Hideki Togi out to gagaku your world

by Ryoko M. Nakamura

He is the man responsible for bringing gagaku back into the Japanese lexicon. He is to gagaku (classical Japanese court music) what Ayumi Hamasaki is to J-Pop. Since Hideki Togi left the Imperial Household Agency in 1996, armed with his hichiriki, black leather pants and cool charm, he has been on a self-proclaimed mission to “communicate this indescribable buzz — the cosmic truth — of gagaku” to the nation. Two Japan Record Awards and nine albums later, the nation has been seduced.

This 43-year-old former gagakushi (Imperial court musician) has come a long way since his days playing in the Imperial Household Agency’s Board of Ceremonies at official events and Shinto rituals. These days he plays in front of thousands of predominately female fans at venues across Japan. Something of a darling among my mother’s generation, perhaps he should be considered a sophisticated alternative to the Cliff Richards and Tom Joneses of the world.

Having wrapped up a marathon national tour to promote his new “fusion” album, “I Am With You,” in November, Togi is taking a bit of a breather before the start of his New Year’s (shinshun) concert series in January. This third annual tour — on which he will be joined by musicians from Xian, China — affords fans a rare chance to experience pure gagaku, stripped of any fusion elements.

Togi is not one to force his ancient art on the virgin ears of the uninitiated public. Nonetheless, his quiet revolution seems to be making inroads into the national consciousness, imperceptibly filtering in via the soundtracks of PS2 software (“Kamaitachi no Yoru 2″) and scores for NHK specials. Togi, however, would argue that gagaku has always been present in the Japanese subconscious.

Togi comes from a family of gagaku musicians in which the tradition has been passed down through the generations. To the average Japanese person, however, gagaku is something of a mystery. Often played during Shinto rituals, Japanese-style weddings and Imperial court events, gagaku is a combination of instrumental music, song and dance that has been practiced for over a thousand years in some form or another. Togi traces its ancestry back to Korea and China, and even to areas as distant as western segments of the famed Silk Road. But gagaku, as I was to discover, is more than just “music” — it also carries some hefty philosophical baggage. There is a curious Aristotelian logic to Togi’s belief in the scientific perfection of gagaku.

“Gagaku is the product of centuries of study by astronomers, mathematicians, musicians and physicists into the kind of music best suited to the Japanese ear. The present form of gagaku was finally perfected in the Heian Period [704-1185],” he says. “Gagaku appeals to our primal instincts — we not only listen to gagaku, but feel it with the whole of our being. It’s in our DNA.”

Still, one can’t help wondering what causes hordes of Japanese OLs and housewives to get so excited about music that emanates from Togi’s trademark hichiriki. Appearances are deceptive in the world of Hideki Togi, and the simple appearance of this 20-cm long reed instrument belies the richness of its musical vocabulary. Although Togi partly attributes the beauty of gagaku to a pure sound that is “emptied of all emotion,” the expressiveness of the hichiriki in his hands is astounding. The instrument seems to encompass the sounds of its Western counterpart — the oboe — and the seductiveness of the erhu (Chinese violin), while morphing into a sax on jazzier pieces, and at times even echoing the grandeur of Scottish bagpipes. His forays into other musical genres have proved that this ancient instrument has many voices.

Despite his mystic devotion, Togi is not just about gagaku. His music seems to defy classification. “I Am With You,” released in September, is probably his most extreme departure from gagaku to date. The track “Slide into the Night” almost recalls Kenny G, if it wasn’t for the subtle, haunting sound of the hichiriki. Easy-listening jazz also appears on “The Reason I’m Here” and a brooding cello opens the door to an orchestral arrangement on “Furusato.” Yet the gagaku sound from his previous albums is still present on “Umi no Muko no Sagashimono” and “Donna Yume wo Miteiru no?”

This genre-bending doesn’t seem to bother Togi. “I just make music that feels good to me,” he says.

Neither does Togi seem overly concerned that his success is probably more attributable to his fusion material than to the pure gagaku from which he derives his inspiration. “If people become aware of the unique sound of this wonderful instrument called the hichiriki through my music, that’s great,” he says. “I don’t expect people to listen to gagaku and get it straight off.”

Togi sees his art as a way of arousing people’s interest in Japanese culture. Perhaps one indicator of change, aside from his growing following, is the introduction of traditional Japanese instruments — including the shamisen and biwa — into the national school curriculum in 2001.

Despite Togi’s returnee background (he spent part of his childhood in Mexico and Thailand), or even perhaps because of it, he is passionate about his cultural heritage. In a country where the majority of the populace seems blinded by Western influences to its own national culture, the theme of Japanese identity in Togi’s work is striking. But, as he explains, the recent “hogaku boom” is all about being Japanese and feeling good about it.

While encompassing these greater ideals, Togi’s music is also very personal. The haikulike quality of his songs is no coincidence — music for him is made up of mini-biographies that try to capture moments, fleeting thoughts.

“Every album I’ve recorded has been a reflection of what I was going through at that point in my life — I write whatever comes to me at that point in time,” he says. “The music for ‘I Am With You,’ for example, was inspired by the kids I met on my visit to a primary school in Prague. It was my parting gift to them. It was my way of saying ‘bon courage’ to this new generation — the future of Czechoslovakia.”

On the topic of his compatriots’ musical endeavors, Togi says: “I listen to some Japanese music from time to time, but to be honest I can never remember the names of the artists or the songs — it’s really a bit of a shame isn’t it?

“If my en [fate/destiny] is crossed with that person, something will come about, so I don’t try to force things. I prefer to go with the flow.” Going with the flow is something that seems to have worked for Togi to date, and he’ll probably be riding this wave well into the future.