Music | MUSIC NOMAD

Checkered history lives in a motley crew

by Paul Fisher

Chindon-ya (brass, wind and percussion bands peddling goods or services on the streets) might not immediately spring to mind as a part of Japanese musical “tradition.” Indeed, chindon has never been fully recognized as even a legitimate form of music.

Cicala Mvta’s Wataru Ohkuma on clarinet

Chindon has had a checkered history. A thriving street trade in the 1920s, it was banned during World War II. A postwar resurgence was soon threatened again by new forms of advertising. It has been kept alive since by a few revivalists.

At an upcoming Tokyo concert, it will be possible to hear both the archetypal chindon and a radical departure taken by the group Cicala Mvta (pronounced “Shikala Moota”).

Wataru Ohkuma, the group’s leader, is keen to point out that what Cicala Mvta plays isn’t strictly chindon music, preferring to describe it as “chindon punk jazz” or “strange popular music.”

Commercial brass bands go back to the beginning of the Meiji Era, when the government, keen to demonstrate its “Westernization,” used military bands at ceremonies to open railroads and banks.

“The first Western music formally imported into Japan was brass bands,” explains Ohkuma. “Military brass bands not only played marches but Western classics to demonstrate a ‘civilized’ music, because to import and teach Western music but ignore and forget domestic music was the national policy at that time.”

Private companies soon followed suit, and by 1910 street bands employed by big companies were a common sight throughout Japan. When the government instituted public nuisance laws, and these companies switched their advertising revenue to newspapers and magazines, street music became more localized for smaller businesses. Military musicians were replaced by those who had played in silent movie theaters, put out of work by the arrival of talkies and variety hall performers.

Chindon had no original repertoire of its own. The musicians played the popular music of the day; even today’s “traditional” tunes are mostly prewar popular songs and variety hall songs from the Edo Period. They would dress in colorful, outlandish costumes as if they had come straight off a movie set, gather an audience and make their advertising pitch, while carrying a large banner emblazoned with the name of their sponsor.

Chindon is an onomatopoeic word, relating to the characteristic high “chin” and lower-pitched “don” of the chindon percussion set.

“In the 1910s or 1920s, someone came up with the idea to combine high-hat cymbals and two taiko drums in a wooden frame to enable a player to perform alone, even when marching,” says Ohkuma. The chindon is almost exclusively played by women, sometimes with a colorful umbrella perched on top.

Accompanying the chindon are Western instruments, a big gorosu drum (from the French gros), a clarinet and a saxophone (played usually by a man), which gradually replaced the Japanese shamisen as the main instrument. Noticeably, there are no bass instruments. The music is driven by melody and rhythm, with a sense of Japanese popular tunes and festival music; even the Western instruments are played in a distinctive Japanese vein.

During World War II, chindon was banned along with other street arts, but in the postwar reconstruction, chindon bands reached their peak in demand. During the 1950s, there were over 5,000 active chindon players. Then, in the early 1960s, the use of chindon as a form of advertising was virtually extinguished by the new medium of television.

Those who champion Japanese traditions have never considered chindon to be significant, and it has never been honored by national institutions or preservation societies. In instrumentation and repertoire, it was considered too modern to be “traditional.”

Chindon players today are aging and struggling to keep chindon alive as a profession, mainly advertising the opening of pachinko parlors in Tokyo suburbs and small shops in Osaka. Nevertheless, chindon remains one of Japan’s most colorful, exciting and accessible musical styles.

Street performances of wind and percussion instruments can be found all over the world. As an “unmilitarized” street music, chindon is related to Jewish klezmer music, New Orleans brass bands, and wind and percussion ensembles from China and Southeast Asia.

Ohkuma is keen to embrace these influences in the music of Cicala Mvta. “These are all clarinet musics,” he says, “so it’s very natural for me to play these types together.”

Ohkuma’s other influences help give Cicala Mvta its own distinctive sound: progressive rock, punk, avant-garde jazz, early modern music (such as Bartok) and folk.

Each member of Cicala Mvta brings a special something to supplement Ohkuma’s clarinet and saxophone in what is a totally original lineup: fluid, distorted electric guitar; rip-roaring, booming tuba; squeaking, screeching cello; frantic, discordant fiddle; and tinny, shuffling drums.

Both traditional chindon and the retro-futuristic sound of Cicala Mvta are natural combinations of the old and new, the East with the West. Cicala Mvta is one of only a few Japanese groups to have created a buzz abroad. Its first overseas gig last year was supporting Blur in London.

Though instrumental, its music is not without a message. The band’s name, Italian for “mute cicada,” derives from the epitaph of Azenbo Soeda (1872-1944), the greatest street singer and songwriter of popular music in Japan before the 1920s.

“His comical and sarcastic songs became megahits,” explains Ohkuma. “From the mid-1920s, under the oppression of militant totalitarianism, his songs were banned and he was repeatedly thrown into prison. They tried to break his spirit and make him really mute.”

Cicala Mvta, and chindon music too, is not about to go quietly.