Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sakura: A Musical Celebration of the Cherry Blossoms

This stellar compilation from the Smithsonian Folkways label offers a variety of traditional Japanese music pieces, with the underlying theme of tying the sounds in to the famed cherry blossoms that bloom in Washington, D.C., the home of the label and its parent museum, The Smithsonian Institution.

The ten tracks provide a nice capsule of sounds within classical Japanese musics over the centuries, starting with the famed folk piece, "Sakura", as performed on the koto, or zither.  Following is "Yasugi Bushi," a minyo, or folk song, that reflects, as the liner notes observe, the traditional saying that "folk song is the heart's home town."  Songs like this were historically for boatmen along the Japan Sea in the mid-nineteenth century and features a particularly emotive and mournful vocal.

"Asadoya Yunta" is another folk tune, but comes from the southern island of Okinawa and concerns the titular female character and her rejection of a wedding proposal from a functionary of the government.

Along with the koto, the instrument most identified with classical Japanese music is the shakuhachi, or the five-hole bamboo flute.  In "Hachigaeshi," Riley Kelly Lee, an American whose father was Japanese and who lives and works in Australia and who became the first non-Japanese to be designated a grand master of the instrument, performs with great facility and emotion on a piece from the 13th through 16th centuries which was performed as part of a Buddhist priest's playing for alms.

Another well-known instrument is the shamisen, and Umewaka Asano plays this three-stringed lute with great assurance and ability, while Sanae Yabumuki sings with great control and expressiveness in the festival piece, recorded at a 1986 Smithsonian festival.

From the northeastern part of Japan comes "The Song of Rice-Husking," featuring another beautiful and keening female vocal and an ensemble of stringed instruments and percussion, as well as some backing chants.  An interesting variation on the album is "Songs of the Stonemason," recorded on location and capturing male workers pounding stone as a percussive rhythm-keeping function for work and singing along.

"Soran Bushi" includes shakuhachi, koto, and a deeper female voice with backing accompaniment for this folk song from Hokkaido in Japan's northern reaches.  This piece is another work song for the retrieval of herring nets from the ocean.  The koto showcase, "Rokudan No Shirabe [Music of the Six Steps]," dates to the 17th-century and highlights the transformation of the instrument from an accompanying to a solo one.  Here, Shinichi Yuize, plays with clarity, delicacy and a sense of refinement that makes his song a highlight on the recording.

Finally, the lengthy eleven-minute epic taiko piece, "Yuudachi," closes this excellent album.  The percussion ensemble Soh Daiko works this 1984 composition by Sandy Ikeda into a vivid musical portrait of the passing of a summer storm and was recorded for the Smithsonian's sesquicentennial celebration on the National Mall at Washington in 1996.

Sakura is a nice capsule statement of the remarkable sounds that come from Japanese classical music and Smithsonian Folkways is to be congratulated for issuing this compelling and highly-enjoyable album.

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