Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | music
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TaikoProject brings its "Rhythmic Relations" show to LA's Little Tokyo Another reason I wish we lived in LA: TaikoProject, the acclaimed genre-expanding taiko group based in LA, brings its talents home to perform its "Rhythmic Relations 2011" show this weekend outdoors at Noguchi Plaza in front of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Little Tokyo, 244 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles. There will be two performances, at 2 and 7:30 pm; tickets are $30 - $35 + service charges. Tickets are available online at www.jaccc.org or by phone (213) 680-3700. The group will be joined by Bombu Taiko, Kitsune Taiko and Loma Pacific Taiko, and the show will feature special guest Ryutaro Kaneko (former Artistic Director for the superstar Japanese taiko group Kodo). You may have caught TaikoProject this week on "The Voice," the terrific NBC singing competition show (we're cheering for Dia Frampton, and not just because she's Asian American -- hapa Korean). You may have also seen TaikoProject way back in 2006, playing on a Mistubishi car commercial (I remember at the time, thought it was totally cool to see a taiko group on a commercial). Here's how TaikoProject describes itself:

The first reader to comment on this blog post will win a pair of tickets to Kollaboration Acoustic 5, a competition of the best young acoustic Asian American talent. The show is Friday June 17 at the Ford Theater in Los Angeles. The competitors include Alexa Yoshimoto, Chrizle, Ensemble Memo, Jason Yano, Lindsey Yung, The Mood Junkies, Nessa Rica, Teesa...

Dengue Fever It's a curious conceit of rock critics that we love being the early adopters who discover great new talent, but we want that talent to stay exactly as we found it, as if the music is some sort of archeological treasure, suspended in amber for the ages. We can't imagine a musician might continue along an evolutionary progression and grow and mature artistically. Or worse, we dismiss artists we like when they become too popular, as if being adopted by a wider, mainstream audience taints artistic credibility. I know I've been guilty of both. I dismissed Joni Mitchell past "Miles of Aisles" as becoming too arty (as if her earliest, brittle folk gems weren't also arty to the extreme). I blew off Bruce Springsteen once he sold a bazillion copies of "Born in the USA." The fact is, most music critics are snobs, and we're proud of it. Over the years since I "retired" from being a full-time music critic, I've mellowed and accepted that I have biases (old-fart biases at that), and see how I blocked out good music by being an obstinate butthead. So I was surprised when I realized I still fall back on snob instincts with new music from time to time. These days I rarely write about any music unless it's related to my interests in Asian culture or Asian American community. I've written in the past (here and here), for instance, about Dengue Fever, an alt-rock band from California that was formed by a pair of white brothers who fell in love with Cambodian rock of the 1960s, and found a Cambodian singer to help them meld that sound with surf and psychedelic music. For years I've been intrigued by the band's globe-hopping musicality and especially enchanted by singer Chhom Nimol's slinky, elastic vocals, which snakes through melodies with the tonality and scale of traditional Cambodian folk and pop songs. In a word, though I hesitate to use it because it's such a loaded symbol of Orientalism, objectifying Asian culture and people, my attraction to Dengue Fever is in large part because of Nimol's exoticism. There, I've said it.

Curt Yagi"Live My Life," the lead track from the new album, "Close My Eyes" by Curt Yagi and The People Standing Behind Me (great band name) grabs me right away. It reveals Yagi's wide-ranging musical palette with dabs of color -- Yagi's funky acoustic guitar, then a drum flourish -- before he splashes the canvas with bass and very cool horn section riffing, and then Yagi's vocals and grungy electric guitar add a sonic signature that has me tapping my toes and nodding my head to the catchy melody. The album (which is officially released on April 12 but is available for advance purchase online) is full of such sweet pop confections that take diverse musical elements and mashes them together into memorable hooks and melodies. "Sweep Me," the second track starts with a ballad intro but kicks into an acoustic ska arrangement pushed along by that horn section. Yagi, who's a Yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese American born and raised in the Bay Area, credits the reggae and ska influences to his love for the genres when he was in high school. He added alt-rock influences when he was in college. He became a musician relatively late in life -- he started writing songs after his father died of a rare disease 10 years ago -- and started singing at open mics. He holds down a day job as executive director of a non-profit, Real Options for City Kids (ROCK) that serves at-risk children with enhanced public school and after-school programs. He started as a volunteer in 1998 and was also a board member before taking on his current role. So he's an artist who already invests his heart and soul in his day-to-day life and is talented enough to also express it musically. Yagi's now 40 (he looks 25) and he and his band were voted "Best of the Bay" by the alt-weekly SF Bay Guardian, and they regularly play Bay Area venues. I wish I could see him live just to experience the intriguing mix of acoustic, electric and horns in person. It's tempting to pigeonhole Yagi's music as steeped in R&B because of the horns, funky rhythms and his often soulful vocals, but after a few listens to the album, I've decided he's a musical omnivore, who likes a lot of different sounds and is able to call on them all as elements to mix in like pigments a painter might use to get just the right shade, the right tone, the right light and shadow.

Heartbeat for Japan Taiko Concert Three local taiko drum groups, Denver Taiko, Mirai Daiko and Taiko with Toni, are hosting "Heartbeat for Japan: A Taiko Benefit," a concert to raise funds for relief efforts in Japan, on Sat March 26, 7 pm at Colorado Heights University (formerly Loretto Heights) Auditorium at 3001 S. Federal Blvd. Admission is free but donations will be accepted. This should be a terrific evening of thundering drums for a great cause.

The Monsters of Shamisen rock, even though they're playing a traditional Japanese instrument, a three-stringed lute that's plucked with a plectrum that looks like an windshield scraper. The shamisen usually is heard playing traditional Japanese folksongs, and as accompaniment for kabuki and bunraku theater. It has an instantly-recognizable single-note sound that's similar in tone to the banjo. It's a folk instrument. But the Monsters of Shamisen don't play just old-time folk music. You won't hear only a Japanese version of banjoey, bluegrassy songs. Sure, you'll hear that, but the MoS puts their instruments to use on Western classical music, pop and rock and roll, European folksongs, and yes, bluegrass too. Where else are you gonna hear Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" payed on two shamisen (above)? Last night, two of the three Monsters, Kevin KMetz and Mike Penny, performed at the King Center on the Auraria Campus in a concert sponsored by the Japan Foundation and the Consulate General of Japan in Colorado. (The third, Masahiro Nitta, is in Japan.)

It stands to reason that the country that invented karaoke is one that takes karaoke very, very seriously. It takes singing to backing tracks so seriously that in Japan, Kohaku Uta Gassen, the annual singing showdown that airs live on New Year's Eve, has been like the Super Bowl of the country's broadcasting industry, drawing huge numbers of viewers year after year. And Colorado's Japanese-speaking community has brought the tradition to Denver by hosting its own Kohaku Uta Gassen every January for 36 years. Since 1951, the year Japan and the US signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty and Gen. Douglas MacArthur -- the "Gaijin Shogun" who ruled Japan as the Commander-in-Chief during the US occupation of post-war Japan -- was fired by President Dwight Eisenhower, the annual karaoke singing contest has been one of the highlights of the country's cultural calendar. Kohaku Uta Gassen (literally translated as "Red and White Singing Battle") has pitted women (the Red Team) against men (the White Team) in a competition to see who has the best singers. That first Kohau Uta Gassen was broadcast on NHK radio on January 4, 1951. When television broadcasting began in 1953, the show moved onto the small screen, and to New Year's Eve. Along with sports shows such as wrestling (there was a huge fad of Western-style, not sumo, wrestling in the 1950s) and baseball, Uta Gassen helped boost sales of television sets because no one wanted to miss the shows. Over the decades it became so popular, featuring the country's best performers in evolving styles from traditional "enka" (Japan's version of blues or country music, mostly about heartbreak) to the current Jpop and rock sounds, that it's become an institution. Denver's Uta Gassen has also become an institution, with some performers singing every year. This year's contest, held at the Denver Buddhist Temple's auditorium in Sakura Square, was filled as usual with about 300 audience members, including the singers and their families and friends. It's always an all-Japanese affair -- the one year I served as a judge, I understood about 30% of the jokes and even less of lyrics but was able to vote on the merits of the performances. It's extreme karaoke, spending an afternoon hearing 32 singers belting out songs in Japanese to nothing but backing tracks. At least they don't need to refer to a TV screen with the lyrics scrolling by -- they've been rehearsing their songs for weeks.