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This article was originally published in Musicworks #68, Summer 1997. The magazine's subject matter is "Explorations in Sound". They are in based in Toronto, Canada; and their web site www.musicworks-mag.com.
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Betsuni Nanmo Klezmer
When I was in Berlin for the Sonambiente festival, I stayed in the apartment of Martin Riches and Yumiko Urae for ten days. In their collection of CDs there was one album, a real eye-catcher, that I kept circumventing. The more I did so, the more it kept pestering me, as if it was calling out, "play me, if you dare, you chicken!" I took it in my hands often, turned it over and over, dubiously. "Klezmer; from Japan," I wondered, putting it aside again. This went on for several days until in the end it won, and I put it in the player.
"Omedeto" by Betsuni Nanmo Klezmer turned out to be a very strange mixture. Shmaltzy tunes and arrangements, wild improvisation, frantic vocals, culminating in a slow dignified lament. I admit freely that it took getting used to. Using pieces from mainstream Yiddish repertoire (from The Klezmatics to Theodore Bikel) they may push sentimental singing to extremes, they venture outside stylistic confinements and sometimes radically turn their backs on them, at will they slow down the pace to a crawl or whip it up to a foaming rush.
One of the finest examples of this is Doina which opens in free meter with singer Makigami Koichi crooning in Yiddish while producing overtones, "play me the violin, play a doina." Adorned by short snatches of clarinet, violin and saxophone, underpinned by tremulous notes of a banjo and by chords and runs on the piano in imitation of a hammered dulcimer, the forward movement--slow as it is--grinds to a halt, only to be immediately hurled into a delirious two beat dance at breakneck speed with wildly whirling winds. This is a 19-head band and it plays the carefully detailed, fast paced arrangements with split second precision, with a lot of gusto and bravado.
Led by clarinetist Umezu Kazutoki this is the only klezmer band in Japan, and it might well be one of the largest in the world (I don't count Giora Feidman's music here -- he works with orchestras). Omedeto, dating from 1994, was their first CD. Last year saw the release of two more, Ahiru and Waltz. Both propel Betsuni Nanmo's twist on klezmer into various directions. Some pieces are in the same zany vein, others push individual qualities further to extremes. Tum Balalayke on the former, Ershter Vals and Those Were the Days (they stop at nothing) on the latter are blatantly sentimental; Dos Geschrey fun der Vilder Katshke is an exercise in vocal madness, that has Tokyo Nammy cackle, quack and honk with a conviction as if that were humankind's ultimate aim in life. In Papirosn, a bitter complaint by a cigarette seller shivering through a winter night on her own, her voice starts out walking side by side with a tuba; a clarinet joins them a little later completing a sparse, calmly proceeding, threesome -- evocative of the longed for warmth of companionship in a life of loneliness and poverty.
As a musical style klezmer is an outstanding example of culture as an amalgam of influences. The core is a mixture of Hasidic songs and elements from music traditions of the people among whom the Jews lived in Eastern Europe; the music changed after Jews from those regions settled in North America, forced to emigrate because of anti-Semitic pogroms that started around the end of the 19th century. A revival of interest in klezmer in the '70s brought it in the limelight, and since then its popularity has only waxed. Numerous bands, Jewish and non-Jewish, were formed to play this music that is both festive and plaintive. Some want to stay close to the traditional melodies, others want to go look further afield too.
Of the non-Jewish klezmer bands that I know, Betsuni Nanmo is the most convincing in the way it plays traditionals and in the way it diverges from them. Whereas most bands never escape the gravitational pull of the style, these Japanese use it to launch themselves into an area where they can add any ingredient and still make it work. With their razor sharp timing and the often extravagant vocal techniques (a trademark of singers in nightclub circuits, so I am told), they concoct a mixture of Japanese and Yiddish elements that has nothing to do with fusion -- a style that usually tones down distinctive characteristics to arrive at a comfortable, but rather bland, blend. Umezu Kazutoki's bunch has the elements of both sides bounce happily and energetically off each other. The resulting music can be eccentric to the point of being downright weird; but it is invariably vibrant, curious and intriguing. And sometimes truly moving.
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Contents copyright © 1997 by René van Peer. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Page last revised 11 June, 2007.