Giving a fiddle: The unlikely story of how bluegrass music swept Japan

It’s a sound deeply rooted in American culture, but bluegrass found a new fanbase during the Seventies, more than 7,000 miles away in Japan. Alli Patton speaks to the bands about how the banjo-fuelled genre transcended enemy lines and is still a thriving scene today

Tuesday 13 July 2021 06:30
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<p>Japanese musical pioneers Bluegrass 45 at Another Dream festival in Osaka, 2015</p>

Japanese musical pioneers Bluegrass 45 at Another Dream festival in Osaka, 2015

Bluegrass is a sound as embedded in North America’s landscape as the mountains themselves. It’s a musical by-product of its birthplace, and its origins can be traced along the spine of the Appalachian Mountain range. But it travels, too, echoing off peaks, reverberating down in the valleys and transmitting across oceans. The fiddle sings a bright duet with the banjo’s delicate twang – even the lightest touch creates a “snap”. Steady guitar strums are paired against the mandolin’s steel chirps, while a harmonica’s metallic wail mingles with the heavy, hollow thumps of the upright bass.

The genre has its origins in classic tunes from the British Isles, old-time mountain music and traditional African-American blues, jazz and gospel. Kentucky-born Bill Monroe developed the earliest form of the genre during the Forties – it takes its name from his band, the Blue Grass Boys. It’s a melting pot of styles and different instruments, but one of its most defining traits is the banjo, barrelling along the track like a runaway train. The arrangements rejoice in their own freedom to go anywhere. Yet it is also stylistically complex; improvisations, typical in rapid-tempo tunes known as “breakdowns”, are a characteristic inherited from jazz.

The music has captivated fans from all over, but it may come as a surprise to learn that the world’s second-largest bluegrass scene is almost 7,000 miles away from the American South, in Japan. It arrived there in the years following the Second World War, introduced via the Far East Network (or FEN), a military radio and TV service created to provide a source of news, information and entertainment for Japan-based US soldiers and their families. It was on this network that country and bluegrass were aired for an hour each day to troops and anyone else who could pick up the radio signal. By 1957, Japan had its first bluegrass duo, The East Mountain Boys, formed by brothers Yasushi and Hisashi Ozaki.

The Ozaki brothers fell in love with American music from a young age but the outbreak of war had forced them to learn about it in secret. “There would be great dissension if people knew they were listening to the enemy’s music, so they hid their hand crank record player in a closet and played whatever records they could get,” a 2013 article in Bluegrass Today explained. “There was little food or supplies available in Japan at the time, and metal was very hard to come by, so they had to make a needle for the record player from bamboo.” The establishment of the FEN meant the duo had more freedom to listen to the music they loved, eventually becoming pioneers for the genre in Japan.

Raymond McLain, director of the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music and member of bluegrass ensemble The McLain Family Band, says it’s unsurprising that bluegrass took off like it did. “I think people relate to bluegrass because of the diverse influences in it. [Bill Monroe] spent a lot of years putting the elements of bluegrass music together.” McLain credits its no-frills execution as part of the appeal, something that makes it seem both portable and accessible. “It’s not something that you have to study for years before you can appreciate it, or that you have to be only in certain circumstances to enjoy.”

Another draw is bluegrass’s relatability, with songs that paint a world of broad generalities, and its vague yet curious lyrical phrases like “the sweet by and by”, referring to some time in the future, and “cabin on the hill”, meaning any place that feels like home. When Monroe characterised bluegrass, he said “it has a high lonesome sound”: it’s raw, rural and earthy. And while the music may resound with an energised twang, the subject matter tends to be more earnest and sobering. Bluegrass singers celebrate everyday life, from the highs to the lows. Stacked vocal harmonies sing of heartbreak and lost love; the hard living of a coal miner or a railroader; the solace found in faith during hardships. “People relate to it no matter what their background is,” McLain says. “If you’re singing a song about being lonesome, I think you can be just as lonesome in the hills of Kentucky as you can in an apartment building in Chicago or in Osaka.”

McLain first encountered Japanese bluegrass musicians in the early Seventies, while he was playing with The McLain Family Band. “In those days there were a lot of bluegrass festivals all across the country,” he says of playing in America. His band became friends with a Japanese group known as Bluegrass 45 while they were touring the States – among them was mandolin player Akira Otsuka. Starting Bluegrass 45 was initially “just a fun thing to do”, Otsuka says, with their early performances taking place at a coffeehouse called Lost City in Kobe. Otsuka and the band recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of their first US tour, at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Festival in Indiana.

“We left Japan on 17 June 1971, and we got into Bean Blossom the next day,” says Otsuka. “By the second day, we were on stage.” He recalls seeing Ralph Stanley, whom the band had seen play in Japan only a month before. Along with Flatt & Scruggs, those were the only bluegrass acts they had watched perform live back home in Japan. But now they were watching all of the great bluegrass players that had influenced them. “We were watching Bill Monroe for the first time. We were watching Don Reno for the first time…” Mac Wiseman, Jim & Jesse, all the greats were there, he remembers. “And then we had to get on the stage. We were 22-year-old kids and we were scared to death!”

A poster for the bluegrass band Mipso’s tour in Japan, 2013

Asked what made him fall in love with bluegrass, Otsuka cites the North American vistas conjured by the signature sounds of the genre. “It has the real mountain – you know, farmers and coal miners – sound in there. But also, you can add whatever you want to add.” Bluegrass 45 took this ethos to heart, adding bluegrass twists to popular standards such as Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” in 1969 and their bluegrass take on Mozart’s “Turkish March” in 1971. “We thought that it would be pretty cool to do something different,” he says. “It sounds natural to me. I have a lot of fun writing my own tunes and arranging other genre’s music into bluegrass.”

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He cites the genre’s ability to transcend politics, age and background as another reason for his appreciation. “It appeals to young and old people, men and women, hippies in California and coal miners in West Virginia,” says Otsuka. “Can you name another kind of music like that?”

Taro Inoue, the son of late founding Bluegrass 45 member Saburo “Sab” Watanabe Inoue, is a mandolin player who has seen the evolution of bluegrass in his country first-hand. “Some young kids are in there and are checking out the American bluegrass scene,” he says, “so they are bringing the new bluegrass to the scene, too.” Inoue says that while these younger players are in the minority, they are keeping Japan’s love of bluegrass alive while bringing their own styles and attitudes into it. Most of them are enamoured by the melodies and the spirit of the genre, he adds. “None of them are trying to keep the tradition, because that’s not their tradition. They are just lovers of playing music and instruments and techniques… Pretty much everybody is doing it for fun.”

Since their first tour in the States, members of Bluegrass 45 have gone their separate ways, getting together whenever they could for the occasional reunion concert and a string of United States tours in the mid-Nineties to early 2000s. Sab Watanabe Inoue, the band’s banjo player, and his brother, bassist Toshio Watanabe, started the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival in 1972. “After watching the festivals in the States, they decided to have their own in Japan,” Otsuka says. “It’s neat that Sab and Toshio have been promoting bluegrass all these years.”

The Takarazuka festival is recognized as the third oldest bluegrass festival in the world, following Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom and Ralph Stanley’s Hills of Home Festival in McClure, Virginia. In early August, Takarazuka will celebrate its 49th year of bringing live bluegrass to Sanda City, Japan, drawing more than 100 bands from all over the country. The bluegrass-influenced indie folk ensemble Mipso first played the festival in 2013, when they decided to hold their first ever tour in Japan, instead of the States. Mipso’s mandolin player Jacob Sharp, who had experienced the festival the year before in 2012, describes it as “the hallmark event of Japanese bluegrass” and “very much a community affair”.

Bluegrass 45 captured in a vintage performance

“There’s only one stage, the main stage, and it has music from 10am until about 3am,” Sharp continues. Bands tend to play 20-minute slots: “It’s rapid-fire throughout the day.” The event takes place on a sprawling hillside in the mountains above Osaka, with campsites scattered all over and people cooking “unbelievable” food. There’s also jamming 24-7. “Having now been to probably 100 different festivals across the [United States] … it’s a singular event, very different in its structure and energy and a really beautiful community,” he says.

Sharp described the band’s visit during a time when the appeal of modern bluegrass was really exciting. There was a curiosity surrounding American bluegrass bands in Japan, because younger US acts are rarely seen in the country. “We’re not even bluegrass [now], but at the time we were playing song-orientated bluegrass with pop elements, which happened to be voiced through a bluegrass ensemble,” he says. “I don’t think many bands like us had gone to Japan. [Audiences] were fascinated and loved it.” Sharp describes Japan’s bluegrass community as “one of the most densely woven and beautifully supportive communities I’ve ever been able to be a part of, and the most welcoming, too. My favourite thing is just the joy and the meaning that they find in [bluegrass], because it helped me find both of those things too,” he adds.

While bluegrass saw the height of its popularity in 1970s Japan, it is still being kept alive with the efforts of the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival, the many bluegrass clubs around the country, like Tokyo’s popular Rocky Top, and the young players coming up in the music scene. It turns out that wherever you find a group of like-minded people who all love this music, you might just find a cabin on the hill, in the sweet by and by.

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