Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
|Junnosuke Uehara of the Waraku Ensemble in Tokyo March 2010|
The five-piece band has taken almost a dozen pop songs from the past 40 years and arranged them for traditional Japanese instruments such as the shamisen, shakuhachi and koto.
"As this is cafe music, I wanted songs that are easy to listen to and familiar to a lot of people. So, we chose very popular songs associated with spring that everyone should know," Junnosuke Uehara, shamisen player for the Waraku Ensemble recently told The Daily Yomiuri in Tokyo.
The sound of the shamisen can be an acquired taste, yet Uehara's shamisen arrangements come as a very pleasant surprise.
"Some shamisen have a very harsh sound, but I can change the tone with bridges to match the cafe sound I'm trying to achieve. I can get different sounds from different bridges and different strumming techniques," he explained as he showed me his prized instrument made from the skin of a female cat.
Most of the tracks were written less than 40 years ago. Of those, the oldest is Haruomi Hosono's "Owari no Kisetsu" and the languid treatment the song is given can be appreciated even more after listening to the original version with its country-music backing.
One of the treats of the album was checking out the originals on Youtube and finding a young (and very pretty) Seiko Matsuda performing "Akai Sweet Pea" with Tetsuko Kuroyanagi on TV in the early '80s and discovering the charms of girl group the Candies. Two of their numbers, "Hohoemi Gaeshi" (Returning a smile with a smile) and "Haru Ichiban" (First spring breeze) from 1978 and 1976, respectively, are good fun and the lively arrangement of the latter tune also allows listeners in the know the chance to perform the group's distinctive hand jive--if they feel so inclined.
Uehara hopes to broaden the appeal of traditional Japanese music, not only overseas, but also domestically. The album's extensive liner notes give information about the songs, instruments and group members in both English and Japanese.
"I wanted to help traditional Japanese music to become known widely throughout the world, not in a difficult form--but a more accessible way.
"We've included a description of instruments, as a lot of people in Japan have never seen these traditional instruments. I wanted to trigger an interest in traditional Japanese culture by introducing the instruments," Uehara said.
Fusing traditional music with contemporary sounds can be a perilous undertaking, and Uehara admitted his "modernization" of shamisen music had received mixed reactions.
"Some of my contemporaries who play traditional Japanese music have been very positive about this project. Others feel you shouldn't mess with tradition, and are not quite so encouraging about experimenting with traditional instruments," he said.
Concertgoers will get a chance to judge for themselves when the Waraku Ensemble play in Tokyo next month. Uehara hopes a good time will be had by all.
"I want people to come and casually listen to the hit songs played in this manner and have a nice evening with great food and drink and enjoy the sounds," he said.
"Japanese Cafe Music" by the Waraku Ensemble is out now on Respect Records. The group will play at Eats and Meets Cay in Aoyama, Tokyo, on April 10 at 6:30 p.m. (03) 3498-5790
(Mar. 26, 2010)