Welcome back dear readers!
I know I should be more astute about posting right after a show, but that shit is nerve-wracking! I hope you all liked the JSR: Future mix, though. I’d forgotten how fun it was to actually curate, assemble and release songs and IT FEELS GOOD TO BE BACK. The next show is coming down the pike (whatever that means) so stay tuned. I’m actually talking in this one!
A few weeks ago, I found myself in the Midwestern center of culture, sophistication and tacos otherwise known as Chicago. A friend of mine spoke in hushed tones about a record store wherein anyone who made a purchase would gain access to a secret chamber – a veritable CAVE OF WONDERS – filled entirely with classic arcade cabinets set to free play. They even had the original TRON which I spent stupid time trying to beat, but wait what is this a blog about again? Oh yeah.
Like I said, You needed to make a purchase in order to check out the sweet games, and after some EXTREME BROWSING I found the wildest shit ever.
This is a Victor music book. The title is Nihon Min’yō no Ryo (or Japanese Min’yō Trip). The cover indicates that this is Kantō Edition which in turn suggests that there are other regional volumes of this series to be had. You may be wondering what a “music book” is, and I really hope you are. When you open up what appears to be a 7″ record, some bogus shit gets revealed:
It’s really, actually, a book. Perhaps a magazine is a better word, or well-produced pamphlet. The images inside depict lots of rural scenes – dudes pulling ropes on boats, ladies boogying down in traditional gear, serene woodsy landscapes – but end with a photo of cars zooming through a city. It’s as if there is a CONFLICT inside the MODERN J-dude between CONTEMPORARY LIFE and the LONGING for a real or imagined HOMETOWN deep within the Japanese COLLECTIVE IMAGINATION and HISTORICAL MEMORY. In any case, there are words and pictures to accompany the music. The music? The music comes on four paper-thin, translucent saucers that look an awful lot like Fruit Roll-Ups.
These are called “flexidiscs” and they are completely awesome. Each one contains 2-3 songs and plays on a turntable like anything else would, though you have to be careful that the needle is not too heavy, or else it could rip right through the disc!
The format was invented in the 60s as a cheap way of distributing music to people, often in print media; questionable J-punk icons The Blue Hearts’ first release was a flexidisc handed out at live shows, and the Beatles sent them out in newsletters to fan club members. Indeed, while flexidiscs don’t appear to be a Japanese innovation, almost all of the examples I’ve been able to find were released to Japanese markets specifically.
Within that market, music book topics ranged from wartime stories and science fiction dramas to straight up music releases by popular acts including The BOSS himself, Frank Nagai. Included in that wide swath of music book content was a vibrant collection of rural, ethnic Japanese folk music, otherwise known as min’yō, which brings us back to those four ladies breaking it down in the fields.
Min’yō is a type of traditional J-folk music that includes rural tunes, country jams, festival music and work songs (Swing Low, Sweet Shinkansen?). There is a certain belief that this type of music touches the deepest part of the Japanese soul, because it is evocative of “home” and “family”, though I’m not sure those two things exist in the context of operatic wailing and shamisen grinding for a lot of J-folks these days. Please let me know if I’m wrong. Musical styles often vary by region, and the songs found on this collection are particular to Kantō, an area which covers greater Tokyo area on the east side of Japan.
The actual music uses traditional instruments like the shamisen and shakuhachi to accompany vocal performances. I’m not sure how Kantō-style min’yō differs from other regions, but it’s probably a lot like how west coast rap differs from east coast rap. Kyūshū may have the smooth lyrics and melody, but Kantō has the hardest beats/rhymes any day.
Though produced kind of en masse in their heyday, these flexidiscs have become semi-rare due to the fact that record stores would not buy them back from people and they would often end up in the trash, so I’m happy I found this little gem. Luckily, expressions of min’yō culture are alive and well, if not on little red see-through discs, then in sweet Youtube videos of dudes getting BIZZY to the min’yō classic “Soran-Bushi”: