Friday, February 3, 2017

Sweet Bitter Blues

The curling streets and alleyways of Shimokitazawa, a scrappy neighborhood on the western edge of Tokyo, are too narrow to comfortably accommodate an actual automobile. But on foot, a person can easily lose an afternoon wandering its attenuated paths, browsing racks of crinkled vintage t-shirts and shelves of enamel cookware, supping complicated, multi-ingredient cocktails. Tourist guides describe the area as “endearingly haphazard” and “meticulously inelegant.” It is, perhaps, a Japanese approximation of Brooklyn’s approximation of some bohemian European enclave. Young people congregate in its bars and cafés, fiddling with devices, smoking, looking stylishly aggrieved.

I was in Shimokitazawa to see Steve Gardner, a singer and blues guitarist from Pocahontas, Mississippi, play a tiny club called Lown. American blues performers—purveyors of “black music,” as it is known colloquially here—can find good work in Tokyo and its immediate environs. I’d first gleaned something about the Japanese appreciation for specific tributaries of American vernacular music several years ago, when I was reporting a book about collectors of exceptionally rare 78 rpm records. Artifacts of a certain era tended to drift peaceably but steadily across the Pacific—coaxed east, I was told, by affluent and eager bidders.

I couldn’t quite figure out why Japanese listeners had come to appreciate and savor the blues in the way that they seemed to—lavishly, devotedly. Blues is still an outlier genre in Japan, but it’s revered, topical, present. I’d spent my first couple of days in Tokyo hungrily trawling the city’s many excellent record stores, marveling at the stock. I had shuffled into the nine-story Tower Records in Shibuya (NO MUSIC NO LIFE, a giant sign on its exterior read), past a K-pop band called CLC, an abbreviation for Crystal Clear—seven very-young-looking women in matching outfits, limply performing a synchronized dance, waving their slender arms back and forth before a hypnotized crowd—and ridden an elevator to a floor housing more shrink-wrapped blues CDs than I have ever seen gathered in a single place of retail. I had been to a tiny, quiet bar—JBS, or Jazz, Blues, and Soul—with floor-to-ceiling shelves housing owner Kobayashi Kazuhiro’s eleven thousand LPs, from which he studiously selected each evening’s soundtrack. I had seen more than one person wearing a Sonny Boy Williamson t-shirt. I had heard about audiophiles installing their own utility poles to get “more electricity” straight from the grid to power elaborate sound systems. What I didn’t know was what about this music made sense in Japan—how and why it had come to occupy the collective imagination, what it could offer.

A few hours before Gardner’s set, I ducked into a subterranean restaurant called the Village Vanguard (its name was presumably an homage to the famed New York City jazz club, though I could not discern any literal or even spiritual link between the two establishments). A sign on the door identified it as an “almost hamburger shop.” I ordered the hamburger. Norman Rockwell prints were nailed to the walls, alongside framed pages from Life magazine. “Paradise City” bleated from overhead speakers. The décor evoked the interior of the roadhouse from Thelma and Louise, except the bar itself was tiki-themed, bedecked with lights and plastic tropical flowers. I was trying to develop some richer understanding of how the Japanese metabolize and reiterate notions of Americana, but the cumulative effect was dizzying—an incongruous amalgamation of signifiers. (I am certain that many Japanese-style restaurants in America feel just as insane to the Japanese.) I nibbled a French fry. There were license plates from Illinois and Montana hung above my table.

I’d made arrangements to meet up with the expat writer Michael Pronko, who was born in Kansas City but has lived in Tokyo for the past fifteen years, teaching American literature, culture, film, music, and art at Meiji Gakuin University. Pronko writes and edits for a website called Jazz in Japan, which features reviews, interviews, and essays about Western music in Asia. I eventually found him waiting outside the Shimokitazawa subway station, wearing the hat, glasses, and beard of a man who has traveled extensively—the grizzled-yet-refined comportment of a war correspondent. We repaired to a bar.

I figured Pronko might have ideas about why American blues resonates so strongly for some Japanese audiences. I already knew the rote sociohistorical explanation—how African-American soldiers stationed in Japan during and after World War II had brought their record collections with them, and how an appreciation for those sounds (which were unfamiliar and, for many Japanese listeners, intoxicating) took root, flourished. This, of course, is also the story of every musical diaspora: a song or style travels, via commercially pressed records or sheet music or radio broadcasts or the performers themselves, and we are reminded anew that art transcends geography and that some expressions are so universally human as to be undeniable.

I was curious, though, about how this particular transmigration might be more complicated; blues, after all, is especially indebted to its place of provenance (the Deep South—specifically northwestern Mississippi and parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas). To my ears, it is the most essentially American of all the great American idioms, and contains a more literal retelling of its originating landscape than any other genre I can think of—there is a saturation and a heaviness to early blues, a doused but crackling heat, a flatness. This is one reason blues tourism continues to flourish in the Mississippi Delta. Fans share a pervasive belief that this music is perhaps best deciphered by more closely examining its wellspring, by coming to know the earth there, by steering the family sedan to the so-called Devil’s Crossroads in Clarksdale, where Highways 61 and 49 intersect, and where, in the most apocryphal of all the great and concupiscent blues myths, Robert Johnson sold his soul to Satan so he could finger some hotter licks. Dazed-looking blues fans pull over, climb out of their cars, draw a lungful of soggy Southern air, and, maybe, unlock some part of themselves. I’ve done it, is all I’m saying—I’ve gone there looking for answers. I found some.

Pronko and I ordered a round of beers. My theories were rickety, but I charged ahead nonetheless. I asked him about what I understood as a compelling tension between Japanese humility—a pervasive, unwavering stoicism—and the more unfettered spirit of the blues. These were grand, maybe irresponsible generalizations, but even despite my broad strokes, a disconnection felt palpable. “Blues is raw. There’s no filter—[blues musicians] are often saying that they’re angry, they’re depressed,” Pronko agreed. “In Japanese culture, you tend to notexpress those things. To say, ‘Oh, I feel terrible’ is a burden on the other person, because then they’re obligated to listen to you and take care of you. It’s the same in America, maybe, but that obligation is stronger here,” he continued. “When I play blues to students, I tell them to not listen to the words, but to listen to the feeling of it—to the gut-punch. Do that first, then we’ll get into the words. I think that kind of direct, emotional, uninhibited expression is really appealing to the Japanese, because things are so restrained in Japanese society.” 

by Amanda Petrusich, Oxford American | Read more:
Image: Eleanor Davis