Bird With No Name: Hajime Chitose

I love nothing more than people doing showy, nigh on obnoxious things with their voices. Moaning, crooning, shrieking and roaring does move to be sure but every now and again, I crave theatrics. Nonsensical notes in a language I barely understand to music I wouldn’t play outside a headset.
(See: Opera)

Okay, opera is more of a package deal. While there are a few exceptions, I find it’s something best appreciated with visuals. In other words, see it live.

But I am not here to talk opera. That isn’t very Japanese now is it?
Actually, neither is the subject at hand...much.

Today I’m gonna talk Okinawa, m’friends.

But first, I’m gonna rave about the dialect.

Okinawa dialect (uchinaguchi) is a linguistic treasure trove to an oozing Japanese freakshow like myself. Okinawa, originally known as Ryukuan, takes the bulk of its cultural origins from ancient China moreso than the other islands of Japan. Words in Okinawa start out sounding vaguely recognizable in Japanese only to mutate into something completely different. For example:

"What is this?"

Japanese = Kore wa nani?

Uchina = Kuree nuuyai biiga?

What the? Who the?

Well, it sounds cool to me.

Though most of the younger generation speak standard, uchina dialect maintains a presence in traditional shimauta, literally “island songs”. Okinawa folk music is characterized by one or more of the following: an instrument similar to a banjo (sanshin), a Chinese violin (erhu) and an undulating lilt to the voice that sounds very Bollywood.

I couldn’t sing along if I tried.

I confess at times I feel like a pretentious New Age crunchy PBS arsehole listening to it on the subway. But it does provide a shift? It is so completely the opposite of what’s going on around me and I like that.

There’s a couple things, ok, a hundred things I don’t get about Japanese folk music. For instance, whyzit so repetitive anyway? And what’s with the constant interjection of “koi” in the background? There’s always someone shouting “koi!” or “sasa!” in the background of Japanese folk songs. If I were smart, I’d guess this was some sort of shout out to the gods. To my ignorant brain however, they sound like the singer is challenging someone to a fight. The word “koi” in one context is a rough way of telling someone to come or “bring it” (ya big sissy!). Koi also means love though. Or it could mean carp?

So much for my lameass theory.

Since the early 90's, blending shimauta elements with other genres has become a trend in Japanese pop music. Thanks to a group called THE BOOM. One of their more imaginatively titled tracks “Shima Uta” was apparently a huge hit in Argentina and became a theme song for their soccer team. Well, well, well.

To cite a very geeky example the love theme from Final Fantasy X* Suteki da Ne (Isn’t it Pretty) was written and performed by shimauta artist, Rikki.

Suteki da ne was just that. It was pretty. No, sappy. That weeping Chinese violin was invented for drammy love songs. Gone was the uchina dialect and there was no trace of the yodel but I went out and bought the single anyway hoping for a decent B side which I got. Utikisama. (Moon) Is it just me or does that piano give anyone else vague Mr. Rogers Neighborhood vibes?

Ryuichi Sakamoto mixed it up with synthesized noises and sampling. A haunting repetitive clamping broken by an uchina chorus. Sounded weird to me but I am sure to someone more informed it was very clever.

My favorite example is Hajime Chitose.

She sings in standard Japanese but retains the yodel. I’d love to get my hands on her early folk material but it's hard to find these days. Her mainstream album work is of the jazz pop soul variety, a genre I am not very crazy or informed about. She did quite a few cover songs which I am also not crazy about. Her cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” was, in a word, cute but something about her cover of Lauper’s tired opus “True Colors” made me cringe. I don’t have anything against Chitose’s album work I just think acoustic accompaniment would provide better backup. Her voice is elegant. It is the focus. The music need not tart up.

Which is why I devoured her live album like some slathering hellbeast.

I could have done without the wind chimes on the album version of Namae no Nai Tori but the guitar was so soothing, I caved. This is the one example where the live version does not surpass the album version. Most of her songs, I think, were improved by the live recording. Just a simple piano for Kono Machi. An African drum for Namae no Nai Tori. A taiko backup for Seirei which, though it’s one of my favorite tracks, sounds for all the world like a death march.

But the words....

Namae no Nai Tori (A Bird With no Name)

Carried on the wind a rumor soars kaze ni yureteru kuchi kaketa dengoban
Better it should wander than betray uragirareu yori wa samayou hou gai ii

Days without tidings tayori ga nai hibi
Invite only sadness sabishisa dake tsunotte yuku
If it's anything like dragging along shadows kage o hikizuru gurai nara
I’d rather be a bird with no name. na mo nai tori de ii

Like a shimmer of heated air it appears kagerou no you ni yurai deru
the place that I was promised yakusoku no basho
A distant city far away haruka tooku no machi

If someone tells me it’s all an illusion Dareka ga zenbu maboroshii dato oshiete kuretara
Where then shall I go? Watashi wa doko yuku darou?

* I would like to state for the record that I do not own a Playstation and have never played any Fantasy, final or otherwise. No fantasy is final unless it begins with a Z and ends with an A.

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