Amateurs are Alive and Well in Japan!
In Japan hobbies are a thing. A BIG THING!
It’s not long after you meet someone that you are inevitably asked: 趣味は？ What’s your hobby?
Here a hobby is like stamp collecting, something your weird uncle Harold did in the 1950s. Wanna see his stamp books? “NO!”, you quickly say. Besides, being an amateur anything just reeks of some juvenile preoccupation, right? Maybe because I’ve lived in Japan and have seen first-hand what true amateurism is, I don’t think so.
In Japan, a hobby is an opportunity to do something simply for the love of it. We’ve forgotten how to do that here.
The french root of the word amateur is amator, which means “lover” as in a lover of something. That meaning, however, often takes a backseat to the more condescending “One who does something without professional skill or ease.”, i.e., a hack. How often have we heard the expression “He’s just an amateur.” as in, “Don’t even bother, he’s not worth it!”
I hereby loudly and forcefully OBJECT! There are many things that can and should be done even if the outcome is imperfect. There’s a tremendous amount of grace and learning that comes from the simple act of trying. Besides, it’s fun.
Japanese don’t labor under the same stigma of amateurism that we Americans do. They take great pride in their hobbies and devote a tremendous amount of time, effort, personal reputation, and money into indulging their passions. Pick any hobby and you’ll find some of the best how-to books, magazines, videos, tapes, accessories, tools etc. available in Japan.
I learned long ago that when you ask a Japanese about their hobby to beware. Personally, I often feel like a hack when compared to a Japanese amateur! While maybe not a “professional”, many Japanese hobbyists I know are darn near that level. They have diligently practiced their hobby for many years making slow yet incremental progress toward achieving hobby nirvana.
It’s like that with the ukulele in Japan too. Instructional methods abound. How-to videos on YouTube are legion. Really good songbooks are everywhere. Japanese love, collect, and cherish expensive ukuleles from the US. They practice. They perform. Best of all, they love what they are doing.
I don’t think American ukulele players are as hung up on being labeled amateurs as other hobbyists are. Perhaps we’ve grown a thick skin because we’re always derided whenever we pick up our small instruments. Or, maybe it’s just the unique joy that the ukulele brings. Whatever it is, I’m glad for it.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for Japanese songbooks, take a look here.
Several years ago I stumbled across an article posted on the Internet titled Germans in Grass Skirts about how the humble Hawaiian uke saved German-American C.F. Martin’s bacon from getting fried in the Great Depression. I faithfully bookmarked the URL and when I recently thought to access it again it was gone. Such is life on the Internet. Whatever, I’m using that title as inspiration for this post about how the Japanese saved Martin's ukulele.
In Germans in Grass Skirts the author described how by 1926 demand for Martin’s ukuleles far outstripped supply. According to Tom Walsh and John King’s excellent book The Martin Ukulele: The Little Instrument That Helped Create a Guitar Giant, in April of 1926 Martin’s Board of Directors decided to raise ukulele prices in the wake of strong demand noting “the reason for the increase is largely to provide money for enlargement and to provide a reserve for harder times.” Boy, did they ever call that one right! By 1929 uke sales were a third of their peak production level in 1925. Fortunately, the extra revenue from ukulele sales helped fund factory expansion and gave Martin a cushion to rest on during the Great Depression.
After ukes surged again in the 1950s (thank you Arthur Godfrey), they fell again and by the late ‘60s C.F. Martin was making only a handful of ukes. 1965 was the last year of regular production after which ukuleles were produced only on special order. In 1994, ukulele production ceased altogether.
Oddly, Martin was the victim of its own success. Between the 1907 and 1977 the company had produced over 190,000 ukuleles and used Martin ukes were cheaper than new instruments. A new style “0” cost $500 at retail but you could get a very good used Martin uke cheap at a flea market. No kidding! Just ask Jim Beloff…
But not so fast… Kurosawa Gakki, Martin’s key Japanese distributor never got over the loss of the ukulele. Japanese are great collectors and, as we know, avid ukulele fans. Despite a depressed US market, Kurosawa felt there was still a market for Martin ukuleles in Japan. Chris Martin, however wasn’t so sure and beautifully tells the story in his “A Word from Chris Ukuleles” in minute 5:07.
I would have loved to have been in that meeting when Chris produced several 5K prototypes to show Kurosawa’s executives. From the video its pretty clear that no one in Martin’s entourage spoke Japanese. In a typical meeting between Japanese and foreign visitors it is not unusual for the Japanese at key moments to break away from the main conversation and have an animated “chat” among themselves about what’s been said and much more. There’s nothing underhanded, they are just trying to gain consensus. If you speak Japanese as I do, it’s a great way to get a real-time feel for what your customers are thinking.
Since neither Chris Martin nor his International Sales Rep. spoke Japanese, they were floored when Kurosawa Gakki came back and met their $5,000 MSRP request and immediately ordered 50. That $250,000 order put Martin back in the ukulele business.
For that amount, I’m sure even Chris Martin would don a kimono. I know I would!
I recently fell down a rabbit hole…
I started researching the origins of the ukulele in Japan, how it got there, who were the early stars , etc., and I learned something new which surprised me but it really shouldn’t have. Second generation Japanese-Americans (nisei), sons and daughters born and raised in Hawaii, brought the instrument back to Japan when they returned there in the 20s and 30s to complete their education.
Yukihiko (Harry) Haida and his brother Katsuhiko both born in Hawaii of immigrant parents returned to Japan with a love for Hawaiian music and a lot of talent. Their Moana Glee Club recordings were well received and started the Japanese love for Hawaiian music that continues today.
Then there’s Buckie Shirakata who arrived in Japan in the 30s and formed the Aloha Hawaiians. Buckie was quite prolific and made over 200 recordings, one of which was with Betty Inada, a Sacramento girl who returned to Japan to become a jazz singer.
So here’s the thing… In the 20s and 30s life in America for most children of Japanese immigrants was like living on a tightrope and having to balance between the culture and traditions of your parents and of the place of your birth. Neither culture fully accepted you. In race conscious America it was hard for a Japanese (“J*ps”) to break into society regardless of talent and brains. Yet in Japan these Americans were looked at suspiciously and said to be bata-kusai- stinking of butter, a derogatory term for Western foreigners.
As ambassadors of the mysterious and exotic Hawaii and the world of jazz, nisei had a cache in Japan that they didn’t have in the States. They were cool! They could also support themselves playing music at a time when there still was money to be made in that profession. Harry Haida and Buckie Shirakata married Japanese women and began to settle down. Betty Inada gained renown as a chanteuse in Tokyo nightclubs. Then the war happened.
Like many Japanese who returned to Japan to complete their education or to work, after December 7, 1941, there was no going home and because they were not born in Japan, life for them was tough there too. “Foreign music” was banned. The Moana Glee Club became “The Southern Band” and the Aloha Hawaiians, “The Music Group”. I can only imagine how difficult it became to support oneself.
I recently learned about the plight of the many Japanese-Americans stuck in wartime Japan by reading the book Midnight in Broad Daylight (Pamela Rotner Sakamoto) which chronicles the wartime experience of one family with children on both sides of the Pacific. One brother was interred and then fought for the US Army, another for the Japanese Imperial Army. A sister was in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped and later died of radiation sickness. All faced discrimination from every side. I’d love to hear Harry’s, Buckie’s, and Betty’s stories of how they coped during that time.
After the war Occupied Japan needed the nisei entertainers to play for the US forces and many gladly did so. Being bi-cultural and often bilingual, the nisei were an ideal group to act as musical ambassadors. Soon a second Hawaiian boom fueled by Hawaiian nisei began to feed Japan’s insatiable curiosity for the exotic islands where the button-down, rigidly proper decorum of Japan was replaced by the flowered-shirt Aloha spirit. Hawaiian bands flourished in the 50s, 60s, and do so even today.
All the while the ukulele has played a staring role in that drama, a role which would not have been possible without the many Japanese-American players: Herb Ohta, Roy Sakuma, Byron Yasui, Herb Ohta Jr., and most recently Jake Shimabukuro.
I started this piece by mentioning the rabbit hole. It appears that there are numerous recordings of Japanese-Americans singing in Japanese and English for Japanese audiences that are still available for listening.
Club Nisei covers the post-war period.
On Soundcloud you can listen to a program in several hour-long installments.
You can read about some of those recordings here.
There are some interesting books too:
Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan. E. Taylor Atkins
Reminiscing in Swingtime: Japanese Americans in Popular American Music 1925 - 1960. George Yoshida
Finally, head on over to UKULELEjapan.com (Artists Pages>Legends) and listen to Buckie Shirakata and Harry Haida.
Back down the hole for me…
Spoiler alert: this post has nothing to do with ukuleles, but if you're interested in Japan, Jazz, and Japanese culture, read on.
I just finished watching Swing Girls, a 2004 Japanese film staring Ueno Juri. I really enjoyed it, even if there weren't any ukuleles. Swing Girls is what would happen if the Bad News Bears met your local jazz band. Predictable, but fun.
The movie is set in Yamakawa High School in Yamagata Prefecture, deep in the northern backwaters of Japan. The girls are in remedial math class for the summer when they learn that the school's brass band has been sent off to play for the school baseball team without the customary bento boxes for lunch. The girls offer to deliver them so as to get out of class for the afternoon. They miss their train stop, have to walk back, fall in the mud, and manage to give the band food poisoning before they are roped into becoming the new band. Because there aren't enough of them to form a full band, after hearing a recording of Glen Miller's Moonlight Serenade they decide to become a jazz band. Reasonable, right?
The girls face many obstacles, not the least of which is their complete and utter lack of musical training. But they persist. They manage to find a band director, conveniently their former math teacher, who despite his love of jazz and his own desire to play an instrument, is a total failure. At about that time the original band recuperates from their bout of food poisoning and resumes their duty cheering on the baseball team.
Undeterred and now in love with jazz, the girls continue studying and eventually become good enough to enter a regional high school musical competition. Predictably, the forces of nature, their own self-doubt, and any number of minor disasters conspire against them but in the end they prevail.
At about 16:30 in the above clip the girls make their debut at the regionals. I dare you to not smile when they launch into Louis Prima's Sing, Sing, Sing.
Everyone loves rooting for the underdog, especially the Japanese. Perseverance must be genetically encoded in Japanese DNA because they like nothing more than coming up against long odds. It really doesn't matter if they win or lose. It's persevering that matters most.
Maybe that's why Japanese love the much maligned ukulele. Nothing says perseverance so well as a uke!
1) Only one of the 17 actresses who became the Swing Girls had any musical chops. They all learned their instruments well enough to at least play convincingly and after the movie was released held their "First and Last Concert" at the Tokyo JAL hotel in late December, 2004!
2) My Japanese is pretty good, but combine the heavy Tohoku dialect, teenage slang, and pouty girl-talk and I was often lost.
3) In reading some of the PR from the time the movie was released I learned the catch phrase was: 「ジャズやるべ」which translates roughly to "Let's do some jazz y'all!". Understand my problem now?
I'm glad I persevered!
The Acoustic Sound Organization ("AcoSoundOrg") is a virtual panoply covering all things ukulele! Video lessons, local performances in Tokyo, a blog, music sales, and much, much more.
I first learned of AcoSoundOrg through its YouTube postings. Frankly, I'm not sure who comprises the actual organization but there seem to be several regulars covering everything from classic Rock and Roll to Jazz and beyond. Some are better than others. All are interesting.
Given my preference for Jazz I recently watched a duo play a spirited arrangement of Take the A Train.
If you are patient you can find a some chord charts on their website for downloading. I found a TAB of Moon River in JPEG format that I was able to print out after adding it to Apple Images.
I often comb YouTube looking for videos of Japanese ukulele players. Yesterday I decided to fiddle with my search filter a bit but got frustrated. I kept seeing dozens of videos of Japanese playing コーヒールンバ、"Coffee Rumba". Many had high view counts. The one I clicked on was played well and the tune was very catchy, but strangely I'd never heard it before. I doubt you have either.
I searched on the title, which lead to one thing, then another, and lo and behold I realized that I'd stumbled on an interesting story.
Coffee Rumba was composed by Venezuelan Hugo Blanco when he was just 18 years old. The tune soon became a number 1 hit in Argentina and Japan, where in 1961 it was recorded by singer Nishida Sachiko. (Click on the album cover above to hear it.) As a sign of just how insular Japan still was at the time, when asked if she drank coffee, Nishida replied, "What's that?". It's reported she did eventually pick up the habit.
A word about Blanco (1940 - 2015). At 15 Blanco taught himself to play the cuatro (you can read about it here), a ukulele-like 4-string instrument also hailing from Portugal. Three short years later he composed Moliendo Cafe, which became Coffee Rumba in Japan. After that tune climbed the charts Blanco went on to fuse Cuban and a popular Venezuelan style of music called joropo, into what is now known as "orquídea". You can hear Blanco's version of the tune here. I love the cool maracas in the background!
Here's my take-away from this. As an American I'm used to our music being the worldwide inspiration for almost everything musical. That this tune never made it to the US charts yet blossomed in Latin American and Japan shouldn't surprise me. Yet it does. But this too gives me hope.
Music is an international language in which we are all fluent. We may not understand the words but we recognize the emotions behind what is played and that brings us closer together.
Viva la musica! 音楽万歳！ Long Live Music!
Early this morning I saw a posting on RIO's Facebook page with a link to a video of his original composition CO-CO-ME-RO. Sleeply I clicked through and was immediately smitten!
You know that feeling you get when you hear something once and know that you'll be listening for a long time? I had that.
For me, the music has to be sufficiently complex, usually jazzy (although not always), and take me to places I've always felt I've wanted to go or to places that I've already been to. That's what I felt the moment I started listening to CO-CO-ME-RO. That's unusual for me.
It's even more unusual that it would come from as young and novel a performer as RIO. He's only something like 16 and yet he plays, performs, and composes like someone much older.
OK, so I immediately purchased the album. Not surprisingly I've been playing it all day. It's a very uniform album- every tune has something that I want to hear. Yet again, unusual. On I ~Alone~ RIO plays with Aska Kaneko (violin) and Kojima (piano) to create a very Django-Grappelli vibe. This is very good stuff... and Kaneko-san is a talented violinist.
Perhaps I'll review the album at some point, but first let me encourage you to go and purchase it. See for yourself.
Feel free to post your comments and let me know what you think.
I found the Holy Grail: an archtop D’Angelico ukulele!
Master luthier John D’Angelico (1905 - 1964), best known for his exquisitely built and luxuriously sounding archtop guitars, built very few ukuleles. Even his guitars are rare. The roughly 1,100 he built in his New York workshop are coveted by jazz musicians for their superior craftsmanship, unique tone, and playability. Unfortunately, the number of ukuleles D’Angelico built can probably be counted on your right hand.
So, how did I find a D’Angelico ukulele?
It was a circuitous route beginning with postings on the Ukulele Underground, a few YouTube videos, and finally a Japanese website run by Korg which unfortunately turned out to be a dead end. What I did find was a line of D’Angelico-inspired archtop ukuleles recently built by an unnamed Japanese workshop that had once licensed the brand from its then current owner.
After reading through the promotional literature on the Japanese website, I was still no wiser. Not to be denied, I dug a bit deeper.
Here’s what I know…
Sometime after John D’Angelico and his successors left the business, John Ferolito Sr., a co-founder of Arizona Ice Tea, purchased the rights to the D’Angelico brand but never fully developed the brand. The brand was again sold in 2013 to John Ferolito Jr. and partners Brenden Cohen and Steve Pisani. The new owners revived the brand and have started marketing a reasonably priced line of guitars meticulously built using measurements obtained by imaging some of the instruments D’Angelico himself made.
Here’s where it gets a bit unclear…
It appears that before 2013 the brand was licensed to a Japanese manufacturer who developed a line of archtop ukuleles. The line was available only in Japan and perhaps because of that, production soon became unsustainable and the manufacturer filed for bankruptcy. Keyboard manufacturer Korg offered to help move the remaining stock through its sales channels, but only in Japan. At the 2014 NAAM a few D’Angelico ukes made it to the show floor and were very favorably reviewed by Hawaii Music Supply’s staff and were judged to be a more well-rounded instrument than what was being offered by its closest rival, Eastman.
On the Korg site you can find the now defunct line of D’Angelico archtop ukuleles. Six models were offered, five sopranos and a concert size. (See specs below.) Some stock is still available in Japan but once sold, these instruments will become unavailable.
I hope D’Angelico will someday reconsider building archtop ukuleles. I know it would make me very happy.
How about you? Let me know!
Japanese are world-class hobbyists. Go to any bookstore in Japan and there are rows upon rows of how-to books and magazines for nearly every amateur pursuit imaginable. An industry has been built around helping Japanese amateurs get really good at their craft. Music, of course, is a popular hobby and ukulele is no exception. In my opinion, these books are as good or better than anything that can be found in the US.
The last time I was in Japan I went to the bookstore Junkudo in Ikebukuro-ward and on the 9th floor lost myself in shelf after shelf of ukulele books. I came home with two: Ukulele Jazz (Kiyoshi Kobayashi) and Movie Music: Jazz Arrangements for Solo Ukulele by Hiroyuki “Tommy” Tominaga. In this post I’ll review the first.
Ukulele Jazz is a collection of 27 well-arranged tunes in both notation and tablature. Each tune has a page or two of written explanation in Japanese complete with fingering charts, but unless you read Japanese they won’t be of much help. However, if you’re an intermediate player you’ll have no problem working your way through the pieces. Author and Arranger Kiyoshi Kobayashi was trained as a classical guitarist so I find his chord inversions to be very logically laid out on the fretboard and the melodies always come out the better for that. You can hear me playing Satin Doll from this book on the UKULELEjapan.com website.
The book comes with a CD with each piece played in full. It’s helpful to listen to the CD track before starting work on the piece. Then, after you’ve gotten fairly adept at playing the piece, play along with it to get the nuances that you might have missed on your own. You can also go to YouTube and search for Lami Jeon, a young Korean woman, who has filmed herself playing many of these pieces. Watch her left hand as she plays to get tips on which fingers to use.
All the pieces in the book can be played using a flat pick, your thumb, or by finger picking. Kobayashi appears to use his thumb and fingers to pick and strum the uke. I seem to cycle between all three methods depending on what I’m playing and the sound I want to create.
If you’re not planning a trip to Japan anytime soon, you can find a link at UKULELEjapan which will take you to CDJapan where you can place an order in US dollars.
Yours in uke,
Two stops from Tokyo Station on the Chuo-line and you're in a musical paradise! Tokyo Station is the terminus for the Chuo-line so unless you board the wrong line, you're bound to reach your destination. Board the train with the orange stripe at its head so you'll be closest to the proper exit. After a brief stop at Kanda Station disembark at Ochanomizu. Exit using the west gate.
The map above show the location of several of the Shimokura stores but trust me, there's plenty of other stores to browse! You'll need very little or no knowledge of Japanese to navigate your way to the stores. Signs with the word Guitar or ギター are ubiquitous and if all else fails, look for instruments in the window.
You'll find a lot of American instruments in these stores but you'll also find Japanese brands as well- some made in Japan, some made in China. There are plenty of stores in Ochanomizu that specialize in selling used instruments but be warned, they are much more expensive than what you'd find here in the States. Takumi Ukuleles' Kiwaya, Lo Prinzi, Famous are widely distributed, Seilin's T's Ukulele are a bit harder to find but quality instruments. There are a number of luthiers in Japan making some really beautiful instruments but you'll find that like most Japanese instruments, they tend to be on the upper end of the price scale. But you do get what you pay for, don't you...
Korg of keyboard fame, recently released in Japan a full line of D'Angelico archtop ukuleles. I've seen the YouTubes but have yet to get my hands on one so let me know if you find one and what you think!
Japan is one of the last countries in the world with strong CD sales which, in a country short on living space, seems just a bit counter intuitive. This means that there's a lot of CD shops with new and used CDs of every variety! Disk Union, the largest chain, sells both used and new CD's. I've found more of the most arcane, out-of-print, hard to find CDs at Disk Union than anywhere I've ever been!
Happy hunting and be sure to share your finds here!