Melodic Cage


Music really is a universal language. I don't think there's any group of people on the planet that does not have some kind of musical expression. Some scientists have said that humanity began in Africa and migrated out across the world. Perhaps this tendency towards musical expression was carried with them. When I close my eyes and visualize the tribes of men and women, I hear the drums playing in the background. That is the one instrument that's common to every civilization. That leads me to believe that our first experiences with man-made music was with rhythm. I wish I had a time machine so that I could go back and witness the birth of these kinds of discoveries. I want to be there to see the look on the first human's face who realized that a dried animal skin stretched over a hollow log would have such a wonderful sound.


When I left the United States, I was in search of the answer to the question of what connects us all as humans. I wanted to know beyond the surface of that question. In my travels, I found that music is certainly one of the greatest connective elements. Japanese people have a great love of music. Almost every aspects of daily life is dripping with melody and rhythm. There seems to be a more ubiquitous musical cacophony in Tokyo then there is in London or New York City. Maybe it's my imagination. I haven't actually done a test to measure how much music is present in each city. Although, it would be an interesting research topic.


Music is often inextricable from one's personal identity. Like everything else in America that identity is drawn along racial lines first. The music industry is largely to blame for this I believe. They dictate who should play what kinds of music. That's why artists like Prince and Jimi Hendrix had such a difficult time in their early careers. They wanted to create music that inspired them, but the industry wanted them to create music that would be seen as black. Ironically the industry also worked hard to create artists who made music in black styles but who could also be iconic heroes for white people. Out of this we got Elvis, The Rolling Stones, and even The Beatles. I always thought that was unfair.


There were bands like Death, one of the original innovators of the punk sound, who were marginalized because of the way they looked. They were told by the industry that no one wanted to hear that kind of music from people who looked like them. The saddest thing is that this was also the opinion of the general public, who had been thoroughly brainwashed by this marketing technique and also by their own sense of tribalism. It's unfortunate because innovation demands that artist step outside of the realm of the known and into the realm of the unknown and unexplored. This is actually how black music has become so powerful over the last century. When imitators dilute our creative genius by flooding the market, we changed the sound. And so it has been until the rise of the modern recording industry, which seeks to clarify potential customers based on easy to understand classifications. When they do that, they know that all the white kids are going to buy the big haired rock bands and all the black kids are going to buy soul and hip hop. When you strengthen those tribal ties to the sound you guarantee the longevity of those markets. What this fails to factor in is humanity's thirst for exploration.


There will always be a percentage of us who refused to fit within the mold that we have been given. That's how we ended up with white kids listening to Motown and gangster rap. It's also what led three black boys, who later became known as Belleville three, to give birth to techno. There will always be the innovators who scan the soundscape for new inspiration, the dreamers who look for new worlds to travel in, and the inquisitive who simply want to know what's beyond the wall. Those people will be the facilitators of the next sound that eventually becomes standard for a group.


When I was growing up in America I was fascinated by all forms of musical expression. The sound of the electric guitar hypnotized me just as much is that amen beat that's so omni present in funk music. My natural habitat was old school funk, soul, and jazz with a little bit of reggae mixed in. Those were the sounds coming out of my community as shaped by the record industry and my neighbors. I suppose, before traveling all the way to Japan I first began my travels through sound. I secretly listened to bands like the Police and the Doors. I hid in my room with my Walkman headphones on drifting away on sweet melancholic melodies by the Sundays, the Pretenders, and Cowboy Junkies.


When I moved to college, I met my roommate, David Maher, who loved listening to 1960s and 70s hippie grooves. He also loved the long-haired rock and roll sounds of post narcotic Beatles and the quirky Jane's addiction. I once stuffed myself into a car full of hippies and went to a Grateful Dead show with him. I was curious about why he loved the band so much. When I arrived at that circus festival of a parking lot, my eyes were wide with surprise. I was the voyeur of a counterculture freak show and I loved every second of it. I could never tell anyone about this though. The moment that I did I would be accused of wanting to be something that I was not.


Moving to Japan was a great learning experience for me because I was no longer completely bound by this societal cage. Of course, they were bindings tied around my arms and legs by people who had bought into the idea that I should follow a certain set of criteria because of the way that I look. They assumed, correctly, that I would love hip hop, R&B, and soul music. What they failed to understand was that I was not limited to only that. However, living in Japan I found large groups of youths who were just as hungry for new sounds I was. They were constantly putting together seemingly disparate modes of expression in order to give birth to new ones. For example, we have the band Minyo Crusaders, who blend traditional folk Japanese music with western funk and rock.


What's most interesting about Japanese people is that they absorb the cultures of other countries and make them their own. However, they do not do it in a way that we would typically call appropriation, even though it very much is 100% appropriation. The difference is, there is no malice or intent to subjugate. When a Japanese kid puts the gold chain around his neck and wears a baseball cap with the flat bill and spits rhymes in colloquialisms that he should not know, there is a deep admiration and respect for the artform. On every superficial level, those kids try to embody their understanding of their adopted genres. I say superficial because they don't know anything about the struggle they gave birth to the Blues, for example. Nor do they understand the stories being told by rappers.


Japan still remains largely a xenophobic society which assimilates the cultures of others but often shies away from fully accepting the people who created those cultures. That is an unfortunate irony indeed. I think it mostly comes from Japanese people needing to understand the step by step process of doing everything. They need to know how someone else has done something before they are able to embrace it themselves. Being in a society full of similar people is a kind of security blanket. When you introduce someone from the outside, there's a monkey wrench in the works. Suddenly people don't know how to behave, what phrases to use, or how to respond and they freeze up. If you combine this with human nature's instinct for tribalism, you get this effect where Japanese kids will dye their hair blonde and dress up like their favorite heavy metal band without actually interacting with the people who make the music. That really is unfortunate. I'm speaking in generalizations of course that does not apply to everyone.


I'm also getting off topic a little bit as my mind wanders through this story. The point that I wanted to make was that what I discovered was people in Japan were free to explore the modes of expression that most attracted them without any of the hindrances that exists in American Society. There is, of course, a strong preference for Jpop music that the industry has molded to fit their image of what Japanese people would like and many people do follow that. But there is a large undercurrent of youth who resist and look for their own places from which to stand and shout to the world. Never once do they have to hide for fear of ridicule and rejection. Nor do they have to pretend and forced themselves into a box for the sake of others, at least not when it comes to music.


Living in Japan has given me an amazing freedom. I could discover all kinds of sounds. I also participated in creating those sounds. All of it was strange and fantastical. I could be free of the creative and psychological limitations that my American experience had placed on me. Without those shackles, and that's what they are, I could live freely in my imagination.


Please don't get me wrong. I'm not here to bash my home country, which I dearly love. Every place needs some kind of improvement. I'm just comparing my understanding of my upbringing as an American to my understanding of life in Japan trying so I can dig out what the lesson is in all of those experiences. All of this is just one guy's opinion. Remember the golden rule. We all don't have to be alike. If you disagree with anything I've written that's OK. If you want to talk about it over some beers or some rum I'll be happy to do that too.


Recently I've noticed that there are new artists who are trying to break the cages that contain them. They are slowly expanding the boundaries of human expression. When the dust settles from the aftermath of their disruption and their innovations become commonplace, will have to continue pushing against the wall.


(gonna edit this later)

Featured Posts
Recent Posts