Monk and Oda smash cultures together, play samurai jazz
On Friday night several dozen people crowded into the dim basement of the Museum of the City of New York for a commemoration of one of the more fantastical moments in New York history. This summer marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese delegation to America, and with it the arrival on June 16, 1860, of 76 sword-swinging samurai on the shores of Manhattan.
The museum had earlier that day opened its commemorative exhibit, “Samurai in New York,” and christened the display with an evening of Do Enka music—a peculiar fusion of Japanese styles and American blues and jazz.
“For the first time in history,” read a quote from Frank Leslie’s June 27, 1860, Illustrated Newspaper scrawled onto the exhibit wall next to a portrait of four samurai in full ceremonial regalia, “the most exclusive and mysterious of nations visits the freest and most accessible. Never before did such extremes meet.”
The idea was that Enka music is an expression of the clash and melding commemorated in the exhibit. And Do Enka, a collaboration between Japanese guitar virtuoso and musical mastermind Yuichiro Oda and T.S. Monk, Jr., son of American jazz legend Thelonious Monk, is particularly apt. But given the wild variations in Enka since its genesis in 1870s Japanese protest songs, few in the audience knew what to expect of this particular synthesis.
“Without listening to Do Enka,” said Japanese ambassador and consul general Shinichi Nishimiya, “I don’t think I understood what it was going to be like.”
The performance didn't initially do much to dispel the confusion. The lights dimmed, and speakers on the stage played the first strains of a traditional Japanese melody, similar to “Itsuki’s Lullaby." Over the calm and quiet music, to the palpable surprise of many patrons, came a crashing and growling introduction by a voice ripped from the soundtrack of a blaxploitation film.
And rapidly, the stage lights flooded the room, revealing Monk and a cadre of musicians, who broke into an improvised and wholly jazzy warm-up number. Monk then rose, drumming the stage, the walls, and several instruments not designed for a rapid attack by sticks, before facing the audience to say a few words on Do Enka. He recalled, 45 years prior, his father’s introduction to and love affair with the nation of Japan. The younger Monk could not, for years, understand his father’s fascination with Japanese jazz.
“Now I understand because I’m involved,” said Monk. “I understand...the haunting melody...We’re talking about folk music. Music which comes from the heart.”
Enka sounds so much like jazz, Monk explained, because they both come from pain. Over the night Enka did reveal its unique twist—a particularly nationalist bent and a certain frenzied bravado, which became noticeable in all the songs as soon as Oda stepped onto the stage.
Oda is a portly little man. He wore a Gorton’s fisherman beard, battered band shirt, big belt buckle, white jacket and matching fedora. Ripping away at his guitar, bobbing his neck with each staccato strum like a big, excited bird, Oda brought a dose of vitality to the band. A performance initially carried only by Monk’s crashing, crisp and cool drums and the trumpeting prowess of Joey Morant slipped into a lively repertoire of mainly jazzy Japanese hits.
Dancing around the stage, Oda dominated and encouraged the other musicians, including sultry guest vocalist Yuko Darjeeling. As the night wore on, the pieces grew bluesier, but retained a rushing power, driving Monk to turn his head skyward, glistening with sweat, face contorted in an expression of rapture.
By the time Oda introduced the audience to his original guitar playing technique, “flashing sword method,” the manically furious senior had the elderly and stoic audience bobbing their heads and clapping their hands. By the end of the night, he had coaxed the whole room out of their chairs, whipping up men in respectable suits into a jumping fury, literally rocking all the room’s furnishings askew.
Two floors above, the exhibit bears little obvious relation to Oda and his energetic jazz/blues style. Most of the 10 displays consist of newspaper clippings, illustrations, or written memorabilia from the original delegation. Only one dress, an ornate and Victorian gown in tones and trim reminiscent of a Japanese woodblock print, even remotely suggests a relationship.
But with Oda ripping away at his guitar, Monk bashing at his drum kit, and special guest MC Wordisbon rapping out a modernized version of the traditional Japanese tune “Otomi-san,” the performers tried their best to demonstrate that there was, indeed, fusion.