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Indie scene aims for normalcy in unusual situation

by Ian Martin

As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, four days after the earthquake that hit northeastern Japan on March 11 and with the continuing drip, drip, drip of nerve-shaking news from the damaged nuclear reactors in Fukushima forming background noise to life in Tokyo, I see on the BBC news feed that Canadian rocker Bryan Adams is urging “all the great musicians and singers in the world” to get together and do a concert for Japan.

Now, we can argue about the merits of a gang of wealthy rock and pop stars going to the trouble of organizing a fundraising concert that will likely amass only a fraction of the money that Adams and his celebrity friends could cough up from their own pocket change, or the benefits in terms of raising awareness of a tragedy that is already being broadcast pretty much nonstop on every major news channel and filling the front pages of every major newspaper, but right now the parallel world that Adams and other members of the pop glitterati inhabit is the last thing on the minds of the people of Japan.

However, in a number of small, understated ways, the music community in Japan has already been engaging with the situation, providing practical and emotional support where it can.

At first, people didn’t grasp the full extent of the problems. Being so used to life in a city plagued by seismic activity, it was easy to see the earthquake of Friday the 11th as simply a larger, slightly more alarming version of the same kind of wobbling annoyances that we experience on a regular basis. Posts appeared on Twitter saying things like, “So is the gig at Shinjuku Jam still on?”

As the extent of the travel chaos became clear and the continuing aftershocks showed no sign of going away, venues made the decision to cancel that night’s shows, and the networks of Twitter friends that Tokyo musicians have been using to great effect in promoting their gigs quickly became useful tools for the spreading of information to those stranded in Tokyo by the train cancellations.

Venerable old lady of the Shimokitazawa live music scene, the live house Shelter, lived up to its name by providing coffee and a rest stop for travelers walking home from work. Soon it became clear that live venues all over the city were doing the same thing, with Shinjuku Jam, Koenji High, Kichijoji Warp and many more following suit in providing rest and shelter to the stranded.

As the immediate impact of the day’s events faded away and the media settled into a rolling parade of information, rumor and self-perpetuating low-level anxiety, the music community in Tokyo has been characterized by a need to balance a palpable urge to get back to some semblance of normality with the inescapable realities of the situation around them.

While safety in the face of aftershocks remained a concern, civic duty in the face of power shortages became a greater one. Tokyo live venue Akihabara Goodman reconfigured its Monday night event as an acoustic show, broadcasting the intimate performance live over Ustream for those trapped by the still-unreliable train services, and with money raised being donated to the relief fund.

While many touring acts understandably canceled their remaining shows, experimental musician Campbell Kneale (aka Our Love Will Destroy the World), whose native New Zealand had been recently hit with a catastrophic earthquake of its own, finished off his Japan tour with a small, semiacoustic show, again with proceeds going to the disaster relief fund.

Beneath this eagerness to get back to playing music again lie several things. First, there is a desire to be with friends. The indie music scene in Japan is formed of a number of close-knit communities, and there is a lot of comfort to be had in getting away from the isolation and constant barrage of alarming yet frustratingly insubstantial news that we are subjected to at home.

Second, there is the reassurance of routine. As well as the familiar faces, there are the familiar locations, the familiar actions, the feeling of being back doing something over which you have control.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, after the babble of information from the TV, the screaming sirens in the night and the eerie silence of the streets, people just need to hear good music.