Discovering Enka

Modern and contemporary pop music is generally what comes to mind when I think of Japanese music.  It could be a vocaloid or one of the other many supergroups that have become so popular.  It’s great stuff, composed of ultra catchy beats and simple choruses that just won’t leave your brain alone.

As part of my language study, it was suggested that I learn a song or two, or more, in Japanese.  Fine, I said.  Sounds like a good idea.  I listen to French music and sing along so why not?  But it wasn’t that simple.  The problem I’ve encountered is two-fold.

Number 1 – The music I’ve encountered so far has failed to engage me.  It is neither novel, interesting, nor engaging, and does not make me want to devote enough time to memorize the lyrics.  Most songs appear to be about love, which is good.  But further examination shows them to be not about love, but about lust.  Lust is easy.  Love is hard.  To me, the messages are stale.

Number 2 – This is where I become torn.  Music is either boring, or it isn’t.  Constant engagement is impossible and not recommended.  Play is necessary and that is when simple music can become engaging.  Simple music is great!  Some of my favorite songs are extremely simple, but they move my body and that instills joy.  It isn’t that I require complex music.  That isn’t it.  Nor is a complex message.  It must engage me.  Let me expand.

I listen to just about anything and appreciate the artistry put into it, but engaging it on a personal level is sometimes impossible.  The message the artists communicate is not for me.  It got me thinking on a few different levels and asking far too many questions.

#1.  Is my cultural upbringing that much different that I can’t even understand or engage this music?

#2.  Am I apathetic? (my biggest fear)

#3.  Am I too harsh?  In other words, am I trying too hard to counter the honeymoon stage of culture shock?

#4.  Am I just weird?  I mean, this stuff is hugely popular and creates loads of capital.

#5.  Am I a so-called second-tier thinker?  Must I think in the minority?  Can I control it?

Okay!  Enough of these ridiculous questions about my psychological well-being or lack thereof.  Theses and dissertations exist about such inane personal questions.  And I don’t have the patience to delve any deeper.  There are no answers, and, according to postmodern thought, only better questions.  But now I digress into silly-isms and backwards recounting of this vs. that.  These questions serve as a good entry point but there has to be more.

The primary question remains.

How can a culture create nothing of interest to me at the musical level?  It didn’t make sense.  So I decided to look elsewhere.  And that required some digging, and questions, and opinions.

The answer came one day, and like all answers, it came in the most unlikely of packages.  I’ve been house-sitting for a friend and she has a T.V. with a few basic channels.  I figured it was a good idea to watch and listen, being that it offers a safe environment to hone my listening and contextual skills.  By the way, there are countless police dramas on Japanese broadcast television.  Mystery and suspense and overly dramatic acting always brings a smile to my face.  The variety shows are too much for me and frankly scare me.  I’m not an experienced T.V. watcher, having stopped watching a good fifteen years ago for personal reasons.  Many of the shows made me ill.  Then I tried watching cooking shows, cool, but I couldn’t keep up with the language.  They spoke too fast.

Then it happened.  Two guys were being filmed walking around a small town in Japan.  It turned out to be some sort of travel/tourism show.  The guys went here and there, laughing and joking, and finally came across a hair salon/karaoke.  Interesting.  The hosts couldn’t resist.  They approached the shop and a lady with big hair greeted them at the door.  I think the two hosts were well-known and were probably stars in their early years.  The woman was ecstatic with overflowing joy at meeting them.  They went into the karaoke and talked for a bit and the woman convinced them to sing a few songs.

And the songs they sung!  Such grand voices and melodic lines and danceable rhythms.  What was this mysterious new music that sounded so familiar yet foreign to me?  What about it reminded me of Frank Sinatra and subtle Latin beats?  My interest was piqued and I had to know more.  It took a few days of queries but I discovered that it was called Enka, a type of music that was quite popular in post WWII Japan along with the beginnings of Japanese modern pop music.  It opened the way to discover so many more great musicians.  A song by Kyu Sakamoto, Sukiyaki (as it is known in English) or Ue O Muite Arikou, was one of the first Japanese songs to become popular in America, spawning a few English interpretations.  I was hooked.  Finally, I discovered music I could engage.  Time to practice for karaoke.

Check out the Music category for related posts.

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About Matthew J. Durocher

Matthew Durocher is a graduate of Michigan Tech University. He acquired his BA in English along with a minor in Music Composition and a certificate in Writing in Spring 2012. His style is one of passion and musicality. One foot is firmly rooted in tradition while the other slides dangerously close to the clouds.
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