Saturday, April 19, 2014

Banjo in Japan

On tour in Japan.

March 2014 I flew from Heathrow to Narita, Tokyo with my wife Miyuki and our daughter Kiki to introduce our little girl to Japan. It was my forth trip to Japan and each time I have played banjo concerts each time there. I have found the Japanese banjo scene to be very lively and of a high playing standard and always enjoy meeting my fellow banjo players there. My daughter was also going to meet her Japanese Grand Parents for the first time.

My initial concert was organized and shared with the Banjo Stompers of Tokyo, led by Hiroyuki Hasebe. The concert was held in Shibuya, Tokyo at the Back in Town club. They are musically tight, rehearsed and smart and they put on a really entertaining show with plectrum and tenor banjos backed with drums, tuba and washboard. It is easy to find yourself drawn into the fun the band creates on stage and musically it is really very high standard with good arrangements holding the program together. A good “on monitor stage” sound system also helped me perform as I was using my backing tracks to present my one man show at this one. It is customary after such an evening for a trip to the local Izakaya, (Japanese version of a Tapas bar) and this rounded things off nicely.

Next on the list was a lobby concert for Sakura town hall, 45 minutes playing solo (with my backing tracks) for lunchtime. My Father in law, Yasuhiko san had organized this one for me and it was also filmed and shown on local cable TV. It was lovely to have my Japanese family along to this one. It was also another opportunity for my limited Japanese language to get a try out on stage. I can at least introduce things, all be it in brief phrases. Playing for the general public on this concert once again demonstrated the attraction of the music of the 20s and 30s and the fun that can be had playing it on the banjo.

Yasuhiko had also been busy fixing a job for me at a graduation party for senior students of a university and we travelled to Narita Mercure hotel to entertain the graduates after a splendid lunch, Japanese style. I enjoy Japanese food very much and the buffet style lunch was only limited to time and appetite. Delicious and well worth the trip for that alone. Once again my wife and daughter were able to attend my concert and Kiki is showing signs of becoming a star in her own right by joining me on stage and dancing to the music, quite charming. The students were extremely enthusiastic and joined in the singing and frivolity by requesting an encore of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and buying plenty of my CDs after the event.

One of the many highlights of the trip was to be invited to play at the first Tokyo Banjo Festival which was put together by Hiro Hasebe and virtuoso banjo player Ken Aoki. Ken is among the best banjo players in the world in this genre and it was a real pleasure to listen to the Banjo Stompers, a trio called The Pietsch Banjos (who play matching Pietsch banjos) and Ken before I doing my 40 minute set. The location was in Shibuya, central Tokyo, at a large up market restaurant called Tokyo Main Dining to a capacity audience. The finale and smiling faces of the audience, musicians and restaurant staff hopefully secures this an annual event. It was interesting to see the demographics of the audience who are generally a little younger than European and American counterparts and a fair smattering of younger faces makes the future a little brighter for this style of entertainment.

Ken Aoki had also invited me to join him for another of his Banjo on Stage shows in Nagoyama and after a 40 kilometer journey in heavy Saturday traffic, Yasukio, Tomie (my mother in law) and myself arrived at the civic hall for an afternoon of rehearsal before the start of the concert at 1800. Although it was Ken’s show, he had another job to play in the afternoon and would arrive later to finalize the show. The backing musicians of Masato Kobiashi, Hajime on piano and Hiro on drums made life easy for me as they all read the arrangements I had brought along with no problems. Showtime and Ken played three tunes before inviting me on stage to join the show. American Patrol, Mr. Sandman, Dream a little dream of me and into some extremely creative playing of ragtime, novelties and ending the first half with Chick Corea’s “Spain”. After the concert Ken and I were busy signing CDs for the audience and it is amazing that although we both speak little of each other’s language, music breaks those barriers down. A truly memorable evening and thanks to Ken san for including me.

Next it was off to the middle of Japan for a concert organized by professional clown and excellent tenor banjo player Mashu in his home town of Iida. An early start into central Tokyo meant a packed train from Sakura and I met with Mr Najima en route at a Tokyo subway platform, before heading to Hasebe-sans house for early breakfast and then on the road for 3 hours to the venue. From Tokyo the countryside changes to mountains and it is a little cooler there. Upon arriving we meet Mashu and his committee who greeted us warmly. I have learned that a Japanese stage performance is rehearsed to the very last detail and this was no different. Hiro, Mashu, Mr Najima and Gin performed as “The Pietsch Boys”, featuring banjos made by Germany’s Norbert Pietsch. They played a very good set opening with Billboard March, Blue Room, Lollipops, Flight of the Bumble Bee (Mashu has entered the realms of virtuosity with this piece) before introducing me on stage to play a forty minute show and rounding with all the musicians for an encore. The show was a big success and sold out to a very enthusiastic audience. An early rise for a wonderful day of lunch time Soba noodles, a hot spring bath, a visit to the mountains for breath taking views and back to Iida, on to Tokyo to drop the guys and finally to Sakura.

Two days recording with top player Ken Aoki in Tokyo produced some excellent duel banjo tunes of which I am very proud. To be able to communicate with music when language is difficult is one of the most amazing experiences. The CD is a “work in progress” and should be ready later this year.

My final concerts were for Harley Davidson Motorcycles in Chiba and Narita City who thought it would be a nice opportunity to tie in American music with American motorbikes and have a lobby concert in the showrooms. To be surrounded by so much chrome and great looking machines is different to the usual concert room and was a great setting for my show. I have never been a biker but these are more than simply machines, they are works of art.

My sincere thanks to Hiroyuki Hasabe and the Banjo Stompers of Tokyo, Mashu, Ken Aoki and my many friends in Japan for an opportunity to perform so many fantastic concerts to such lovely, appreciative people. Arigato (thanks) and Kampai (cheers)!!!

Sean Moyses.

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