Japan from the inside out

Asuka: Gagaku for the 21st century

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 26, 2009

LONG-TIME FRIENDS know that I’m like iron filings for the magnet of modern Japanese roots music, including that goofy/funky mongrel known as chin-don, as well as Okinawan minyo. Hit the Music category on the left sidebar and you’ll find plenty of references to those styles, including one post about the Ryukyu Chimdon Band. That group combines both of them into a barrel of musical fun concealing a lot of sophistication behind the wackiness. (What better word to use to describe the use of Zairean soukous structures with chin-don instrumentation to play Okinawan melodies?)

Long-time friends also know that one of my avocations is informal research into festivals and Shinto traditions, and for proof of that all you have to do is get clicky with the Festival category on the same sidebar.

Somewhere in the Music category there are a few references to gagaku, the ancient music of the Japanese Imperial court. Both the music and the instruments of that style came primarily from China about 1,400 years ago, though some also crossed over from the Korean Peninsula. While that musical tradition has long been dead on the Asian mainland, it’s still alive here. Some musicologists say it’s the longest continuous musical tradition in existence.

Asuka me again and I'll tell you the same!

Asuka me again and I'll tell you the same

So it should be no surprise that I had to grab my tongue to keep from swallowing it in excitement when I stumbled across news of a progressive gagaku band on the run that’s updated the tradition for the 21st century. How do you do, Flame, meet the Moth!

What I read was almost too good to be true. The group is named Asuka (明日香), and all the members are conservatory graduates. While at music school, they specialized in studies of Western jazz, pop, and classical music.

But that’s not the half of it–the male members of Asuka are legitimate Shinto priests and the women are miko shrine maidens. And two members are from families of musicians who perform in what is known as the “festival gagaku” tradition (祭典雅楽). Rather than playing for the Imperial court or related functions, these musicians play at Shinto shrines and village ceremonies. (This is the first I’ve heard of it, and there’s not a lot of information about it on the web in Japanese, either.) It’s considered to be more cheerful than the Court version of the music.

Asuka has presented more than 100 performances a year since they came together, but it’s only recently that they’ve begun playing in more commercial settings. Now comes word that they’ll be making their concert debut (on stage as a solo act before several thousand people) at the Japan Expo 2009 in Paris from 2-5 July. They’ll also give a short live performance during the Expo at the booth of the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry.

If that hasn’t grabbed you by the shirt collar and woken you up yet, this will: in conjunction with their Japan Expo appearance, they’ve formally created a branch of Osaka’s Horiage Atago Shinto shrine and will have a small shrine structure and torii shipped from Japan. They plan to set up what their record company is calling a “mini theme park” of a Shinto shrine and festival. It will have the amulets, fortunes, lotteries, and ema (votive pictures) that are part of established shrines for the edification and enjoyment of the Europeans.

Asuka has released a CD available at Amazon Japan called Tenchi Muso (天地夢想). Here is their page in Japanese at the record company’s site. They helpfully provide a link to a YouTube promotional video of a live performance. By the time I’d made it this far, I was nearly salivating. And here it is:

It broke my heart! Why oh why did they have to screw it up by using computers and a drum machine? What wasted potential!

This is my confession, mama: I’m a such a diehard that when I finally flip out for good, I might just turn into a musical Carrie Nation. Instead of taking an axe to saloons, I’ll track down record studios and destroy all their rhythm machines. If I had a hammer, I’d swing it in the morning, into those consoles, all over this land. Computerized drum machines are to music what inflatable rubber dolls are to sex. They miss the point entirely!

I’m OK with electric or electronic instruments, as long as they’re performed in real time using hands, feet, head, heart, and lung.

Before giving up on them, I was lucky to notice that YouTube has several videos by Asuka. The next one I tried was this:

Now that’s more like it. It combines a transverse bamboo flute, acoustic piano, and electric bass with a jazzy melody. OK, I thought, there’s hope for these guys yet. And then I discovered this:

All is bliss! Fans of Japanese music will recognize the man playing the Yamaha as Sakamoto Ryuichi, Japan’s first Academy Award winner for his work on the score of The Last Emperor. He’s been composing and performing cutting edge pop/avant garde music for decades, first as a member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra and then on his own. Those with longer memories will recognize this song as Tong Poo (東風), one of his better-known numbers from the YMO days–though this version is quite different (and much more to my tase). Mr. Sakamoto has always been ready to incorporate Japanese and Asian elements into his music, including Okinawan minyo. What a lovely performance!

That sold me. The Asuka CD is going to be my next musical purchase, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that the tracks sound more like the second and third videos here than the first.

The instrument with the vertical bamboo pipes is called a sho. It’s a mouth organ with 17 pipes that can play tone clusters of five or six notes at a time. The two longest pipes are silent; the sound of the instrument is said to resemble the call of the phoenix, and those pipes are the wings. It’s tuned using wax. For those who can read music, here’s some sho notation:


I can’t read music, but I do know this: I’d jam some clothes into a rucksack tomorrow, leave home for good, and become the love slave of either of those women playing it! Dip me in chocolate and turn me into a licking stick!

6 Responses to “Asuka: Gagaku for the 21st century”

  1. ponta said

    How about Tougi hideki?
    Do you like his music?

    【癒し系音楽】 ★GAGAKU MUSIC★

    I am with you 東儀秀樹 

  2. ampontan said

    Thanks for those links, Ponta. Very nice!

  3. Ric said

    Agreed, too bad about all the synths. Hand drums would add so much.

  4. ampontan said

    Ric: I just got the CD a week or so ago, and it’s not as bad as that first video. In fact, there’s nothing like the first video on it. It’s a lot lighter on the synths and there’s more natural percussion, though there is synth here and there. I was relieved.

  5. Tenmiles said

    First, let me thank you for this blog entry!

    I’ll level with you; at first, I didn’t care for that first video/song either. I, too, found it appalling and jarring; nothing nearly as beautiful as pure gagaku.

    The funny thing is that the more I listened to it, over time, the more it grew on me.
    There’s still something “not right” about all the synthesizer use, in some part of my mind; but I’ve still discovered an appreciation for the piece in some particular, rather specific way.

    It could be because of the heavy saturation of Japanese video game music I’ve had over the years, which, when done well, often combines traditional tunes and instruments with more electronic sounds as well. I don’t know.
    All I can say is that I don’t really hate that piece now, and I’d very much like to buy this album when I can. Seems that I can only find it on amazon Japan, though.

  6. ampontan said

    TM: I’m almost certain you can get it through their website, which is linked in the article. It’s probably faster that way, too. That’s a small record company, and it took a month for Amazon Japan to fill the order.

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