Giving a Violin: The unlikely story of how bluegrass music swept through Japan


BLuegrass is as ingrained in the North American landscape as the mountains themselves. It’s a musical by-product of its birthplace, and its origins can be traced along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. But it also travels, reverberating on the peaks, reverberating in the valleys and transmitting itself across the oceans. The violin sings a brilliant duet with the delicate twang of the banjo – even the slightest touch creates a “snap”. Steady guitar strummings are paired with the steel chirps of the mandolin, while the metallic moan of a harmonica mingles with the muffled, hollow sounds of the double bass.

The genre has its origins in classic British Isles tunes, old-fashioned mountain music, and traditional African-American blues, jazz and gospel. Kentucky-born Bill Monroe developed the first form of its kind in the 1940s – it takes its name from his band, the Blue Grass Boys. It’s a melting pot of different styles and instruments, but one of its most prominent features is the banjo, which spins along the track like a runaway train. The arrangements look forward to their own freedom to go anywhere. Yet it is also stylistically complex; improvisations, typical of fast tempo tunes called “breakdowns”, are a characteristic inherited from jazz.

The music has captivated fans everywhere, but it may be surprising to learn that the second largest bluegrass stage in the world can be found almost 7,000 miles south of the United States, in Japan. He got there in the years after World War II, introduced via the Far East Network (or FEN), a military radio and television service created to provide a source of news, information and entertainment to American soldiers based in Japan and their families. It was on this network that country and bluegrass were broadcast for an hour each day to troops and anyone who could pick up the radio signal. In 1957, Japan had their first bluegrass duo, The East Mountain Boys, formed by brothers Yasushi and Hisashi Ozaki.

The Ozaki brothers fell in love with American music from a young age, but the outbreak of war forced them to learn it in secret. “There would be great dissension if people knew they were listening to the enemy’s music, so they hid their hand-cranked record player in a closet and played whatever records they could get,” an article from 2013 in Bluegrass today Explain. “There was little food or supplies available in Japan at the time, and the metal was very difficult to find, so they had to make a needle for the record player out of bamboo.” The founding of FEN meant the duo had more freedom to listen to the music they loved, eventually becoming pioneers of the genre in Japan.

Raymond McLain, director of the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music and a member of the bluegrass ensemble The McLain Family Band, says it’s no surprise that bluegrass took off the way it did. “I think people identify with bluegrass because of its various influences. [Bill Monroe] spent many years bringing together the elements of bluegrass music. McLain credits its no-frills execution as part of the appeal, making it both portable and accessible. “It’s not something you have to study for years before you can appreciate it, or that you only have to be in certain circumstances to enjoy it.”

Another appeal is the relatability of bluegrass, with songs that paint a world of broad generalities, and its vague but curious lyrical phrases like “candy by and by,” referring to some time in the future, and place that is. feels like home. When Monroe characterized bluegrass, he said “it has a high-pitched, lonely sound”: it’s raw, rural, and earthy. And while the music can resonate with an energized twang, the topic tends to be more serious and sobering. Bluegrass singers celebrate everyday life from highs to lows. The stacked vocal harmonies sing of sorrow and lost love; the hard life of a coal miner or a railway worker; the comfort found in faith during trials. “People relate to it, no matter where they come from,” McLain says. “If you sing a song about loneliness, I think you can be as lonely in the hills of Kentucky as you are in a building in Chicago or Osaka.”

McLain first met Japanese bluegrass musicians in the early 1970s, while performing with the McLain Family Band. “Back then there were a lot of bluegrass festivals all over the country,” he says of playing in America. His band befriended a Japanese band known as Bluegrass 45 while they were touring the United States – among them was mandolin player Akira Otsuka. Starting Bluegrass 45 was initially “just a fun thing to do,” Otsuka says, with their first performances taking place at a cafe called Lost City in Kobe. Otsuka and the band recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of their first US tour, at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Festival in Indiana.

“We left Japan on June 17, 1971 and entered Bean Blossom the next day,” Otsuka says. “The second day, we were on stage. He remembers seeing Ralph Stanley, who the band had only seen play in Japan a month before. Along with Flatt & Scruggs, these were the only bluegrass bands they had seen perform live at home in Japan. But now they were looking at all the great bluegrass players who had influenced them. “We were watching Bill Monroe for the first time. We were watching Don Reno for the first time… ”Mac Wiseman, Jim & Jesse, all the grown-ups were there, he recalls. “And then we had to go on stage. We were 22 year olds and we were scared to death!

A poster for the bluegrass band Mipso’s tour of Japan, 2013


When asked what made him fall in love with bluegrass, Otsuka cites the North American perspectives evoked by the genre’s signature sounds. “There’s the real mountain – you know, the farmers and the coal miners – in there. But also you can add whatever you want to add. Bluegrass 45 took this philosophy to heart, adding touches of bluegrass to popular standards such as Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” in 1969 and their bluegrass approach to Mozart’s “Turkish March” in 1971. “We thought about it. that it would be pretty cool to do something different, ”he says. “It seems natural to me. I have a lot of fun writing my own songs and arranging music from other genres in bluegrass.

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He cites the gender’s ability to transcend politics, age and background as another reason for his appreciation. “It appeals to young and old, men and women, hippies in California and coal miners in West Virginia,” Otsuka explains. “Can you name any other kind of music like this?”

Taro Inoue, the son of the late founding member of Bluegrass 45 Saburo “Sab” Watanabe Inoue, is a mandolin player who saw first-hand the evolution of bluegrass in his country. “Young kids are out there and new to the American bluegrass scene,” he says, “so they’re bringing the new bluegrass to the scene as well.” Inoue says that although these young players are in the minority, they maintain the love of bluegrass in Japan while bringing their own styles and attitudes to it. Most of them are won over by the melodies and the spirit of the genre, he adds. “None of them try to keep the tradition, because it’s not their tradition. They are just lovers of music, instruments and techniques… Almost everyone does it for fun.

Since their first tour of the United States, the members of Bluegrass 45 have gone their separate ways, reuniting whenever they could for the occasional reunion gigs and a series of US tours from the mid-90s to the early 1990s. 2000s. Sab Watanabe Inoue, the band’s banjo player, and his brother, bassist Toshio Watanabe, started the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival in 1972. “After watching festivals in the United States, they decided to have the their in Japan, ”says Otsuka. “It’s good that Sab and Toshio have been promoting bluegrass all these years.”

The Takarazuka Festival is recognized as the third oldest bluegrass festival in the world, after Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom and Ralph Stanley’s Hills of Home Festival in McClure, Virginia. In early August, Takarazuka will celebrate their 49th anniversary of bluegrass live in Sanda City, Japan, attracting more than 100 bands from across the country. The independent bluegrass-influenced folk ensemble Mipso first performed at the festival in 2013, when they decided to hold their very first tour in Japan, instead of the United States. Mipso’s mandolin player Jacob Sharp, who had experienced the festival the year before in 2012, describes it as “the flagship event of Japanese bluegrass” and “a community affair”.

Bluegrass 45 captured in vintage performance

(Tama Otsuka)

“There’s only one stage, the main stage, and there’s music from around 10 am to 3 am,” Sharp continues. Groups tend to play 20-minute slots: “It’s fast all day long”. The event takes place on a sprawling hill in the mountains above Osaka, with campsites scattered all over the place and people cooking “amazing” food. There is also 24-7 jamming. “After attending probably 100 different festivals across the [United States] … It is a unique event, very different in its structure and its energy and a very beautiful community, ”he says.

Sharp described the group’s visit at a time when the allure of modern bluegrass was really exciting. There was a curiosity around American bluegrass groups in Japan, as young American artists are rarely seen in the country. “We’re not even bluegrass [now], but back then we were playing song-driven bluegrass with pop elements, which was voiced by a bluegrass ensemble, ”he says. “I don’t think a lot of bands like us have been to Japan. [Audiences] were fascinated and adored. Sharp describes the Japanese bluegrass community as “one of the most dense and admirable communities I have ever been a part of, and the most welcoming too.” My favorite thing is just the joy and the meaning they find in [bluegrass], because it also helped me find those two things, ”he adds.

While bluegrass experienced the height of its popularity in 1970s Japan, it is still kept alive through the efforts of the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival, the many bluegrass clubs across the country, such as the popular Tokyo Rocky Top. , and young players who are rising in music. scene. It turns out that wherever you find a bunch of like-minded people who all love this music, you might just find a cabin on the hill, in the mellow once in a while.


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