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!”
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.