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Be true to your old school

by Steve McClure

Suddenly, it’s hip to be trad. Japanese traditional music is now in vogue, as artists such as Chitose Hajime, Hiromitsu Agatsuma, the Yoshida brothers and Shinichi Kinoshita strike a chord with music fans looking for something more rootsy and down-home to listen to than run-of-the-mill J-pop.

Music hacks like to write about musicians rediscovering their ethnic roots and incorporating folk elements into their music. It’s one of the cliches of rock journalism, and sometimes writers in search of a neat story angle to sell to their editors make a musical mountain out of a molehill, as it were.

Not so in this case. There really does seem to be a resurgence of interest in Japanese roots music, and several record labels have been quick to capitalize on this trend.

Although her music isn’t traditional in the strict sense of the word (it doesn’t feature any traditional instruments such as the shamisen or shakuhachi bamboo flute), vocalist Chitose Hajime has brought an ethnic vibe to the charts with her restrained but passionate song “Wadatsumi Ki (Poseidon Tree).” According to Hajime’s record label, Epic, the single, which marks Hajime’s debut, has sold some 120,000 copies to date; it is now No. 14 on the Oricon singles chart.

The song has a laid-back reggae beat and Hajime sings in an unmistakable shima-uta (island song) style. Born and raised on the island of Amami Oshima, between Kyushu and Okinawa, she has that beautifully tremulous quality that’s so characteristic of Okinawa and Amami’s female singers.

Unlike many musicians from those islands, however, Hajime doesn’t come from a musical family. She learned to play the shamisen at a local school when quite young, and since then her interest in traditional music became a full-time obsession.

Whereas attempts to fuse traditional and contemporary styles frequently result in musical travesties like the band A’Jyota, which emerged and quickly disappeared into well-deserved obscurity about 10 years ago, Hajime and her producers here have done a brilliant job.

Meanwhile, also unlike A’Jyota, which played on the novelty value of the electric shamisen with the volume turned up to 11, a number of more purist players have recently come to the fore, notably the photogenic Yoshida brothers and Hiromitsu Agatsuma. Japanese labels have discovered that handsome young guys with chapatsu (dyed-brown) hair can look good wearing kimono and playing the shamisen with a bit of rock-star attitude.

Agatsuma’s debut album, simply titled “Agatsuma,” is evenly divided between numbers featuring his solo shamisen playing and tracks with synthesizer, shakuhachi and percussion backing.

Shinichi Kinoshita’s albums on the recently established Avex Io label aim to tap into Japan’s potentially big over-30 market by releasing music with a “mature” appeal. On the album “Den,” Kinoshita goes for a no-frills traditional approach with solo shamisen, while on “Kai-Tsugaru Fusion” he uses shakuhachi and percussion backing.

Meanwhile, traditional music schools are reporting increased enrollment as more young people opt to study instruments like the shamisen and the shakuhachi.

But I wonder why my favorite traditional Japanese instrument, the biwa, hasn’t undergone the same kind of revival as the shamisen. The biwa is a wonderfully expressive distant relative of the guitar, and in the hands of an inspired player it can produce amazingly intense music.

Despite my recent diatribe against “stealth” CDs — which, in order to prevent copying, cannot be played on personal computers — Avex announced last week that it will become the first Japanese label to introduce this type of media.

Their first such release will be the maxisingle “Every Heart — Minna no Kimochi” by South Korean female singer BoA, due out March 13. This will be followed by “Do the Best,” a great-hits set by pop group Do As Infinity on March 20, and “Affection,” a new album by vocalist Kumi Koda, on March 27.

Strictly speaking, these won’t be “stealth” CDs, but, labeled “copy control” CDs with the same function. Other Japanese labels are expected to start releasing similarly protected CDs over the next few months.

Like I said before, I can understand where the record labels are coming from, but this is an extreme way of dealing with the CD-piracy problem. And dedicated techno-freaks will likely be on the first train to Akihabara to buy some gizmo that lets them break through the technology and burn copies of copy-control CDs. Clearly, copy control is not going to eliminate CD piracy.