Consequence of (Asian) Sound

What we talk about when we talk about Shugo Tokumaru

Shugo Tokumaru is described as a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. While there is nothing new about artists with multi-hyphenated titles, think for a second about what that means for the kind of music he makes.

When describing the work of virtuoso musicians, the tendency is to overlook the sound produced, and instead indulge our fascination with the person behind it. What comes to mind are names like Andrew Bird and coined phrases like “Jon Brion-esque”, with Tokumaru as no exception, having successfully escaped the convenience of being classified by genres like Ambient, Toytronica, or Folk. Shugo Tokumaru sounds like Shugo Tokumaru.

Google him, and the first name to come up in the related searches is another Tokyo-based outfit called Gellers. While this may look like an incident wherein a multimedia conglomerate hailing from the evil capitalist West has once again lumped Asian artists into categories based solely on their place of origin, note that Tokumaru is a member of Gellers, giving the relation a validity that’s not simply about being Japanese. And yet, Tokumaru cannot escape the associations with this uniquely “Japanese sound”, especially when compared to artists like Bird and Brion (it can also be argued that there are no comparisons between Bird and Tokumaru, other than their being multi-instrumentalists).

Going beyond what the search engines show and tell, what it even means to sound Japanese is a matter of intrigue not only to the western world, but also to other music markets within the region, where sales figures have been dipping substantially even before the onslaught of digital recordings and music piracy. National pride becomes an issue when there are calls from both the mainstream (as in corporate) and independent (as in outside the studio system) musicians to “Support your local artists!”

Photo yoinked from Diego Castillo’s facebook account. Yeah, yeah, we know it should be “Believers IN Filipino Music” but that’s beside the point right now.

This may seem like a perfectly reasonable battlecry, but it raises other questions especially when combined with comments on how local acts can “sound American” or “sound imported.” When we consider the radio stations that have gone off the air or musicians who have left the country to build their careers elsewhere, and the proliferation of sound-alikes and outright copycats, a call to believe in or support a local scene can be understood as rallying behind both an industry and a distinct sound. But if there is such a thing as sounding Japanese, can there be such a thing as sounding Filipino? And what happens when the sound can be separated from the industry?

I was sitting outside Route 196 (a bar that regularly hosts for small scale events with big names) talking to a European friend who said that “None of these bands sound Filipino,” despite their being Filipino and (most of the time) singing in Filipino through and through. It wasn’t necessarily a criticism of identity or lack thereof, but it could have easily been a comment on novelty, especially given the circumstances wherein an art form as American as Rock and Roll is expected to be flavored for local palates. I could chalk it up to fresh-off-the-boat European ignorance about the local scene, and yet, I knew what he meant.

When it came to the comparisons, Japan was the first to come up: somehow we can count on Japan for novelty even in relatively old songs that riff on familiar hooks. This combination of traditional and fucking weird is by far the most interesting paradox about the Japanese, and it manifests itself appropriately in the music they give us. Still novelty is too loose a term, especially when the arguments are loaded with the differences in the economic, political, and cultural systems that affect music production.

Japan shares the top spot in music marketing with the United States, which can be baffling for a country smaller than Texas. This also makes it an ideal venue for festivals headlined by some of pop music’s biggest names. But going outside of sales and industry analysis, one finds and even comes to expect a certain aesthetic to be coming out of Japan–an aesthetic that remains distinctive in spite of its variety. Take names like Shonen Knife, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, and Toe – what are we really hearing when we hear Japan? And how does this affect how we hear the rest of Asia, especially when it comes to those we call our own?

There is so much about music right now that goes beyond material recordings and sales figures. Music is not an object that sits on our shelves, nor is it the result of market surveys and ratings and “giving the people what they want.” Immersive as well as evocative, music is a thing we consume that can consume us just as easily. There are ways that it captivates us physically, emotionally, and intellectually that isn’t replicated quite as well in other art forms. It’s not just sound, with good music it’s texture and it’s language and it’s other things that defy simple description.

Which brings me back to Shugo Tokumaru, who exemplifies an enduring fascination with how songs can speak to us whether or not we know the words. Labels and genres endure for the value that a concrete and concise description adds to criticism, but to accept Nationality as a valid means of describing what we hear is debatable, especially at a time when the channels for producing and distributing music are unprecedented in their volume and variety.

Oh yes, and this is The Peripheral Universe. Welcome to our music blog.


5 thoughts on “Consequence of (Asian) Sound

  1. Interesting topic. I think the “support local artists” battle cry though is more of an economic argument (to keep money flowing in the local record industry, or to buy music produced locally by local artists, for instance) rather than a call to support any supposedly “Filipino” sound.

    There are Filipino sounds, but never a Filipino Sound. And whatever music that might deserve the description will certainly not be found in the mainstream culture (and the committed-to-indie Route 196 bands are part of this mainstream as well), where the predominant musical idiom is American pop. Not that there’s anything aesthetically wrong with this idiom – I listen to American sounds like “indie” rock, EDM and hip-hop 99% of the time- but it has to be conceded that the world’s music is American pop music. Which is a damn shame if you think about the richness of what else is out there, from indigenous to period music to experimental/future music.

    And while I do agree with the point about music not (necessarily) being the result of business decisions, I feel that that’s probably true for only the really discerning music fans who invest time in hunting out and learning about the music that moves them (i.e. the nerds/geeks), and who do find delight in dipping their toes into the new and strange and unfamiliar.

    Any cursory examination of radio trends will reveal that a lot of music is made to pander to whatever’s poppin’ at the moment- remember the “acoustic” craze, and before that the boyband era? Or think about the cheesy Euro house sound that’s been dominating urban radio for the past couple years. This works for niche markets as well (and this is where the super super mainstream takes many of its cues)- the last decade of “indie” has seen the rise and fall of dance-punk, nu-electro/bloghouse, melodic post-hardcore, dubstep, crunk and Baltimore house/Miami bass etc etc etc. (Adorno’s pseudoindividualism at work?) The tastemakers, labels, journalists and the musicians themselves always follow what’s hot and push it to shit, the dollars leading the way.

    To relate this to the original point about the existence of a national music, one might say that the mass culture industry (which has only been strengthened in the Internet age, like it or not) has stripped away any authenticity in musics rooted in the American pop tradition (i.e. there is no real connection to anything singularly Filipino or Japanese or to wherever country it was produced). Thus there can be no Filipino music, aesthetically speaking, today. Filipino musics but not a Filipino Music.

    Myself, when I listen to American music (and this includes music produced outside America that sounds like or draws from American pop in the broadest sense), I’m moved most by feelings and language and sensuality and texture and dynamics- an emotional authenticity maybe, rather than an authenticity of place. An authentic sense of place and heritage is very important in art, but the idea doesn’t apply in discussions of derivative, inauthentic music (which again is what I listen to 99% of the time).

    Damn that’s a long comment lol

    • Up Dharma Down are an amazing band. In both albums and in their performances, you can hear them constantly evolving. I’m guilty of having compared them at the start to acts we could call Western, such as Zero 7 or Martina Topley Bird. But the artists–and the different cultures they all hail from–that inspired the individual musicians in Up Dharma can all be heard in the songs they play. This makes it difficult (and to be honest kind of useless) to pinpoint who or what they sound like, whether it’s western or eastern or european or asian, and I think it’s this that makes them a great band. Whether they sound western isn’t an issue, but it’s great that they appeal to audiences abroad, and it’s great that you’ve heard of them. 🙂

  2. Pingback: OPM in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction « The Peripheral Universe

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