Last year I travelled to America, where I worked at a summer camp in Maine. My role was to take groups of young girls on hiking and camping trips around the region. Often this required spending hours driving to and from our destination, due to the remote locations of the hikes. Sometimes the girls would bring iPods so they could listen to music during the drive. Sometimes they didn’t, which means I could play my own music, instead of pop hits.
On one drive to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, one of the girls was going through my iPod and asked me: “Why do you have a playlist called Toe on your iPod?”, clearly amused.
I giggled. “It’s the name of a band. They’re awesome.”
“A band called Toe?!”
“Yeah, they’re Japanese. It’s mostly instrumental stuff, but sometimes there’s singing, or even rap.”
As you can imagine, this was of great intrigue to these girls, who exclusively listened to top 40, and Broadway soundtracks. “You listen to Japanese hip-hop? Why? Can you understand it? Can we listen to it?”
Most people think I’m weird for listening to music without vocals. But music in another language? Unthinkable!
I played on of the tracks (“Time Goes“, from Toe’s latest album), and then left the album running.
Sure enough, word spread around camp that I’m a weirdo who listens to Japanese music – even though he doesn’t understand it – and it’s actually pretty cool. On the next camping trip some of the girls asked about it, and soon enough they were all chanting “Toe! Toe! Toe! Toe!” so I would play it to them.
Maybe I am weird… Well… Ok, there’s no denying it, But why would you dismiss great music simply because it doesn’t have singing in English?
Case in point, HIPPOPOTAMUS / PORT ELEPHANT, a recent release from Masaki Hanakata.
Maybe it is a dead giveaway that I’m a trained preschool teacher, but Masaki Hanakata’s latest release is the most delightful music I’ve heard in some time. He captures the sound of youthful joy.
The two tracks are softly sung, backed by tranquil children’s’ instruments like bells and whistles.
Jimmy Fallon and The Roots have a series of youtube videos that follows this style [Here’s a version of “Enter Sandman” with Metallica]. And on of my favourite composers, Rhian Sheehan, also uses children’s’ instruments in some of his work.
Now, believe me, that when a classroom of children get their hands on instruments it sounds absolutely horrid. When I let my four-year-olds old loose with instruments they will shake, blow, bang and play the poor things with all their might. I occasionally bring a keyboard out, which soon leads onto a small group crowding around and jamming on the keys as much as possible. I’ve had a child who barely stands as high as my waist destroy a drum practice pad when I gave him some drum sticks. He wasn’t trying to break anything, he just got carried away with excitement.
Thankfully, Mr Hanakata has had more training than my children, and appears to have mastered many of these instruments. I am being perhaps a touch facetious when I say these instruments are for children. I do not wish to belittle this wonderful music. But we do not hear the standard electric guitar, drums, bass… that I deem “normal”. We hear instruments that sound hollow and dainty, that I imagine are brightly coloured. Melodica, ukulele, xylophone, bells and the like…
Part of the allure is that it sounds so innocent. It’s not perfect by any means. There are so many layers of sound that it border on gratuitous, but it’s so charming and fun that if anything the unnecessary layers enhance the feel. It captures the spirit of what folk music used to be about: fun and vibrant.
I recommend giving HIPPOPOTAMUS / PORT ELEPHANT a listen. And while you’re at it, follow-up with his other two albums, Breman soundtrack, and Lentment. I guarantee that it’ll brighten your day.
Masaki Hanakata links: