don band. You might even come away thinking the Japanese are the goofiest people anywhere.
The basic chin-don lineup consists of three to five musicians, but it often contains more. Street performers who dress in outlandish theatrical costumes to attract a crowd, they’re more fun than a barrel of musical monkeys. Their instruments of choice are an inspired blend of Japan, such as drums, bells, and shamisen, and the West, including accordions, trumpets, and clarinets.
Traditionally, their performances were not for the sake of the performance itself, but rather to advertise the opening of a shop, such as a pachinko parlor, or a special sale. In other words, they were paid to play as a musical sandwich board. The name chin-don is onomatopoetic, coming from the sound of the bell (chin!) and the drum (don!). These percussion instruments constitute a walking drum kit for the band, and are usually played by women.
Their musical repertoire is just as inspired, affable, and gloriously goofy as their appearance, and can and does include anything from the body of popular music East and West. This ranges from the Japanese hit parade of a century ago to the theme music from the movie Titanic. It’s a hybrid stew that resembles the zanier aspects of Indian movie music.
Since the bands are hired to advertise or provide publicity, they have to attract and keep an audience quickly, so the music is usually upbeat, jaunty, and familiar. The band members often accompany the performance with amusing comedy routines or odd behavior to attract onlookers. For example, the accordion player in Adachi Sendensha, the one working chin-don band in Fukuoka City, performs while riding a unicycle.
There was a centuries-old tradition in Japan of percussionists walking and rapping their way through the streets to shill for a shop, but the other musical instruments weren’t added to these groups until the first years of the 20th century. One reason for the strange combination of instruments is that the presence of Western instruments themselves were still somewhat unusual in those days, and merely seeing them on the street would be enough to attract a crowd. The bands had a ready supply of musicians when talkies hit the movie theaters and threw the musicians in the orchestra pit out of work.
In turn, television and its mass advertising threw most chin-don bands out of work. Today, that Fukuoka band is the only one working full-time in a city with a population of more than one million. Most Japanese of a certain age recall seeing chin-don street performances when they were younger, but not recently.
The visual entertainment aside, chin-don can be taken seriously as urban street music, and the West’s interest in “world music” suggests it might find an audience outside of Japan. When I mention this to Japanese people, however—even ones with adventuresome musical tastes—they often look at me as if I were goofy. I remind them that people in Japan didn’t care for Kurosawa movies until they found an audience in the West, either.
There’s not that much available on CD, which is a shame. The best bets are the three discs by Soul Flower Mononoke Summit (a mononoke is a demon). This group was formed by members of two Japanese loud rock bands (one called Mescaline Drive). SFMS’s discs are available at this English-language site, with sound clips. Theirs is a modern take on the sound, and it’s quite good, but I wouldn’t blame you for balking at those import prices, especially as the first one, Asyl, is only 30 minutes long, and the other two, Levelers and Deracine, are about 45. The discs by Cicala Mvta (pronounced Muta) are also worth a listen. The group is led by Okuma Wataru, the clarinet player for the Mononokes, but it’s not straight chin-don and tends to be a little “out” in places. They’ve generated some interest overseas, particularly in Germany.
Though there’s been a sharp decline in the number of working bands, the style still has its fans in Japan, and younger musicians enjoy playing with the form. This is an Osaka take on the phenomenon, in which they’re unfortunately referred to as “ding-dong bands”. Here’s a website in Japanese that presents an overview of chin-don today, with a lot of photos. This is the Japanese language site of Adachi Sendensha, the Fukuoka band, with plenty of pictures. And this website promotes the chin-don contest held every April in Toyama City. It’s in Japanese, but shimmy down to the bottom of the page until you see the English word “play”. Just to the right are three audio links that will give you a taste of the treats that await you.
When I discovered the contest site, I suggested to my wife that we take a couple of days off and take a trip to Toyama to get happy. She looked at me as if I were goofy!