Me: I feel like I haven't listened to some good ryukoka in a while.
The ryukoka brothers 4: Okappal? Fujiyama? BIN?? What're in for, missy?
What would happen if Bin Uehara (上原敏) were to be transported from pre-war to modern Japan? ...Is a question that has never crossed my mind until now. The answer? Well, he'd probably be shell-shocked over today's tech. But he'd probably be just as perturbed to see a modern-day doppelganger of himself in Kotaro Takashima(高島孝太郎). Doesn't he just look like a spitting image of the pre-war star? Or maybe even a bespectacled Ichiro Fujiyama(藤山一郎)? And that's not to mention his brothers (in descending order) who look like they were part of a Taisho/early Showa era band complete with an accordion (Yujiro... 雄次郎), wood bass (Ryuzaburo... 龍三郎) and banjo (Keishiro... 圭四郎). Together, this quartet is known as the Tokyo Taishukayo Gakudan (東京大衆歌謡楽団). That is a mouthful.
I'd seen thumbnails of these guys fairly regularly whenever I was to dig around YouTube for the moderately obscure postwar or pre-war ditty. They appeared to me like some questionable, gimmicky street busking act, though their legitimacy increased when I saw that they'd appeared on enka TV programs. But I still didn't think to give them a go until very recently when, for some reason, I finally relented to their rendition of Mr Fujiyama's "Oka wo Koete" (丘を越えて). The moment a voice akin to that of a music university graduate from the 1920s or 30s came out from the scrawny and pale but dapper-looking vocalist, I knew I'd been sorely missing out this whole time. Listening to the eldest Takashima brother belt out Japanese evergreen tunes in his smooth tenor (?) to the accordion rifts and plucky banjo felt very different from hearing enka singers doing covers of the same songs. Rather, as insinuated earlier, it was more like hearing the song from an actual singer of that time period, which is quite a bizarre experience. But I'm here for it.
The band only seems to do covers of songs from the 30s to the 50s, the most notable are tunes by Haruo Oka (岡晴夫) and Mr Fujiyama. Putting their hour-or-so-long live performances in the back while doing my class reading assignments (on pre and post-war Japanese politics, oddly enough), I revel in hearing familiar favourites. They pleasantly surprised me with Bin-san's "Hatoba Katagi" (波止場気質), which ultimately coined my subtitle for Kotaro, "The Modern-day Uehara Bin". But many unfamiliar numbers soon entered my good list. One of them being "China Tango".
Now, "China Tango", which is at the 52:04 mark in the first video, caught my attention with its upbeat, rhythmic tango tempo and Kotaro's operatic delivery. I'm also a sucker for the slightly oriental flavour in these Chinese-like-but-not songs for some reason, so I took to it immediately (no, I don't think my ethnicity has got anything to do with it).
Recorded in 1939, "China Tango" was originally by Tadaharu Nakano (中野忠晴), as I found out via random searches through YouTube. Nakano is a familiar name to me for he had composed a good number of hits by fellows like Hachiro Kasuga (春日八郎) and Michiya Mihashi (三橋美智也). But that he used to be a singer himself caught me off guard. As it turns out before Nakano became known for his music writing, he was first a popular song and jazz singer around the mid-1930s under the Colombia Japan label. One with a pretty cute smile, at that. "China Tango" was one of the hits he had from that time, written by renowned songwriting duo Ko Fujiura (藤浦洸) and Ryoichi Hattori (服部良一). Fujiura's words illustrate the sparks between our main character, probably as dapper as Kotaro or Nakano, and a local girl perhaps doing the tango to the tune of some street performer under the colourful lights of nighttime Suzhou.
Nakano did have quite a deep and pleasant voice that shines in the chorus, but unfortunately, throat issues after the war cut his singing career short and he switched to composing music at King Records. But, I guess the silver lining in that was that this was what made him a prominent name in the ryukoka/enka/kayo world.
P.S. Strangely, I'd just been thinking recently that my exploration of early Showa era tunes by the likes of Okappal and Mr Fujiyama had stagnated. Discovering Tokyo Taishukayo Gakudan revived that niche part of my kayo interest, to which I'm glad.