Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Folk Songs and Fireworks

Festival volunteers kept the charcoal grills fired until just before dusk, when they removed their sweaty headbands and began pulling benches into the open square for the folk song performance. As the sun sank into the ocean somewhere off Vladivostok, an armada of migratory sea birds began to emerge from the glow of the western sky like alien space ships in a big budget science fiction film. I climbed a little way up the bluff overlooking the harbor, slowly sipping from a bowl of warm miso soup and watching the birds wing their way home for the night. The waves of sea birds flowed in without end, some in little V flocks like migrating geese and others flying alone, high up at the edge of the sky, all following the same path home from far out at sea.

Blue-black darkness settled in over Teuri and the birds on the cliffs went quiet. Orange pools of light quivered against the sea wall as paper lanterns shook in the stiff night breeze. Below my perch on the bluff, groups of old couples emerged from the inns wearing light cotton summer kimonos and settled onto the benches in front of the tents. I finished my soup and walked down the slope to join them.

Japanese folk songs, or enka, are far from popular among the younger generation, but walk down the back streets of any small town late at night and chances are you'll hear a retired salary man crooning a classic tale of forbidden love in a hidden karakoke bar. Although each region of Japan has it's own traditional enka, the songs that best exemplify the genre are from the North, specifically the sparsely populated regions of Aomori, Iwate and Akita prefectures in Northern Honshu. The lonesome notes of enka fit the bleak valleys and icy sea coasts of the North, where travelers shiver on empty roads and beaches. Hokkaido, though even farther North, lacks the depth of cultural history need to produce genuine enka. Japanese folk songs, like traditional music the world over, are rooted in the murky historical mists of kingdoms long since conquered and lovers long since dead. Ainu music is practically extinct.

The rural parts of Japan that produced enka are themselves fading into hollow shells of their former vibrancy as generations of young people emigrate to the sprawling metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka, where they frequent underground raggae clubs, listen to Japanese rap and take their fashion cues from the pop icon flavor of the month. Although the urban hipsters wouldn't be caught dead singing enka in a karaoke bar, many of the best folk songs speak to the nostalgia for tradition that underlies the popular urban lifestyle. Enka speaks of displacement, the loneliness of a traveler far from a home to which he is unable to return, or the sadness of an old man remembering the vitality of his youth. Here in this faded fishing village, clinging to the shore of a windswept island far out in the Northern reaches of the Sea of Japan, the happy bustle of the islanders seemed like a raft of joy on an ocean of sadness. Their sea urchin festival was a celebration of heritage permeated with great loneliness.

The enka singer, a heavily made up woman of about 65 took the stage in a glittery sequin dress and high heels, her hair piled in a frozen nest. The old men clapped and whistled, and she began to sing.

After the first song, the singer came down off the stage and introduced herself, flirting with drunks in the front row and teasing the mayor, who refused to be dragged into the spotlight. As a professional entertainer on the verge of retirement, she had mastered the art of bantering with drunken old men while maintaining a firm aura of respectibility. She seemed vulnerable in her heels and dress and encroaching old age, singing alone as the wind gusted over the harbor, but at the same time even the loudest drunk never doubted her self assurance and poise.

The last two songs were the standards, summer festival favorites that even the urban hipsters know by heart. The enka singer sang in a strong, clear voice and the crowd joined in with a murmering harmony. Five old men, islanders, got up from their seats and danced gracefully across the square at the edge of the spotlight. The last note blew off in the wind and the singer bowed deeply, holding her head low while the audience applauded. The whine of a firework spiraled up from the breakwater at the end of the harbor and exploded with a boom of white stars that crinkled across the sky and reflected little bits of light onto the dark waves. The man sitting behind me kept up a running commentary on the show. "Here comes another one," he said, elbowing his wife. "Ara! Ara! Kirei da! Kore wa ii ne!" What a good one, what a fine show this.

"Zyaa, owari," it's finished, he sighed after three large fire flowers fizzed into the harbor. But after a pause there were more whistling launches, and more, and then explosion after explosion, boom crack fizz all at the same time. "Ara, Ara, Ara, Ara!" said the man behind me and then one last fizz choked off by the wind and the show was over.

At the edge of the square the bald fisherman from the morning had his arm around a young woman. Their shadow played off the rocks of the breakwater until he whispered something in her ear and the couple vanished into the night.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home