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May 19

Sakura Matsuri at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, May 2

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The Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s annual two-day Sakura Matsuri celebrates a wide range of Japanese culture in the breathtaking setting of 220 blooming cherry blossom trees. For the price of one admission ticket, you can watch classical dances, make origami, model for a cosplay photoshoot and participate in the Japanese tradition of cherry blossom viewing.

For the music-minded, the Matsuri is also a great way to sample a cross-section of Japanese music, from traditional to modern and from obscure to famous. The May 2 pop performances on the Cherry Esplanade Stage ranged from the local gypsy rock of Kagero to the chart-topping pop hits of Kawashima Ai.

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Kagero

Kagerou, a Brooklyn band containing American and Japanese members, employed a rotating cast of musicians—playing harmonicas and violins along with the usual rock mainstays—to perform a mix of original tunes and gypsy-fied J-pop covers. The band’s fusion of rock, Middle Eastern and Japanese music in songs like “Red and Black” had an airy quality suited to the relaxing environment of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Yet Kagerou kept up a lively stage presence, partly due to their large size and singer-guitarist Fujimoto Kaz’s enthusiastic hopping. They were most fun when they covered Pink Lady’s “Southpaw” with the accompaniment of two Russian dancers (doing interpretive dance and not the original choreography, sadly).

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Kawashima Ai at Samurai Beat Radio

Over at the Sakura J-Lounge, demure pop star Kawashima Ai participated in a session of Samurai Beat Radio that was broadcasted live to Japanese radio stations. Interviewed by Sato Megumi of Tokyo FM, Kawashima talked about how she donated money to open schools in West Africa and Cambodia, her history as a performer and her love for Billy Joel’s music. She also entertained questions from fans and curious attendees, which ranged from revelatory—an inquiry as to whether Kawashima would voice act for anime besides One Piece brought up that an anime was being made about the singer herself—to the bizarre—what Bob Marley song the piano-playing pop singer favors (Kawashima seemed sorry she didn’t know his work well enough to answer). Despite having top-selling CDs, Kawashima came off sweet, humble and genuinely interested in helping others, from answering fans’ questions kindly to bringing education to children in third-world countries.

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Kizuki Minami

Back at the Cherry Esplanade Stage, Kizuki Minami, a 19-year-old shimauta (Amami island song) and pop singer who had debuted fewer than five months ago, was clearly anxious about performing in the Big Apple. The Kagoshima native waved nervously at the audience, laughed embarrassedly at Samurai Sword Soul leader and MC Amao Yoshi’s praise for her talent and beauty, and feigned an amazed “wow” at her snakeskin shamisen. But this show of newbie jitters only made it more impressive when she began performing the shimauta standard “Akasetsu.” Using only her shamisen and the pleasing, clear tone of her voice, Kizuki filled the air and captivated the audience so much they were listening silently. She sang other shimauta along with her own, typical-sounding pop ballads.

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It seemed like she and her managers were going for a more mainstream version of Hajime Chitose’s famous sound—pop music sung with shimauta trills— by replacing Hajime’s reggae and Bulgarian choir influences with simpler (and less interesting) guitar-based arrangement and cuter, more traditional J-pop vocals. Coincidence or not, Kizuki also sang two of the same shimauta standards Hajime had recorded for her album Shima*Kyora*Umui. Nevertheless, she sounded great and brought some shimauta to the neglected New York City, and received great thanks for it—the audience called her back for an encore, which thrilled the new singer so much that she clasped her hands to her face.

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Kawashima Ai

In between Kizuki and Kawashima’s performance, Amao returned to the stage and invited audience members to come up for samurai training. When these samurai hopefuls gave their names, the entire audience learned that one of them was Jesus. Amao was clearly shocked, because not only had Jesus made his return at the Sakura Matsuri, he wanted to learn how to become a samurai. Despite being a savior, Jesus had some difficulty performing tasks such as sheathing a sword gracefully.

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Kawashima took the stage with the most understated presence of all the performers: She sat alone in front of her keyboard, singing and playing softly with barely a glance up at the audience. But the resonant earnestness in her performance provided a point of connection deeper than a show act could have. Through her no-frills, pretty melodies and piano playing, Kawashima conveyed a passion for music. It’s not surprising she’s endeared millions of listeners in Japan.

Though she was recovering from a cold that weakened her voice slightly, Kawashima still focused in order to hit the notes as best she could. She bridged her Japanese origins and American audience by speaking in both Japanese and English, and performing an English version of her single “Kakera” under the name “Simple Treasure.”

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Sakura Matsuri aims to celebrate Japanese culture, and through the unfortunate timing of her sickness, Kawashima demonstrated an intangible aspect of Japanese culture—the ethic of working hard no matter what.

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Kawashima Ai setlist:

1. Tabidachi no hi ni…
2. Daijoubu da yo
3. Simple Treasure
4. Sorairo no ALBUM

Photographs by Emily Chern

 

1 comment

  1. plantesjardinsnature

    how was there? i missed it but i would like next time to come, if it will be:)

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