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November 26, 2000

CLUB NISEI: A MUSICAL TIME MACHINE

Music has an uncanny ability to transport listeners back in time.

Think back to your earliest musical memories, and they will evoke the period in which they were heard. My earliest musical memories range from my father's favorite swing numbers by Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, as well as Beatles songs such as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You."

This music is a terrific time machine that captures the sound of the postwar years in both Japan and Hawai'i.
Among those memories are the Japanese songs I heard as a child in Tokyo, and of course the Japanese traditional songs and pop hits of the day. Even beyond specific songs, there is a certain sound that takes me back to those times - a style of singing and a sophisticated form of arrangement, that captures the era.

It's the sound that resonates on a recently-released CD, "Club Nisei," which features the popular Japanese music of the late 1940s through the 1950s, performed by second-generation, or Nisei, Japanese American musicians in Hawai'i.

The CD, compiled by a Sansei (third-generation) Japanese American music historian named Billy Rose, is a treasure-trove of dusty lost gems hidden away for decades in the attics of personal collections and studio and radio station archives. The songs are performed by popular groups of the time, with names such as Club Nisei and the Hawai'i Sochiku Orchestra, and performers with stage names like "Aiko Bingo" and "Jane Itai."

These musicians played a circuit of Japanese movie theatres, community centers, hospitals, weddings, parties and special events such as the "Yakudoshi," or 41st birthday celebrations. Not all the musicians could read or speak Japanese, but their audiences were mainly Japanese-speaking Issei (first generation) immigrants who had settled in Hawai'I after the traumas of World War II.

"Ohtone Zukiyo" ("Moon over Ohtone") was sung in an "enka" style that would have appealed to those Issei audiences. The liner notes explain that the quavering vocals of enka, or nostalgic style, here sung by Harold Sasahara, began in the 19th century as a way of putting speeches to music so people would understand them more easily. For me, this style acutely evokes the Japanese music my parents listened to when I was young.

Also included is the pretty ballad "Shina no Yoru" ("China Night"), a pre-war hit in Japan that would have been very familiar to post-war Isseis in Hawai'i.

But the music industry in Japan was evolving and - not surprisingly, absorbing Western influences. The brassy, 1920s sound of "Tokyo Serenade" seems to meld a distinctly Japanese melody with an arrangement that mimics American jazz and throws in big-band swing rhythms and horn riffs.

The CD also includes children's music - I remember "Momotaro-san" ("Peach Boy"), based on a famous children's story, as well as the traditional folksong "Yuuyake Koyake" ("Evening Glow"). Both were sung by a child singer, Mari Minami.

Women vocalists were prominently featured in these songs. The loping, echoey melody of "Ringo Oiwake" ("Apple Oiwake") benefited from Alma Shimabukuro's atmospheric, haunting vocals.

The influence of the US Occupation is obvious in "Tokyo Boogie," a swing number that echoes American novelty songs of the period such as "Yokohama Mama." I can imagine this song packing dancefloors in the Ginza nightclub district of Tokyo full of GIs and their Japanese girlfriends.

"Koko ni Sachi" ("Here is Happiness") is a beautiful melody given a simple, uncluttered arrangement with singer "Sparky" Iwamoto's rich vocals upfront. The song was re-recorded with English lyrics in the 1970s and is still popular throughout Hawai'i, especially for weddings.

The mid-tempo "Wakare no Isochidori" ("Parting Song") was written by a Hawai'ian-born Nisei and performed for years on the islands before it caught on and became a hit in Japan in 1952.

Like the rest of the world in the 1950s, the Japanese bands of Hawai'i were enchanted by the rhumba craze that started in Latin America. "Japanese Rhumba," another song that became popular in Japan during the Occupation as entertainment for the GIs stationed there, captures the exoticism of the rhumba dance beat, but sounds oddly out of place today because of its twice-removed ethnic roots. Latin music sung in Japanese almost sounds silly.

The 23-song disc ends with a big-band vocal number, "Ginza Kan Kan Musume," about the plight of young women ("pan pan girls") who dated American GIs and often had their hearts broken.

The disc includes liner notes researched and written by Billy Rose that places the music in historical context. He explains the immigration of Japanese to Hawai'i starting in 1868, and gives an overview of the JA community experience during the early 20th century leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He also outlines the evolution of the music scene that spawned the recordings collected on "Club Nisei."

Not everyone will enjoy the recordings on "Club Nisei" - traditional Japanese music, such as the enka style, can take some getting used to. But these tracks show how the traditions of Japan were Westernized for a modern audience, and certainly reveal the roots of Japan's contemporary pop music industry.

For me, this music is a terrific time machine that captures the sound of the postwar years in both Japan and Hawai'i. It's as potent as any novel or movie about that time and place in transporting me back, and a powerful document of a crucial cultural bridge between Japan and Japanese Americans.

I can imagine my Hawai'ian-born father as a young man in the pre-rock and roll years, mixing his Glenn Miller and American big band music with these songs and enjoying it all.

The CD "Club Nisei" is available via mail order from the label, Cord International.

 


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