Eri wears her influences boldly.
Akuphone’s reissue of music by Japanese actress-singer Chiemi Eri presents an intriguing cultural crossroads: based largely on traditional folk songs, many of the lyrics depict traditional Japanese life in the 19th century. However, the music revels in Western sounds from the mid-20th century.
Eri’s first success as a singer came when the 14-year old performed a version of “Tennessee Waltz” in both Japanese and English. That early hit, which liner notes explain sounded like like it was performed by a mature woman, isn’t included on this set. Chiemi Eri features material originally released on the Japanese King label between 1958 and 1962. The singer was barely out of her teens, but her rich voice carries these tracks with a wisdom beyond her years.
“Okosa-Bushi” opens the album with a brassy jazz fanfare, defiant timbres selling a melancholy tale about a man struggling with personal demons after World War II and finding solace the only way he can: singing in a bar. The album’s liner notes include lyrics with transliterations, but not with translations, so we are left with brief summaries to describe songs that often seem like tragic short stories. The brooding “Shinonome-Bushi,” named after a popular red light district, is a protest song that sides with legislation to outlaw prostitution. That hot house atmosphere continues on “Otemo-Yan,” a folk song updated with a brassy arrangement and Latinesque percussion that gives it a definite mid-century pop kick. Eri’s music clearly thrived on American influences, but it’s interesting how the lyrics suggest a nation licking its wounds after the war.
Eri’s keen sense of drama is highlighted on the ballad “Dodoitsu,” which originated in the early 19th century as a song performed by customers of a brothel in Nagoya. Her powerful voice evokes the sadness and exploitation of the brothel’s workers. The uptempo “Mamuro-Gawa Ondo,” on the other hand, could pass as a chase theme from a James Bond movie. The title translates as “Mamuro River Song,” and it’s another traditional source that gets a modern update with a percussive brass line. This music may all seem simply exotic to the Western listener, but imagine what it must have been like for the nation’s folk music to be transformed into such bold pop songs. If American folk music crowds felt betrayed when Bob Dylan went electric, one wonders what the response was to this even more revolutionary updating of the classics.
“Tabaru-Zaka” is one of the album’s most effective ballads, named after a park that would be used as a shooting location for The Last Samurai. The smoldering “Itsuki-No Komoriuta” is a lullaby about a poor nurse,and even though the lyrics provided are untranslated, you can hear the deep sense of loss in the singer’s deep, wavering voice.
Rock ‘n’ roll rhythm guitar starts “Yakko-San,” which dates back to 19th century street performers. Eri sang this updated version in the 1962 film Ginza Love Story. Like much of this album, this is swinging music with an air of sadness, but as her voice turns haughty you hear her sense of humor.
This well-paced album alternates uptempo numbers and ballads, and saves one of its most swinging numbers for the home stretch. A sinuous bass line opens the Latinesque “Kushimoto-Bushi,” about life in a fishing village. Despite that traditional subject, the track but which has shades of Cal Tjader’s Latin jazz smash “Soul Sauce” (recorded several years later — hmmm).
Akuphone’s first release, Lily Chao’s Chinese Folk Songs, featured a pop music that stayed close to the Taiwanese singer’s traditional roots. Eri wears her influences more boldly, and fans of pop music from faraway lands will enjoy this simmering blend of East and West.