Here’s a video that was coincidentally uploaded to YouTube by singer-songwriter David Choi, whose stuff I like very much, on June 23, just two days before Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop” suddenly and shockingly died. (It’s the third-listed link on You Tube when you search for “Michael Jackson.”)
“Ben” is an unusual choice for a Michael Jackson cover — a moody, plodding story-song that makes sense as a story only if you know it as the title song from a 1972 horror B-movie about a boy (not the young MJ) who befriends a pet rat named “Ben” who leads a pack of vicious killer rats. It was the sequel to the equally cheesy (no pun intended, honest) 1971 movie, “Willard.”
Musical interlude: I saw on Facebook that Kinna Grannis had posted a video of herself with David Choi, sittin’ on a couch and humming and strumming the pop standard, “What a Wonderful World.” It’s a very sweet version, and the two harmonize beautifully together.
I blogged about Grannis a few months ago when I stumbled across her version of “Sukiyaki.” She’s prolific — between her own songs and interesting covers, she posts a new video every Monday on her YouTube channel. She’s also working the ‘Net to market herself, with a presence on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter… the whole nine yards.
Choi likewise is all over the online social networks, but considers himself more a songwriter and producer than a performer.
Grannis and Choi performed in February at Kollaboration, an annual celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander arts and performance. Wish we coulda been there, but we were stuck in Denver.
Dang, it sure would be cool to live in LA, where musicians like these two, and other artists and actors perform regularly. Asian American musicians sometimes get out to Colorado, but we often hear about it too late (being old fogeys and all).
It’s a good thing we have the Internet to give us access to their talents.
Enka music is often referred to as “Japanese blues.” The comparison is apt for a couple of reasons: the music is almost always about heartbreak and inconsolable loss. You can hear it in the singing. And, enka singing relies a lot on vocal inflections that are also common to American blues and gospel music: vibrato and melisma (the bending of notes to show emotion).
But fans of Enka in Japan probably never expected to see and hear an African American from Pittsburgh, PA make a name for himself as a rising star in the genre. (UPDATED: See bottom of this post for a video of Jero’s historic New Year’s Eve performance)
Jerome Charles White, Jr. (coincidentally a name that would sound cool for a blues musician), who goes by the stage name Jero, is unique among Japanese pop stars, in that he’s young (27), gifted, mixed-race black and American.
He sings (and speaks) in perfect Japanese, and more important — and more unusual — he sings a style of Japanese pop music that many consider to be “old-fashioned.” Enka music isn’t quite blues — aside from some of the vocal inflections and the sad subject matter, it’s not a rhythmic style. It has roots in folk music like blues, but it’s always presented in slick, orchestrated (stagey and theatrical) arrangements. Young Japanese have drfited away from this style and seem to prefer more modern genres like R&B, rock, disco and rap.
Surfing YouTube videos can be like the early days of surfing the Internet. Following links to random Web pages is a leap of faith, a trust in kismet, that what you’re about to see is both somehow related to what you were seeking in the first place, and hopefully entertaining.
In the midst of one of my YouTube forays, following related videos then backing up and taking another path to other videos, I came across one of my favorite songs of all time, “Ue O Muite Arukou” by Kyu Sakamoto, the Japanese pop star who had a worldwide #1 hit with the song in 1963.
You probably know the song better by the name put on it by its American label, “Sukiyaki.” It’s been covered in English by a number of artists, most notably Taste of Honey in the ’80s and the Viet pop singer Trish Thuy Trang more recently. She sings both English and Japanese in her version. (See Sakamoto’s, Taste of Honey’s and Tran’s video versions below. They’re all available on YouTube.)
From there, I clicked to a cover version of the song by a hapa musician named Kina Grannis and was pleasantly surprised by the sweet, cool, understated quality of her version of the song — which she sings in the original Japanese — as well as the scope and depth of her talent on other videos. Here’s the video:
Grannis is from Southern California, and won a songwriting contest sponsored by Doritos with the catchy song, “Message from Your Heart,” which was aired during the Super Bowl in February. The contest led to a deal with Interscope Records. Continue reading →
Meiko, a one-quarter Japanese American, or “quapa,” from Georgia by way of Los Angeles, is at the vanguard of the new folk music. At least, that’s the category where you’ll find her on iTunes. She strums and picks an acoustic guitar, so she fits the folksinger/troubadour image.
But her music isn’t based on the traditional “folk” music of the 1960s folk boom. Meiko’s the latest in a long line of singer-songwriters who came out of that earlier folk boom. Starting with the likes of Bob Dylan, and peers and disciples from Tom Rush and Eric Andersen to Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, singer-songwriters have skirted the edges of the rock-pop mainstream, playing their own music instead of traditional songs, with acoustic instruments as their foundation.
Their subject matter is mostly introspective and personal (hence, anti-pop by design) but when it clicks commercially, singer-songwriter music, like alternative rock, can hit the sweet spot and rise up the pop charts.
It’s a style of music that in recent years has become quieter and quieter, almost a whisper instead of the declamatory protest music of, say, early Phil Ochs, or Peter, Paul and Mary, in the ’60s, or the folk and country-rock of the ’70s. The new folk music can be mopey (then again, weren’t Jackson Browne’s songs mopey too?).
And, it’s become a signature style of television soundtracks. Although many shows now, from “Bones” to the “CSI” franchise, feature this type of music, I think of “Gray’s Anatomy” first and foremost when I hear the new folk. The genre fits perfectly with the introspective spoken narration that closes each episode of “Gray’s.”
“Boys with Girlfriends,” one of the best songs from Meiko’s first full-length recording, “Meiko,” was featured on “Gray’s Anatomy on November 20. Once you know the song, you’ll chuckle at how perfect it is for the romantic tensions that are at the heart of the series: “I know better not to be friends with boys with girlfriends,” Meiko sings.
Meiko has a handful of equally terrific songs, the kind that get in your head and bounce around like a superball, keeping you humming for days. She’s perfected the new folk sound, a dreamy, world-weary singing style that’s colored with just a hint of a husky rasp. But it’s her way of fitting words and phrases into cadences that stretch and contract to conform to her lilting sense of melody that stay with you. Continue reading →