In the liner notes for Umezu Kazutoki‘s new album, Umezu Kazutoki plays the ENKA (『梅津和時、演歌を吹く』), Harada Kazunori (via translator Cathy Fishman) describes enka as a genre “roughly corresponding to American blues and country music, French chanson, and Italian canzone.” I don’t know much about chanson or canzone, but the comparison to blues and country is fruitful. Let’s consider:
- Unlike blues, enka is resource-intensive and top-down. Blues is a niche genre, but the startup costs for a blues musician are so low — a Robert Johnson record and a cheap guitar — that its grass-roots audience and performer base is almost self-sustaining. To sing enka like a pro, you need wind and string arrangements, percussion, backup singers, a saxophone and a guitar trading licks, and maybe a biwa for the intro. No doubt many people are blown away by great enka tunes in their youth and dream of growing up to sing them, but taking it beyond the shower stall and learning to front an enka ensemble involves serious logistical issues. And that’s just the vocalists: how many kids hear the instrumental breaks in “Tsugaru kaikyō fuyu-geshiki“ and run out to buy a secondhand oboe?
- Unlike country music, enka has a one-dimensional listener base. Country has demographc biases, but its listener base is multigenerational and therefore self-reproducing.
Enka’s demographic is “old people.” Hikawa Kiyoshi is not their fantasy boyfriend; he is their fantasy son, perhaps even grandson. It’s possible that this is because its lyrical content is more mature and subtle. It seems more likely to me, though, that it’s because the current enka listener base is exactly the listener base it had thirty years ago, and that it will eventually be replaced by a cohort of boomers kicking it to SuperDVD compilations of Kaguya-hime‘s greatest hits.
No, the only way to start performing enka seriously is with the backing of the industry that packages and promotes it for mass consumption. It was Big Entertainment that shaped enka into the television-age genre it remains today, and Big Entertainment is still the sole source of legitimacy for an enka artist. There is no indie enka, and there are no three-man enka bands practicing in the drummer’s garage after school.
These comparisons are not meant to disparage enka as a genre. My point is simply that enka’s current situation seems unlikely to continue into the future. There are only so many Jeros out there to revitalize enka for a season or two. Enka will either have to evolve — dinosaur-like, into smaller and nimbler forms — or go the way of kabuki and become a “traditional art,” formally renouncing its ties to popular tastes in exchange for a guaranteed museum gig.
Umezu’s new album is not so much an example of the former as an argument against the latter. It is difficult to imagine that enka melodies played by virtuoso solo instrumentalists will emerge as a new genre. What Umezu does achieve, however, is a solid demonstration of how fresh a good enka tune can sound when liberated from the orchestras and sequins. (Unlike many solo sax albums, Plays the ENKA isn’t even that far out — the only tune that gets seriously deconstructed is “Yume wa yoru hiraku“.)
Umezu doesn’t rely entirely on Johann Mattheson’s “edlen Einfalt, Klarheit und Deutlichkeit” of pure melody to retain listener interest: timbre is foregrounded more often than not. His last solo album, Show the Frog, was by his own admission, a combined celebration and exploration of the bass clarinet alone, but on Plays the ENKA he switches between four different kinds of reed, getting a different character out of each. There’s even a credible hojok impression on the clarinet for the Korean folk tune “Paennorae” (ペンノレ/뱃노래).
Which brings me to my final point. “Paennorae” is an obscure yet very popular standard in Japan, but it was popularized by what today we would call “folk” rather than enka singers. I suspect that Umezu seeks to blur this distinction in favor of a more inclusive supergenre of which enka is just the most representative, perhaps because the most Japanese, strain.
When the album closes with a subdued take on “Ringo no uta,” another tune that doesn’t really fit the modern concept of enka, it feels like more than just a tribute to the first pop hit after World War II. It feels like a redrawing of borders to stake a new claim on the cultural landscape: Here Begins the Great Postwar Japanese Songbook.