March 22nd, 2005


Misora Hibari

These are early days, but I'm sketching in my mind the first tentative textural and stylistic specifications for my 2006 record, codenamed The Friendly Album. It's a warm record all about social connectedness, with the sprightly, breezy gait of Charles Trenet, wearing a straw boater, singing Boum. It's an Asian-sounding record, a Brazilian-sounding record, it's pentatonic enka ticky-tocky dubbed by the 1970s King Tubby. And it sounds a bit like Misora Hibari.

Misora Hibari was born in 1937 in Yokohama, the daughter of a fishmonger of Korean ancestry. Her voice, her precise sense of timing and perfect pitch quickly marked her out, and in the 1940s she became famous as a child actress, playing gamine roles in many post-war Japanese films, cheering people up and boosting morale during the reconstruction. After that she became Japan's most famous singer, with hits like Sad Sake and Kappa Boogie Woogie. She died in 1989... the same year as King Tubby, oddly enough.

I've only discovered Misora very recently. I happened to be looking at Japanese artist (and Neenstar) Mai Ueda's website. If you click the link and wait a while on the splash page, you'll hear a Misora Hibari song from the early 50s. That song alone was enough to intrigue me; Robert Duckworth (who's also blogged about Misora, although I can't find the entry) then sent me her triple CD compilation, and I've been listening to little else since dropping the mp3s into iTunes. The first thing you notice is that Misora's voice has three main ranges, each with its own style. There's a low Enka-Takarazuka voice full of resonant vibrato, a high spry Chinese-sounding voice, and a middle range that cuts like a knife as she slides through it, reminding me of nothing so much as Ziggy-era Bowie ("So where were the spiders...?").

The second thing that really hits you is the Chinese-French arrangements. An oriental melody with gentle, poised, poignant instrumentation announces itself, then a little coconut pentatonic tango-rhumba shuffle band kicks in, and Misora starts to sing, balancing her wistfully serene words on the claves and vibes and flutes, with some slidey, sentimental violins doubling her vocal lines far behind, swelling for transitional bridging lines. Everything's nicely compressed and crackly. There's a fine balance, in the emotional tone, between Japanese mono no aware melancholy and a sort of Chinese view of happiness (the colour pink, the cheeks of a child, a spring day, togetherness). The effect is the very opposite of rock'n'roll, although it does remind me of early Morricone, or Kurt Weill's Chinese-American Berlin pop pastiches of the 20s, or a more serene, refined and delicate version of Edith Piaf; spruce, chipper, collusive, elegaic yet unruffled. (You can see some lovely sleeves from the period here, and labels here, all with the same "breezy, unruffled" quality. You can also get something of the same emotional colour tones from this Simonpure commercial using Ume Hitoyo by Kosetsu Minami.)

In fact, Misora (and especially early Misora) is just terribly resonant of a feeling that still haunts the karaoke arcades and entertainment districts of Japan, a sake sentimentality, a feeling of lightly-borne, consolingly-shared melancholy, mixed with Japan's omnipresent morale-boosting togetherness and cheerfulness. Even Japanese bus drivers manage to convey this combination of tones as they ferry you with relaxed announcements to your destination, white-gloved, ultra-traditional, respectful, breezy as a crooner. "This is delightful" and "life is hard" and "we all feel the same way" somehow co-exist in the texture of Japanese sentiment. You're "together" even when you're alone. Misora's songs articulate that. I hear the feelings of all Japanese people in them; women, boys, old ladies, actresses, kabuki stars, bus drivers. They're not my feelings, and I don't even understand the words, but being excluded from the poignant wistfulness-togetherness is itself something poignant and beautiful. And I can already hear in my mind's ear the sort of warm, bizarre, ticky tocky things the 1970s King Tubby is doing with the arrangements in his Tokyo-Kingston studio in heaven.