You may or may not know that sukiyaki is a beef-based Japanese hot-pot dish. But I’m not talking about food. I’m talking about music, specifically, a Japanese pop song entitled “Ue o Muite Arukō” (“I Look Up as I Walk”) which was a hit by Kyu Sakamoto in 1961 in Japan, 18 years before Hiromi Uehara was born. It became one of the world’s best selling singles of all time (13 million copies) and has been recorded countless times by singers all over the world. [Various versions on YouTube.] It was issued in the United States in 1963 as “Sukiyaki”, where it went to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
Why “Sukiyaki”? Perhaps, you’re thinking, it’s a novelty song about the dish? No, it’s not. It has nothing to do with food. According to Wikipedia:
The lyrics tell the story of a man who looks up and whistles while he is walking so that his tears will not fall, with the verses describing his memories and feelings. [Lyricist Rokusuke] Ei wrote the lyrics while walking home from a Japanese student protest against the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan, expressing his frustration and dejection at the failed efforts. However, the lyrics were purposefully generic so that they might refer to any lost love.
The melody is wistful and haunting. I would imagine that is what propelled the song to international fame. Many of the cover versions use different lyrics. As for the renaming in America, it’s about marketing. “Sukiyaki” is a Japanese word that Americans would recognize as Japanese.
Here’s the original version:
Notice the whistled sections – appropriate to the origin story, which I remember from my childhood. Read more »
A little over a week ago Jacob Collier’s version of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) came up on YouTube. I know the song well, and love it. As I’d seen a video or three by this Collier fellow, I decided to give it a listen.
I was stunned, but also a bit skeptical. Collier was obviously a talented musician, with mad skills. But to what end? This struck me as being musical comfort food. Skillfully made – oh yes! the man has chops! – but comfortable. But then, what’s wrong with comfort? As a steady aesthetic diet, it’s inadequate. But don’t we sometimes turn to music for comfort and solace? Do we not need comfort and solace in this time of Covid, not to mention the post-election tantrums of He Who Must Not Be Named?
What else has Collier got? If it’s all like this, then Collier’s a one trick pony. But maybe he’s got more tricks up his sleeve. I decided to investigate.
Caveat: I’m going to insert a bunch of videos into this piece; one of them is very long – over three hours. Feel free to skip over material.Read more »
A statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John MacDonald, has become the latest lump of kitsch concrete to hit the ground after protesters pulled it from a plinth in Montreal and cheered as the head broke off and bounced across the pavement. (MacDonald was linked to vicious policies that killed and displaced thousands of indigenous people in the late 19th century. His system forcibly removed at least 150,000 children from their homes and sent them to often abusive state boarding schools). That’s as good a reason as any to add this to the list of monuments being dethroned around the world.
Another good reason is that phrase “lump of kitsch.” Jonathan Jones recently lamented in The Guardian that the falling statues were being followed by a sterile conversation about who does and doesn’t “deserve” a statue. “This is because all statues are dumb. They cannot represent big or complex themes. All they can do is function as crude symbols. They reduce history to celebrity culture. So many Victorian statues survive in our cities because 19th-century historians believed ‘great men’ and their leadership created history,” Johnson wrote, adding that every dumbass general who ever won an obscure skirmish had a statue somewhere across the British empire. No heroic soldier ever did.
So, what a lineup of dumb statues one could craft from that display of Trump royalty at the recent Republican National Convention. The “great man” being honoured this time was “the bodyguard of Western civilization,” as Charlie Kirk, founder of the anti-liberal Turning Point USA, described the president. This, wrote The Washington Post, was “an image in keeping with painter John McNaughton’s kitsch paintings of Trump.” Read more »
Perhaps imprudently, your humble blogger continues to toil in the philosophy mines for blogging material, even in this stressful time. And there will be such postage eventually, of that you can be sure! However, prudence enough remains to prevent him from posting half-baked nonsense; so in the interim, let us return once again to the podcast, and enjoy some fine music while we wait.
Thanks to everyone who rose to the occasion and contributed to Jon Hassell’s gofundme appeal, as promoted here in my last two posts (here and here; the mixes are here and here). If you haven’t contributed yet, now’s your chance!
As the notes below indicate, this mix as well includes an appeal, of a different sort. If you have been following the developing situation in Belarus and would like to help, TXT Recordings is offering a name-your-price option to pick up a release by Belarus artist Alexander Ananyev, the proceeds to be donated to Support for Belarus. (Also, the record is pretty good, and naturally we’ll be hearing a track from it here.)
Last time I posted a mix of Jon Hassell’s music, a little under his own name and a lot of collaborations. This time we’ll look at (my take on) Jon’s influence on others; but we’ll hear a bit more from Jon himself as well.
Before we start, let me remind you (one reason) why we’re doing this: Jon is ill and needs your help. Here is the gofundme link; as you can see, there’s quite a ways to go: https://www.gofundme.com/f/jon-hassell-fund
At that link, interestingly, we find stated flat out what I’ve taken for granted in making this second mix:
“The impact of Jon Hassell on today’s generation of electronic and ambient artists is immeasurable” – Paste Magazine
How exactly Jon has influenced his devotees naturally varies but we can identify a few main features of his music which people picked up on. First, perhaps most obviously, is his use of pitch shifters or “harmonizers,” especially Eventide’s high-end rack-mount effects unit of that name, which allows even a monophonic instrument such as a trumpet to play multiple parallel melodies simultaneously. Read more »
Jon Hassell is one of America’s musical treasures, and I’ve been listening to his music for forty years, so when I heard he needed help for his medical care, I decided to make a mix of his music. This mix actually grew into two mixes, so look for another one next month. This one features Jon playing with other musicians, and part two will feature other musicians whom Jon has influenced (and a bit more from Jon himself).
Here’s the link to his gofundme page (https://www.gofundme.com/f/jon-hassell-fund). As of 5/24/20, 1100+ people have donated ~$75,000, but the listed goal is $200,000, and we all know how expensive medical care can be. Please do what you can.
Here’s the mix (direct link: https://www.mixcloud.com/duckrabbit/jon-hassell-tribute-pt-1-jon-and-his-collaborators/):
I was improvising before I’d learned the word, but I wasn’t systematic about it until years later. I suppose for a time the word had a bit of a mystique about it, as it does for many. After all, the norm in Western musical practice has been to read music that someone else, the composer, had written. The composer is the authority; you are a mere conduit; and improvising, where you (shudder) make it up yourself, that’s VERY mysterious.
* * * * *
You mean, no notes in front of you. Just make it up?
And it comes out OK?
Sometimes, sometimes not. It depends.
Isn’t that very brave and dangerous?
No. Do you speak from a script?
Well then, there you have it. Don’t need a script for music either.
* * * * *
I started taking music lessons when I was ten years old. My earliest teachers taught me to read music, and only to read music. So that’s what I did. But at some point, I forget just when, I decided I wanted to play simple tunes that weren’t in lessons. I decided, well, I’ll just have to figure out how to do it. I do remember that, when I was in sixth grade, I was particularly taken with the theme song to a series that played on Walt Disney’s Sunday night TV show. I forget the name of the series, but it was about mountain men and the song had wistful lyrics about living in the mountains. Read more »
Wine language often suggests that wines express emotion or exhibit personality characteristics despite the fact that wine is not a psychological agent and could not literally possess these characteristics. There is a history, although somewhat in recession today, to refer to wines as aggressive, sensual, fierce, grand, angry, dignified, brooding, joyful, bombastic, tense or calm, etc. Is there a foundation to such talk or is it just arbitrary flights of fancy?
Last month I argued that it's perfectly intelligible to conceive of wine as expressive. Wine expresses the geography and climate of a region or vineyard, the vintage characteristics, and the winemaker's idea of those. More importantly, wine can sometimes express the winemaker's feelings about wine, especially the inspirational experiences that explain their love of wine that they wish to communicate to their patrons. But the aforementioned wine language suggests a broader notion of expression, one in which wine, perhaps like art, can express fundamental features of human experience.
In aesthetics, this question of how art can express feelings has typically been pursued using music as the prime example, because there is a broad consensus that music is deeply connected to human emotion. In trying to answer this question about wine, it makes sense to use these resources developed in the debate about music. So bear with me as I go on about music and the emotions for a bit; wine will get its due towards the end of the essay.
Last December, while at a common friend’s house in North London, Steve Savale or Chandrasonic of the British band Asian Dub Foundation played us a video clip of a recent concert of theirs in St Petersburg. Prior to their performance, a local production person had approached the band with a message – there was a man who needed to see them urgently. A Tajik, who had earlier that week been brutally beaten up by Russian police, pleaded with the band to put him on stage for just the one song. In his plea, heartfelt as it was, there appeared to be the promise of the undoing of some wrong, an anodyne correction of injustice and brutality. He went on stage to sing a medley1 of two Bollywood songs, both from the 1982 hit film Disco Dancer – Goron Ki Na Kaalon Ki and Jimmy, Jimmy. Keeping rhythm on a aluminum bucket while providing instrumental phrasing, solos and bridges alike, the impassioned singer incorporated a famous desi trick, well known to and enthusiastically advertised in low-brow entertainment of small town India, as well as in filmi shows that travel to perform for diasporic communities across the world: ‘special item – man singing in ladies voice’. The first song, with its popular humanist message, declares that the world belongs neither to whites nor to blacks, but to those with hearts (or lovers to be less literal), while the second one, well known to many South Asians for its kitschy appeal (and the nostalgia it evokes), was covered by M.I.A a few years ago. A version by the Russian pop singer Angel-A has also made its appearance recently.
This collision of different identities sets up the stage for many a discussion – the insidious and wide influence of Bollywood, shared culture amongst the political allies of the Cold War era, the efficacy and appeal of humanist and polemical messages, dynamic appropriations of fringe elements in pop-culture, and issues of ‘authenticity’ and ‘false-consciousness’ in fetishism and bricolage. Amidst all the elements that may find themselves in the mix, so to speak, the twin processes of creation and mediation and the actors involved, provide fascinating insights into what seems a duplicitous web of irresolvable complexity.
Having been associated with music, musicians, music television and music production for a significant part of my professional life (and continue to be), I am resigned to many unanswered questions and contentious issues– there are no hit formulae, there only appear to be some at certain times; finding ‘voice’ is unpredictable and imprecise; what people like is highly complex and yet seems, oftentimes, really quite simple; resonance is both a physical and psychological phenomenon. What I can though say with absolute certainty is that I still remain profoundly enamoured by music and its diverse gratifications.