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Friday, March 13, 2009
Going where the grass is bluer
By VIRGINIA SORRELLS and NICHOLAS VROMAN
Special to The Japan Times
It's a story you could write a song about. It's sometime in the 1960s or '70s. A teenager in Tokyo slips a borrowed cassette into a player and is transfixed by what he hears: the sound of guitars, banjos and mandolins; the call of mountains far, far away. He saves his money and flies to the United States, gets on a Greyhound bus and makes a pilgrimage to legendary folk festivals. He hears bluegrass music live for the first time and it changes the course of his musical life.
This is a typical story for many of the older generation of Japanese bluegrass players. Now, a new generation of fans can easily find nearly the entire history of recorded bluegrass on the Internet and in collectors' corners of specialty CD shops. To experience the music live, they can visit the many tiny but energetic music clubs in the basements and upper floors of buildings in Tokyo areas as diverse as Koenji, long a counterculture haven, and Ginza, which is better known for high-priced glamour than the high and lonesome sound of bluegrass. Osaka and Yokohama also boast small but lively communities of fans and players.
It may seem odd that bluegrass has taken off in Japan, but the sentimental and hardscrabble stories of enka (Japanese ballads) and the technical virtuosity of Tsugaru-style shamisen share a lot in common with bluegrass's sun-bleached Americana.
In these music venues you will find musicians of all ages carrying on the traditions of the '60s generation of folk and roots musicians. Some 40 years after it was first introduced to Japan, this Western transplant has taken firm root in Tokyo.
In the six years since it opened, Moon Stomp in Koenji — which seats about 20 with room for another six on the stage — has become a magnet for roots and creative musicians, thanks to the efforts of manager Yasuhiro Shimazaki. A bass player himself, Shimazaki has been a fan of roots music since his teens and is especially fond of The Pogues. Just inside the door of the club, there's a photo of him backstage with the band's frontman, Shane McGowan.
Shimazaki reflects, "The owner was a bit skeptical at first of my programming choices for Moon Stomp, but people started coming."
And come they do, seven nights a week, often filling every one of the 20 seats and lining up two or three deep at the back of the room. Whether it's the twice-monthly free bluegrass jam session or live performances, the audience often consists primarily of other musicians.
The basement entrance to Moon Stomp is plastered with posters of local roots acts: The Moonstompers, Cabarello Porkers, Kanaboon and Booncompanion. One recent bluegrass jam night, the door swung open and the strains of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" in somewhat idiosyncratic English drowned out the sounds emanating from neighboring clubs.
Instruments line the walls, and everyone is invited to take one down and join the jam. Shoehorned onto the tiny stage are a mix of players — some old pros, some talented and serious aficionados, others weekend pickers — swapping chords, encouragement and good-humored ribbing, like a large, loving musical family
Tokyo's roots-music scene is wonderfully intergenerational. Mandolin player and luthier Takeshi Iwamoto is a member of the older generation of musicians playing frequently at Moon Stomp and other venues around town. He discovered American folk music as a teenager in 1968, when he and friends began swapping tapes of their favorite folk and bluegrass acts.
"I traveled around the U.S. by Greyhound bus for three months in 1970, stopping off at folk festivals in Asheville, North Carolina and Hugo, Oklahoma," he recalls. "There, for the first time, I was able to see live bluegrass."
The following year, he and several friends launched Karuizawa Folk Festival in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture — the first of its kind in Japan. The lineage continues to this day in the Hakone Bluegrass Festival, held each year in August in the mountain resort in Kanagawa Prefecture. Now retired, Iwamoto dedicates himself to music, building exquisite one-of-a-kind mandolins in his meticulously organized workshop.
At the other end of the generational spectrum is Tatsuya Kuwabara (also known as KT), who, at the ripe old age of 21, is one of the hottest banjo players in Tokyo, regularly playing with bluegrass and country groups such as Jellyfish, Gypsy swing bands and at any number of gigs where his angular and blistering solos put him in a league of his own.
KT is young and hungry and loves to play. Anything. He started performing music as a young teenager, playing drums for a high-school J-pop band.
"One day I bought a Charlie Poole CD — just because of the cover — and I was hooked," he says.
Five years after he began playing the banjo, KT is in demand as a studio and touring musician, usually decked out in his signature black three-piece suit that looks like it was borrowed from a 1920s Southern Baptist preacher. He has toured Japan with such acts as Petty Booka, the Japanese ukulele duo/girl group/novelty act.
Across town from Moon Stomp, Ginza's Rocky Top has its nearly 30 years of history tacked, stapled and taped to its walls and ceiling. Decades of performance snapshots, postcards and souvenirs from the American heartland, and autographed pictures of famous bluegrass artists and folksters who have visited — Bill Monroe, David Grisman and John Hartford among them — festoon the cozy space. It's a shrine to Americana.
Owner Nobuyuki Taguchi took over the venerable institution seven years ago after its original owner passed away. A guitar player and vocalist since high school, his own introduction to bluegrass music was remarkably similar to Iwamoto's, including the folk-festival pilgrimage.
"In high school, I listened to Clarence White, The Kentucky Colonels and Hot Rize," he says. "I've been to America only one time and played at the Bean Blossom and Lexington Bluegrass festivals" in Indiana and Kentucky respectively.
He's started a new band, called The Eel Dogs, which he plans to have perform at the club once or twice a year.
"I book about 70 percent bluegrass now," he says. "The rest is country, folk, Gypsy swing and West Coast rock — you know, like The Eagles."
The club is busy seven nights a week. "But we do take time off for the Hakone Bluegrass Festival," he adds, laughing. Thirty years on, he's still a musical pilgrim.
Bluegrass jam sessions are held on the first and third Fridays of every month at Moon Stomp (Koenji Kita 2-22-6, Suginami-ku, Tokyo;  3310-6996; www.bighitcompany.com/moonstomp). The club has live music daily and is open 7:30 p.m. till 5 a.m. Rocky Top (Ginza 7-8-19, Chuo-ku, Tokyo;  3571-1955; www.liverocky.com/ html/index.html) hosts live music seven days a week. Doors open at 7 p.m.; last set ends at 10:30 p.m.