Cockroaches of the music world

My contact in Morioka was local musician, Cadisc label owner and event organiser Kyoju Murakami, who took me to a warren of small bars and izakayas nestled in behind the main street, past the castle ruins.

Listening to him speak as a fellow event organiser, I could recognise the thought patterns, the calculations, the weighing up of financial, artistic and social benefits and downsides. The whole thing felt incredibly familiar to me.

There are four main dedicated live venues in Morioka: Club Change, Club Change Wave, 5 Morioka, and Globe. Of those four, the first three are owned by the same group, while Globe is independent. From an organising point of view, what the Change group of venues brings is a pro quality PA, but there’s a financial cost that goes with it and which can prove prohibitive for local bands and organisers. They also seem to place a higher priority on touring acts, sweetening the deal for artists from out of town, while charging local bands ticket quotas to play. Again, all this is par for the course in Tokyo – this is the stuff I deal with on a daily basis in my own eventing.

These two pressures – the need to look outwards and bring in something fresh from outside, coupled with the need to foster the development of a local scene – should in an ideal world work in harmony, contributing towards the growth of the local music scene, and indeed that’s what they seemed to be doing in Sapporo. However, it’s clear that when the balance gets out of whack one way or another, they can become competing pressures, with dysfunctional results.

Iwate was one of the prefectures that suffered most in the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, and in coastal areas a number of new venues have been built with a view towards injecting some cultural vitality into the reconstruction and revival af these areas. The problem with these new venues is that while they have been a net gain for local audiences, bringing in touring acts from all over, they have tended to shut out local artists, leading to lingering resentment among the people those venues are best placed to help.

For Murakami, there are a number of routes around the cost problem. Firstly, in Morioka there is still Globe, which is where a lot of the local scene gathers, albeit with some compromises necessary on the PA system. Again, so far, so familiar. Where Murakami’s experience diverges from my own is in the role of public spaces. There are also a number of municipal halls that can be rented very cheaply, as long as the organiser can provide their own equipment and staff, which is something Tokyo (under the control of a succession of arts-hating, extreme-right governors) doesn’t really have – at least not within easy access of the music scene.

There are also places like the fascinating looking Baterenchaya, an ancient building that sometimes hosts experimental live performances; nearby Hanamaki’s Segawa Kyosometen, which hosts acoustic shows inside a kimono company; and the tiny Barrelhouse Capucapu in Kitakami, which the owner built by remodelling the whole ground floor of his own home.

With many of the performance spaces in Iwate not specifically designed for music, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that the network of creative influence isn’t limited to one genre or even one medium. Murakami feels that one of the most interesting things about Morioka is the cross-media way that the art, performance, theatre and improvised music people all pay attention to each other’s activities, collaborate and influence each other.

As we talked longer, it started to become clear that this wasn’t the first time we had met. Murakami’s own band, te_ri, had been based in Tokyo for a long time, before the earthquake made everything weird and scattered the two members back to their respective hometowns of Hanamaki and Okayama, more than 800km apart. Murakami and I had encountered each other at Tokyo live venue Shinjuku Motion many years ago, and the kind of rhythmically complex, mathy minimalism te_ri make is a sound that can be heard in pieces here and there at a number of Tokyo live venues, thanks in part to the lingering influence of one of Iwate’s golden children, Tatsuya Yoshida (of Ruins and now Zeni Geva).

In a town of Morioka’s size, however, there is just not the pool of musicians to make a scene out of a sound that niche, and it’s interesting to look at just how experimental music of that sort survives outside its own dedicated fandom.

Basically, in a small city, there are a handful of musical genres that survive anywhere: punk, hip hop, reggae, folk, and jazz – they are the cockroaches of the music world, and they will cling on long after we have all passed. The survival of anything experimental or off-the-wall relies on its ability to attach itself to one of these host organisms, and from there it has a hope of surviving or even helping to exert some influence.

Also idol fandom is pervasive, wherever you go
Also idol fandom is pervasive, wherever you go

In Morioka, the jazz scene has an experimental offshoot of its own thanks to a local musician, organiser and dentist called Kinno (who, lover of wordplay that he is, performs under the name Onnyk).

“Ask any young experimental musicians in Morioka and they’ll all know Kinno,” says Murakami, “He was a big influence on us. He brought Yoshihide Otomo, Keiji Haino, John Zorn, Keith Rowe, all those guys, to Iwate to perform.”

Regretting that I hadn’t been able to get in contact with Kinno beforehand to arrange some kind of meeting, we left the izakaya we were at and took a walk along the row of bars, only to run right into the mischievous, elf-like apparition of Kinno himself almost instantly.

Insisting that he would make sure I got back alright, he dragged me into the bar where he was holding court and started to fill in the gaps in my knowledge from his own specialist pool of knowledge. Studio Mole and Breandi are performance spaces Kinno noted in particular as being important, while in the lively local club scene, bars and clubs like Faces, Mad Disco, Crates, Mother and Steady cater to a range of music. The jazz scene includes Spain Club, Bar Café The S, Johnny and Nonk Tonk.

As the evening wore on, our discussion turned away from documenting the entirety of Morioka’s musical everything, back towards what lay beyond the mountains to the north and west.

“Aomori and Akita are weird. Morioka is normal,” Kinno declared.

My Akita contact Ritsuko had said something similar in an email earlier the same day, and insisted it was no bad thing. It isn’t, and it was clear that Kinno found the quirks of his Tohoku neighbours fascinating as well.

“You listened to Tsugaru-jamisen music in Aomori, right? Did you know that the whole genre was invented only about a hundred years ago, by one guy?”

He went on to explain that he had spent some time researching Aomori’s distinctive local shamisen style, and that it had grown out of an interesting collection of influences.

Tsugaru-jamisen was originally a style of music for blind performers, which explains in part its openness to improvisation and interpretation rather than being written down as musical scores. The legendary creator of the style, a man called Nitabo, was the son of a goze shamisen player – a style of music played exclusively by blind women. Goze, however, was a rather more refined style than the highly percussive style that Tsugaru-jamisen would end up as.

According to Kinno, Nitabo grew up as an outcast, and perhaps would have had little time for refinement. Instead, he combined a diverse collection of influences to create a new style.

One of these influences was apparently the itako shaman priestesses of Aomori, who would summon the dead by hitting a single stringed bow with sharp, percussive blows. Combined with this, was the low, rumbling hum the strings of fighting kites make as their threads tangle. Lastly, he adopted the large shamisen from Osaka’s bunraku puppet theatre as the weapon with which to deliver his righteous new sound. With the Tsugaru area serving as a major staging point for a huge military buildup around the time of the Russo-Japanese war, the new sound was picked up on by the gathered soldiers and spread. I don’t care if any of the above is true. Nitabo was a rock star and a mean motherfucker.

I wondered if the enormous drums of the Nebuta/Neputa festivals had some parallel with the beefed-up, rhythmical nature of Aomori’s shamisen sound, and Kinno admitted that there was a parallel, if not necessarily a direct connection. In comparison, he was dismissive of Morioka’s own Sansa Odori festival (“It’s just for tourists”) but insisted that the local variations in rural parts of Iwate were far more badass.

Hearing people from other parts of Japan talking about Aomori and Akita is like hearing people back in the UK talking about Japan. They do the same things over there, but they do them differently. They’re weird.

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