(Click here to read Part 1)
I cut my plans short in Hokkaido for a series of performances with Saburo Inoue. Sab is a handsome thin man with wire rimmed glasses, a slightly crooked smile, and quiet confidence. He first came to the US with the band Bluegrass 45 in the early 70s where they appeared at some of the very first bluegrass festivals, alongside the classic bands of the era. The history of the band and its members is a delightful one, spanning 50 years, and you can read more here.
With his brother Toshio, he started Bluegrass and Oldtime Music, Ltd. (BOM) Company and Red Clay Records, modeled after Rebel Records, which is arguably the most important label in the history of bluegrass music. Red Clay Records actually financed and co-produced Tony Rice’s first album, “Guitar” for $500 back in 1973. Their festival in Takarazuka is the third longest running festival in the world, celebrating its 44th year (where I had the pleasure of performing with the Sennichimae Bluegrass Album Band).
Sab had just happened to be in NC in June, so we met up near Morganton at the home of his host, Jacob Sharp of the band Mipso. Next to the waters of Lake James, Sab explained to me his idea for a program he was calling “Appalachian Voice.”
“Concept is,” he said, "that I ask myself the question, what am I trying to do with this music all these years? I’ve dedicated my life to it, but I will never be the best banjo player or most famous person, but studying it has been my life’s work and I want to teach others about the roots of this music, and how it came to be, why it’s special, and share all that I’ve learned about it through the years."
OK, even if you read no further, be sure to watch this clip from Camp Springs, NC Bluegrass Festival 1971 with Earl Scruggs playing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Sab enters after about 1:00, undoubtedly a man living his dreams (listen to the crowd cheer for him!). This was edited from an incredible treasure of a documentary called "Bluegrass Country Soul" that was made at the Camp Springs Festival in 1971. If you want to see some amazing footage of the greatest bands of the era, the feel of the early bluegrass festivals, a who's-who of first and second generation bluegrass cameos, it's now on youtube here. If you're a bluegrass fan, set aside 1.5 hours to watch this beautiful video.
The program was to explore the roots of Appalachian music, which was to include Scotch-Irish ballads, African/African-American influences of banjo and blues, fiddle tunes, gospel, the Carter Family style of early country, and folk songs like the Stephen Foster tune “Old Susanna.” He included songs that aren't especially familiar to my generation but had bloomed in popularity on the isolated shores of Japan, such that every school-aged kid might be taught Henry Clay Work’s “Marching Through Georgia” and “Grandfathers Clock.” These folk songs would have been introduced after Admiral Perry forcefully opened Japan's ports (and society) to the world in the 1870s. Initially, the US Navy brought minstrel bands and Civil War tunes; after WWII, Occupation Radio, later called the Far East Network, brought early country music, and of course the folk boom in the 60s was an influence felt worldwide.
The program title would be “Appalachian Voice” and I was to supply the “voice.”
Rehearsing for "Appalachian Voice" program at Lake James, NC
He had pulled Peter Barakan on board to be his co-host for the program. Peter is a British ex-pat and long-time Tokyo-ite who is a popular radio DJ, television program host and author. He struck me as a Garrison Keillor type figure in terms of popularity and taste—everyone I talked with seemed to know who he was and were fans of his radio program “Barakan Beat” or his TV show “Japanology” on NHK (Japanese Broadcast Corporation) World TV.
I left slow-paced Hokkaido through a long process of plane, train and subway transfers into the heart of the densest, most sophisticated transportation hub in the world: Tokyo. Armed with my conversational Japanese I arrived in the sweltering capital. After connecting up with Yui, Sab’s daughter, we emerged outside Daikanyama Station and into the open arms of Sab who was waiting for us on the sidewalk. We had an uncharacteristically Japanese group hug (Japanese are not really into hugging) and then climbed into an enormous, uncharacteristicly-Japanese leather-interior SUV driven by Sab’s old college friend. Sab himself doesn’t own a car, and lives simply; however he seems to have a kind of star power to have people that are more than happy to help him out in every corner of the world from Shanghai to Bean Blossom, IN. His time and attention are always in high demand. Sab’s son Taro, an excellent mandolin player, was sporting a lid hat and nonchalantly changing his strings on the dashboard as we cruised the streets in search of lunch.
We had only just come up with the basic program at the lake house six weeks before, and with Tokyo performance just four hours ahead, I was anxious to run through the program. Peter was supposed to play some guitar, and Taro decided to jump in at the last minute on mandolin, so as soon as introductions were made, we embarked on a cram session. The venue was called, oddly, “If it’s sunny, throw beans at the sky” and was big by Japanese standards, especially given the fact that we were temporarily inhabiting some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Peter and Sab's reputation coupled with the “Appalachian Voice” concept seemed to be a compelling combination: the venue was completely full. Peter and Sab were perfectly engaging and entertaining hosts. Sab would lay in on banjo and Taro flawlessly supported on mandolin, toning down his modern, virtuosic style to fit the theme. Sandwiched between father and son, I felt like I was a part of their family. But Taro told me, “this is extremely rare, we never play together.”
Giddy after pulling off a high energy, spontaneously fun performance, we moved upstairs for beers and dainty appetizers, beautifully prepared but insubstantial in quantity by American standards. We talked about big ideas, beautiful stories of the past (like when Sab played Earl’s Breakdown with Earl Scruggs himself at Camp Springs, NC), and ideas for future projects (like recording a CD of Japanese songs in Appalachian Voice) until it got so late that we had to leave. We ended up missing the last train home and had to turn around and go back to Shibuya, the Times Square of Tokyo, to crash at a friend’s house.
Afterward, we wandered the narrow streets of the old city with banjos and guitars and fiddles strapped to our backs in search of a late lunch, and finally settled on a conveyer-belt sushi restaurant with very cold nama (draft) beer. We relaxed and reflected on the remarkable 24 hours we had just spent together. I left Sab at the train station where, instead of buying an express ticket back to Takarazuka, he paid the local train fare. “I always prefer taking the slow train,” he said. “I like to watch all the people.”
From Tokyo, I headed to Kyoto where I was fortunate to play with a band called Pirates Canoe. I had met them back in the spring when they came to Asheville to play at Jack of the Wood, a local pub. My friend, left-handed, Monroe-style mandolin player Shin Akimoto had introduced me to Sara Kohno via Facebook and told me to go see them. They are an Americana act, only it has a uniquely Japanese quality to it, a lightness and precision to its campiness, a sweetness and innocence to its moodiness, a stoicism and dignified distance to its familiarity. Anyway, I went to the show, I bought them a couple of beers, and left, and that was it.
A few months later, the drummer Yoshi invited me to join their Japan tour, and, fast forward a few months, I was headed to Jittoku, the oldest “live house” (music venue) in Kyoto. In Japan, if you go to “a live”, it means to go to a concert—just another example of how Japanese take an English word and then create their own meaning for it that isn’t really understandable at all to an English speaker. Which confuses them—“it’s English, you know, “live”…).
Jittoku is located on a typical Kyoto street—lined with tiny shops with awnings and mysterious unmarked doors covered with Japanese reed shades (for privacy, but it also helps to keep the heat down). The road is narrow enough that it’s hard to believe cars can pass each other going in opposite directions, particularly with bicycles and pedestrians and motorbikes as independently moving parts in the whole crazy transportation machine that is Kyoto.
This video showcases Pirates Canoe wonderful song "Guitar Blue" at Jittoku with me on fiddle and some vocals, it was so delightful, you'll see.
Jittoku is large by Kyoto standards, probably seating around 75-100 people, and is located in an old warehouse space. Huge square wooden beams that must have come from enormous trees framed the walls, within which several busy waitresses served delicious little sandwiches (Kyoto has incredible bread) and nama beer to a packed house of Pirates Canoe fans. The Japanese-style staircase that led to the green room had treads that were as narrow as ladder rungs, way too steep by American code—you literally have to “climb” the stairs. Of course we took off our shoes at the bottom, and then sat around upstairs in our socks eating onigiri (rice balls) and sembe (crackers) and working out our harmonies. One tune we rehearsed was “Down by the Salley Gardens,” the same song that the school kids in Hokkaido had taught me!
It was easiest to communicate with their lead singer Reika, who was raised in Japan but born in Alabama. The mandolin player Sara sang and smiled—she is a Buddhist monk by trade, a profession she inherited from her father who is also a monk, and also a folk musician! Yoshi sat behind his drumset barefoot, with a sailor hat on his ponytailed head, sweating and smiling in the unbelievable Kyoto summer heat. We laughed and played their wonderful original songs, and I just paddled along with them in their happy Pirates Canoe. They all wore Pirates Canoe t-shirts while they performed, and they all changed outfits at set break; Reika even changed her earrings (I guess since the man that made them was in the audience—he gave me a pair too!).
I was the only American in the room except for Reika’s father, and people seemed excited to have a foreigner join the mix. They invited me to lead a tune, so I had suggested we play “New River Train” since I thought that would be straightforward with their instrumentation and because it is about the area I am from, the New River Valley in southwest Virginia.
My husband’s entire extended family had come to watch the show, and afterward his cousin Shu had waited around to take me home. Before leaving, Yoshi handed me a payment, not a folded wad of cash pulled from the gig take, but a single crisp bill in an envelope. The band members came out to the street to say goodbye. I thanked them and climbed on the cargo rack of Shu’s bicycle, strapped my fiddle over my shoulder, rested the heels of my boots on the slightly rusty rear axle. I grabbed onto Shu’s damp shirt as we rode through the thick summer evening air along the narrow streets of Kyoto, my stomach flying as we dove into corners and swooped on and off sidewalks.
The pace of a bicycle was just the right speed to leave thoughts of the wonderful show at Jittoku and take in the night scenes of Kyoto. Salarymen in white shirts, black pants, and shiny shoes, expressionless, walking home from the train station after a 14-hour day. Stooped-over elderly shuffling around, doing mysterious things that people in the US don’t bother with, like bending over to pick up a piece of trash or pulling a weed from a crack in a sidewalk or slipping a disposable plastic bag folded into a football into their pocket so as not to waste it. A blinding fluorescent rainbow of lights and loud electronic music wafting from a pachinko gambling parlor, the people inside transfixed in front of banks of complex pinball machines under clouds of cigarette smoke. A darkened city block with a winged-roofed temple surrounded by gardens watched over by manicured pines with their pompom branches. A handful of laughing customers at the tiny bar of a “snack,” which is what they call a late night drinking place. A customer with wet hair and a cigarette in his mouth ducking between the hanging curtains (noren) halfway covering the entrance of a public bath (sento). Kyoto at night feels so safe, so quiet but so busy, so purposeful and active, it doesn’t seem like it sleeps, but simply catnaps.
This and a million other details. Back in Hokkaido when I met with Kentaro Hiratsuka for the last time, I was getting ready to leave for Tokyo. After a delicious meal of homemade sushi, we retreated into a side room with tatami floors and Tery’s family shrine in the corner. It got later and later and I tried to ignore the fact that I had a 6am departure the next morning and hadn’t packed anything at all. As we played “one more last song,” Kentaro simply said, “it’s endless.” And so it is. It truly is. Happily, it is. And how I hope it will be! With this second trip to Japan, I realize that it can be. I am already looking forward to the next trip. Thank you, “arigatou!” and “mata ne?” (“let’s do it again soon, huh?”).