Log in

No account? Create an account
Misora Hibari - click opera — LiveJournal
February 2010
Tue, Mar. 22nd, 2005 10:09 am
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.


Tue, Mar. 22nd, 2005 09:17 am (UTC)

I'm starting to think I'm going to have to order your albums off the web somewhere. I was looking in the record store. I checked a couple categories, then started wondering just where they'd put you. Assuming they carried you at all. I really miss the hole in the wall places, it's umm, Camelot I think in the mall now. Never bother with the place really.


Tue, Mar. 22nd, 2005 12:12 pm (UTC)

Are you considering a pentatonic base for the new album? What effects do you think such music would have on the listener, would it be easier to understand and friendlier or more democratic...?

Tue, Mar. 22nd, 2005 12:26 pm (UTC)

Not so much a pentatonic "base", but certainly a flavour. It's interesting, we have a sort of pentatonic scale in Scotland, the Gaelic pentatonic scale. Africa and China also use pentatonic scales. If, as I said a few entries back, "the moment we realise that limitations and flavour are pretty much the same thing is a wise moment" then using a pentatonic scale might be a way to get flavour by restricting options. There are pentatonic-flavoured songs on my last two albums (Is It Because I'm A Pirate? and Corkscrew King, as well as Scottish Lips). You can be pentatonic and still make memorable melodies... one of the tunes I find most infectious is the melody that plays on many Japanese pedestrian crossings, a pentatonic ghost song entitled Touryanse. It can be a melancholy scale, so you can counterbalance that with friendly rhythms (coconut shells, claves, chinese bells and gongs, sprightly dance gait). As for democratic... well, there are more and more Asians in the world...

ReplyThread Parent
Stanley Lieber
Tue, Mar. 22nd, 2005 12:41 pm (UTC)
Go democracy!

I would like to hear a Momus song with the flavor of classical Chinese violin pieces.

ReplyThread Parent

Tue, Mar. 22nd, 2005 01:28 pm (UTC)

Pentatonic scales are "naturally occurring" unlike the ultra-math of Western octaves. If you really wanted to get away from Western hegemony, I would abandon your subdominant and subtonic tones immediately. Japanese music today still gravitates toward "yonanuki" ("no 4 and 7") melodies, and if you start writing within those kind of limitations, your songs will attain an automatic kind of Oriental melancholy.


ReplyThread Parent
orville beckingsley
Wed, Mar. 23rd, 2005 12:16 am (UTC)

Speaking of pentatonic scales and Japanese flavor: Have you heard the album Supernova by the band Kokoo? Japan-ized (on koto and shakuhachi) covers of Western pop tunes--my favorite is "Purple Haze". Something tells me you might like it at least for some aspects.

Here's a link with the track listing: http://www.japanimprov.com/indies/sevenseas/supernova.html

ReplyThread Parent

Tue, Mar. 22nd, 2005 01:36 pm (UTC)

what did you think about the Kahimi Karie version of "tokyo kid"?


Tue, Mar. 22nd, 2005 03:48 pm (UTC)
this and that

nice entry today! a much needed write-up of one of the better kept 'secrets' of the japanese vocal tradition. (now the cat is out of the bag!) i can't find any bones to pick at this point about anything your said, so bravo! i'm still chewing on a few things, though...

oh, that link that you couldn't find is here.


my blog is a little screwy sometimes, so that's probaby why it couldn't be found.

oh, i also wanted to say that marxy wrote this...

>Pentatonic scales are "naturally occurring" unlike the ultra-math of
>Western octaves. If you really wanted to get away from Western hegemony, >I would abandon your subdominant and subtonic tones immediately. Japanese >music today still gravitates toward "yonanuki" ("no 4 and 7") melodies,
>and if you start writing within those kind of limitations, your songs
>will attain an automatic kind of Oriental melancholy.

...and i just wanted to say that i can't tell if david is being serious or not here. i hope he is joking. i'm almost SURE he is joking. but if he isn't, he has NO IDEA what he's talking about.

ANY scale is non-natural, whether it be tonal, pentatonic, dodecaphonic, or gin and tonic! the question of 'ultra-math' (i have no idea what this means) is just a question of degree.

david, if you are reading this, i suggest picking up a copy of xenakis' thesis defense --Arts/Sciences Alliages-- and giving it a careful read.


actually, this very readable book is one of the most interesting books i've ever come across in my life, and i'd also suggest that nick read it to if he hasn't already!

after that, you could try and take on xenakis' magnum opus, which explains (among other things, and i'm putting this in very LAY terms here) how we can generate ANY scale we want and how to go about it.

Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition

david also says...

>Japanese music today still gravitates toward "yonanuki" ("no 4 and 7")
>and if you start writing within those kind of limitations, your songs
>will attain an automatic kind of Oriental melancholy.

and that is probably true, but david forgot to say japanese POP music today...i'd also add that this 'japanese-ness' is the product of a pop music written by people who don't even know the rich panolpy of what USED to exist, or where these now bastardized 'xanthic' melodies and trivialized quartal harmonies came from.

japanese pop has done with its roots what it has done with all other forms of music it has (re-)encountered: it has apropriated the 'surface' and discarded the 'essence'. in fact, our friend keigo has made an art of it. japanese pop is at the same time facinated AND terrified by its own oriental doppleganger. thus, the pandora's box of traditional japanese music remains unopened. the 'small men' of today's j-pop just shake it and rattle it and try and guess what's in side. things were quite different in misora hibari's time.

of course there is ONE exception, TAKAHASHI Yuji, who in my opinion is japan's greatest 'modern' (now post-modern) composer. he has ALWAYS been interested in making his music from deep within the umbral recesses of this mystery of 'essence', and that is why his opaque, marginal presence in the japanese 'modern' music world has and will always be misunderstood, even by his own countrymen. unlike TAKEMITSU, who is kind of like the modern classical version of oyamada keigo, TAKAHASHI will never win any awards until he dies, and perhaps not even then.


if you've got your ear in the right places, you can find 'traditional' japanese music that is really all over the place, not bound by any kind of boorish 'pentatonic' systems.

but of course, i think marxy was only joking!


Tue, Mar. 22nd, 2005 04:08 pm (UTC)
Re: this and that

Not as much joking as being uninformed to provoke you into a long comment.

I'd like to add, however, that the Japanese perceive Pentatonic scales to be "ancient" and Western scales to be "modern" to some degree and there's a nice correlation between the abandonment of Oriental minor-key songs and economic growth. Check out the hit Group Sounds stuff from '67-'69 and you'll find mostly minor-key rock, and then about 1970, you get a lot of folk rock with perfectly Western melodies. Tsutsumi Kyouhei was one of the first songwriters to really be able to write in the Western modes, and his stuff - like production for Hirayama Miki - is way more accesible to the Western ear than a lot of the other Japanese 60s material. Happy End's pretty Western too, compared to things even two years before them like the Jacks.

This is not to say that culture automatically becomes more Western as economic conditions rise, but the Japanese popular music industry did gravitate towards writing less Pentatonically as Japan left the 60s. They most likely perceived the Japanese melody as sounding "old-fashioned" and felt the Western melodic mode sounded trendier.


ReplyThread Parent
Tue, Mar. 22nd, 2005 06:35 pm (UTC)
Re: this and that

japanese pop has done with its roots what it has done with all other forms of music it has (re-)encountered: it has apropriated the 'surface' and discarded the 'essence'.

This is exactly my impression. Although keen to discover popular Japanese music that I actually like, I have so far found very little. There are, occasionally, things that I can enjoy - for instance, Spiritual Vibes - but the only modern popular music that has captivated me to the extent I find it compulsive listening is an eccentric little ban called Tama, whose songs seem to me a perfectly organic, even mushroom-like, blending of traditional Japanese music and modern pop. I know so few people who like anything other than the overblown and yawnworthy cross between New Romantic and AOR that fills the Japanese bestseller lists that I have found it nigh on impossible to come across decent recommendations. Once or twice I have heard something, for instance, on the radio, and been impressed, only to miss the name, and never be able to trace the music... It has been frustrating. And for the most part all I have is one band to show for my efforts, and I have no idea whether or not there are - to me - as yet undiscovered oceans of wonderful Japanese music, toward which, for some reason, no one has been able to direct me.

I like the little snatch of Misora Hibari that I heard, though.

ReplyThread Parent
Wed, Mar. 23rd, 2005 04:19 pm (UTC)
Re: this and that

"...and i just wanted to say that i can't tell if david is being serious or not here. i hope he is joking. i'm almost SURE he is joking. but if he isn't, he has NO IDEA what he's talking about.

ANY scale is non-natural, whether it be tonal, pentatonic, dodecaphonic, or gin and tonic! the question of 'ultra-math' (i have no idea what this means) is just a question of degree."

I think he may be referring to the preverence of pentatonic scales throughout world music - they are much more common than 7 note scales, and I've heard this theory that all cultures moved through a pentatonic phase before extending to more notes.

And as for western tonal systems being more mathematical - it's the truth, really. most scales have been built on hearing alone which dictates the harmonies and melodic pitches, whereas western music has a history of being created for reasons other than just soudning good. see bach and his system for easy modulation and the late 19th century where the 12 tone equal temperement system was devoleped - each note is spaced equally logrithmically apart, which is very mathematical and doesn't occur anywhere else.
So I would say that most of these pentatonic scales are really more "natural" based on the fact that they were developed by ear alone - "if it sounds good, keep it" kind of mentatlity - and that western music was developed through non-musical reasons.

Maybe the reason why you think that pentatonic scales are not more natural than western music is because you've only heard pentatonic scales through the mutated equally spaced 12 tet.

anyway - don't be so snarky.

ReplyThread Parent
Tue, Mar. 22nd, 2005 04:49 pm (UTC)

Shouldn't that Boum be accompanied by a mark of admiration? (Always the pedant, never the perfectionist.)


Tue, Mar. 22nd, 2005 09:17 pm (UTC)

The ideas and music for new album sound terrific. Good luck.


(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Wed, Mar. 23rd, 2005 06:55 am (UTC)

I'm not a huge Mariko Mori fan, to be honest. She's a spoilt rich girl (her dad is Tokyo's richest property developer, and owns half of Roppongi including the Roppongi Hills Mori Building) who has mainly made narcissistic images of herself as a somewhat cliched "girl from the future". It all looks like some ghastly 90s club flyer now.

ReplyThread Parent

Wed, Mar. 29th, 2006 10:01 am (UTC)
Misora Hibari

Couldn't she be considered to be the Japanese Judy Garland?

In 1968, she gave a special concert celebrating her 20 years in show business. She was accompanied by Hara Nobuo and the Sharps & Flats.

It was recorded and came out as a double lp and it's one of my favorite recordings. I don't know if it's available on cd.


Tue, Jul. 25th, 2006 05:59 am (UTC)
Hibari a fishmonger of Korean ancestry?

Is that true?
Will you tell me how did you confirm?
I have been to Hibari museum in Kyoto, there was nothing about Korean ancestry.
Did you read these books?
1.美空ひばり 竹中労 1965年(2005復刻)ちくま文庫
2.戦後、美空ひばりとその時代 本田靖春 1987年 講談社
3.美空ひばり時代を歌う 大下英治 1989年 新潮文庫
4.愛燦燦・ひばり神話の真実 西村克子 1993年 徳間
5.ひばり裕次郎昭和の謎 吉田司 2003年 講談社+α文庫

"Irresponsible rumors about Misora Hibari"