Saturday, 3 March 2012

On Ongaku

Ongaku (音楽) is Japanese for music.

I think it’s fair to say that Japan has not really had a big impact on the music scene in the west. Think of Japanese music and you’ll inevitably conjure an image of decorated bamboo screens, elegant kimonos, and plucked shamisen strings. If not, it’ll be the Mario theme-tune.

Since being here, I have developed an affection for some styles of Japanese music. My favourite is enka (演歌), essentially post-war sop. In the past, I have found that learning a language is made easier by learning songs, especially soppy ballads. There is a wealth of such stuff available in French: it’s often romantic, often tragic and, in the main, of extremely high quality. I’m thinking of the best of Brel, or Aznavour or Brassens.
In Japan, it’s quite similar. The songs are often sad or over the top romantic but, I think, compelling and make you want to sing along. And they’ve done wonders for my Japanese. Here are some of my favourite Japanese songs of yester-toshi:

Kyu Sakamoto, “Ue o muite arukô” (上を向いて歩こう)
This is the only Japanese song that ever made it big in the West, under the title “Sukiyaki”. The record company was concerned that no English speaker could ever be bothered to learn to pronounce the beautiful Japanese, and gave it a title that means “beef stew”.

Misora Hibari, “Kawa no Nagare no youni” (川の流れのように) “Like the flowing of a river”.
The Japanese Maria Callas at her lung-punching best.

Japan’s most famous comedians (though originally Kyu Sakamoto), “Ashita ga aru” (“明日がある”), “There’s always tomorrow”.
Every so slightly Japanterous song about being too shy to talk to girls, a very topical problem in a Japan with an extremely low birth rate! 

These are just a few highlights, and I’m sure there’s far more to discover. I should say that I’m not a big fan of the ubiquitour “J-pop” that many in Japan go crazy over. Anyway, if you want pretty and preened people, K-pop (Korean pop) does it miles better anyway!

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