Project Update: Getting close to next stretch goal and...bluegrass in Japan!!!

I wanted to keep you all updated with the amazing success we have had in less than a week with funding our first album!  We are so pleased to have you as a part of this and sincerely appreciate the financial, emotional, and spiritual support in this.  Thanks to you it's gonna happen!  

We are close to our next stretch goal of $10,000, which will allow us to hire a publicist for an extra month, helping to get the CD into the hands of DJs, reviewers and promoters. 

Some of the backers live are all the way in Japan!  So I wanted to share some things related to that, in a couple of installments.  Anya (me) traveled to Japan in 2013 for the summer and met many bluegrass musicians across the country.  I wrote an article called "Bluegrass Accident" for the Japanese bluegrass magazine "Moonshiner" that is run by two of the members of the legendary band Bluegrass 45.  Here they are back in 1971 on their first tour of America, check out this wonderful, wonderful clip:


The first installment of the article was about my experiences in Hokkaido, where I performed at several bluegrass festivals and had the chance to play with some of their best pickers who carry with them some wonderful stories.  Below is the account of this experience, with some photos also, that help to answer the question, "why are the Japanese so crazy for Bluegrass??"  Enjoy!

BLUEGRASS ACCIDENT

I didn’t plan to bring my fiddle to Japan, just wanted to spend a few months with my in laws, learning Japanese and introducing my daughter Sachi, 14 months, to her cousins, aunts and uncles. However, when my mother in law was planning our stay in Hokkaido, she told me that there had been some performances scheduled. Her old friend from Berkeley California, Osamu Hiroyama, founder of the famous Japanese hand tool shop Hida Tool, and his wife Koguma, offered to host us at their café in Naganuma, called simply “Kogumaza.” Koguma-san contacted her friends Tery and Yoko Watanabe who devised a plan for several live performances with Stove, a bluegrass band based around Sapporo. So in addition to one suitcase with two months of clothes, a second suitcase full of omiage gifts, a child’s carseat, two backpacks, and a baby, I dragged the fiddle from airport to airport all the way to Sapporo, Hokkaido. 

At the train station, with fiddle
At the train station, with fiddle

I don’t know what I expected of the bluegrass scene in Japan. I knew that many great bluegrass musicians had done tours in Japan, that there was wild enthusiasm from the audiences, and that performers were surprised by the die-hard fans that they encountered. I vaguely recall an interview about Hazel and Alice’s tour in Japan, and how amazed they were that people could sing along to every word of their songs. Before we left Asheville, I communicated with Tery several times and he sent me YouTube links of performances by Hokkaido’s Kentaro Hiratsuka and a signed CD of duets by the Ozaki Brothers. I began to get a sense of the depth of talent of the pickers and the history of picking in Japan.

When we arrived at Tery and Yoko’s house, we were surrounded by an archive of music history. Especially interesting were the reel-to-reel tapes Tery had stashed away. I mean, who has a reel-to-reel tape player in their living room? He played me old episodes of Occupation Radio (later becoming Far East Network), which was popular in Japan after WWII. Yoko, who has been singing and playing autoharp and guitar for some 50 years, explained that those radio programs gave her generation the connection to country music, and that, for her, it became the sound of her childhood. Tery also had some “mixed tapes” from Hokkaido’s Stanley Brothers Tape Club that had been created by Keiko Shimada in the early 1970s. The tapes, which were passed around by tape club members, included selections from classic recordings by the Stanley Brothers and are a reminder of how difficult it used to be to get access to music in the analog age -- no matter where you were living. Mr. Fumio Sekino also had a record shop in Sapporo with a country music corner where Tery and Yoko would collect records, especially from the County label. 

Tery and the reel-to-reel
Tery and the reel-to-reel

Perhaps my favorite recording was the tape of Kentaro Hiratsuka that was made during the 80s when his friend Roland White had come to Japan to attend Kentaro’s wedding. The trio, with Kentaro on guitar, Roland on mandolin and Don Branum on banjo, was magical. Their passion for the music was intense, the tapes were practically smoking. Tery and I sat on the tatami floor together and watched the reels turn around and around. Tery had a beautiful smile on his face. He had made the recording himself, creating a rich reverb somehow by recording a third tape from two identical tapes played at a slight delay. Each day, Tery would share another little carefully selected tidbit from the past, play me another track from a record pulled out of a tall stack, or show me a photograph or book or file or CD from his massive collection of old stuff. All of this helped me appreciate the depth to which the Japanese love bluegrass music. It’s more than just the picking. The feel has to be right, the emotion. Authenticity is critical.

Hokkaido countryside
Hokkaido countryside

 Just days after landing in Sapporo, Tery drove us from Ebetsu City for miles through rice fields, potato fields, and wheat fields until we reached Naganuma. Sitting on the ends of empty Kirin beer crates outside Kogumaza, we began to work up material for our show for that evening. It was a trio that night, with Naohiko Nakahara on guitar, Kenji Komatsuzaki on banjo, and Takeshi Kaneichi on mandolin. Nakahara-san is friendly and outgoing with a wonderful sense of humor that makes him the perfect front man for Stove. He also writes bluegrass songs in Japanese, which seems to strike Americans as such an odd combination, but after working out my harmonies to his beautiful songs with such touching imagery and meaning, it seemed perfectly natural. I am still singing his songs to myself, like “Yubari Tochan” about a struggling but hopeful family in an abandoned Hokkaido mining town, and “Tenko sitteita Miyo-chan 2011” the story of a young girl who has to go to a new school after being displaced by the Fukushima nuclear accident.

Kogumaza, Naganuma Hokkaido
Kogumaza, Naganuma Hokkaido

 It was a beautiful evening in mid June, but the rice had only just been planted in Hokkaido. Yoko, Stove and I performed in a corner of the café, competing for attention with Kogumaza’s busy decorations that ranged from kewpie dolls to a WWII pinup girls postcard collection. The audience filtered in from distances of an hour or more and filled the floor cushions and low couches of the café. I bypassed the microphone to stand very close to them and sing the 250-year-old hymn “When I can read my title clear” a capella, which moved one audience member to later write a beautiful essay, another to make a DVD of the entire performance, and another to offer to show me around Hokkaido. I had underestimated the power of something that was so natural for me, something I practically took for granted, but so new and compelling to them. It reminded me what a wonderful opportunity I had to use music as a vehicle for connecting to new friends and sharing our cultures with each other. After the show, we ate Osamu’s chirashi sushi and BBQ and drank nama beer with the sounds of water flowing through the irrigation canals of the rice fields that surrounded us.

With STOVE at Kogumaza
With STOVE at Kogumaza
Hokkaido countryside
Hokkaido countryside

This performance was followed by another one with Yoko Watanabe and Stove, this time including Mayuko Minakami, a wonderful songwriter and vocalist, at her café Hiiragi in Sapporo. This time Stove had the full band including Naoki Hiroyoshi on fiddle and Naoki Hoshi on bass. In order to fit the band and about 30 audience members, they had to move all the tables into the hall. We rehearsed for a few hours with a lot of laughter and joking around. This was a band that seemed to value fun above all else, which made the music wonderful and the audience, including students from Hokkaido and Rakuno Gakuen Universities’ bluegrass clubs, had a great time. I was sad that it was our last show together, especially since I had finally learned my parts in Japanese! Nakahara-san kindly assured me that any time I was in Hokkaido I would be a Stove member.

With STOVE at Hiiragi, Sapporo
With STOVE at Hiiragi, Sapporo

Maybe the most touching performance was at Nakahara-san’s 2nd grade music class in Hiroshima City. Nakahara-san asked me to wear my cowboy boots in the classroom, and he cleaned the soles off for me in the genkkan. The children were wildly excited to have a foreigner visiting their school, it was like the Beatles landing in America. After I played a bit for their music class, Nakahara-san invited me to join them in katakana practice. Seemed like a nice exchange. The student’s stiff backpacks were neatly lined up on the wall, the children all sitting at their desks bathed in the angled Hokkaido sunlight. Nakahara-san played guitar, wrote Japanese characters on the blackboard, and served lunch all with a deep joy and kindness toward the children. They love him. When it was time to leave, it was a sad farewell. The music had somehow allowed us to feel we had shared something magical, and that they weren’t kids and we weren’t grown-ups, but all wonderful friends. As we drove away from the dusty playground, the children hanging out of the second floor windows waving goodbye, tears sprung to my eyes. It was a purely beautiful afternoon.  

With Nakahara-san's class
With Nakahara-san's class
Nakahara-san's classroom, 2nd grade
Nakahara-san's classroom, 2nd grade

Later with Kentaro, we looked at the 107 Songbook of The Natasha Seven, one of the first folk groups in Japan to put Japanese lyrics to folk songs. This was the music that inspired Kentaro’s generation to play acoustic American folk music and, and for him, bluegrass. During a long evening over a plate of sushi, Kentaro slowly revealed his some of his story, how as a student at Rakuno Gakuen University, he devoted every ounce of time, every penny he had, to learning to pick and sing bluegrass music. He left school and set his compass to Nashville with fearless determination. 

Interviewing Kentaro
Interviewing Kentaro

While he appears reticent at first, when Kentaro gets a story going, it spills out like water. He told me about his incredible year or so in Nashville, maybe the most formative year of his life. About just after his arrival in the US, how he ordered the cheapest thing on the menu without having any idea what it was, and it was simply gravy. About how he had the humble job of chopping wood at the instrument shop where he eventually apprenticed until they agreed to teach him to be a luthier. About his rustic living quarters, torn clothes, beard and long hair. About playing at the Station Inn with Roland White and other well-known Nashville pickers. And other stories, stories of when Roland came to Japan for his wedding and his newlywed wife took care of them as they played music day and night for a month (captured on Tery’s reel to reel tape recording). Remembering Bill Monroe’s visit to the Hokkaido Frontier Museum where Bill cried when he saw the display of early 20th century farming techniques that featured the exact same mule drawn plows that he had used on a Kentucky farm in his youth. Remembering how Larry Sparks liked soft cream. Sitting with Kentaro and Tery and Yoko as they reflected on practically 50 years of picking, promoting music, performing, and creating a music community together, their dedication to music was remarkable. 

with Kentaro at Yakumo Bluegrass Festival
with Kentaro at Yakumo Bluegrass Festival

At the Yakumo Bluegrass Festival in southern Hokkaido, thanks to Mr. Hangai’s generous invitation, I finally had a chance to perform with Kentaro. We discussed which songs we would play, me trying my best to play guitar while kneeling Japanese-style on the floor of a camping tent while Kentaro, sitting cross-legged, effortlessly played his mandolin. After running through a few tunes our voices began to blend well, even as the blood flow was slowly cut off from my feet. It is an amazing experience to knit two voices together, to unite them to create that wonderful harmony that becomes its own voice. The vibration, the focus, the way your brain feels when you get it right, without saying a word, you are connected to that person forever. 

With Kenta at Yakumo Bluegrass Festival
With Kenta at Yakumo Bluegrass Festival

The next day, a fantastic young guitarist named Kenta Haga from a tiny southern Hokkaido town called Imakane joined me on stage for a few songs, including Norman Blake’s “Lord Won’t You Help Me.” His playing was so expressive and delicate that the songs took on a trance-like quality, although it might have just been lack of sleep! That night Kenta joined us at the Horinji Temple in Imakane where we spent the night. He and the resident monk, Achiwa Ichido, a guitarist, banjo maker and songwriter, are picking buddies. I was completely amazed to hear a Buddhist monk playing banjo by night and chanting by day. 

With Kenta and Achiwa Ichido, resident monk of Horinji Temple
With Kenta and Achiwa Ichido, resident monk of Horinji Temple

Oh Hokkaido, your delights and surprises seemingly have no end. After three remarkable weeks, the goodbyes were sad. It was like leaving family. At the airport we waved and waved.

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