May 18

[live report] Neo Blues Maki and happyfunsmile at Brooklyn Botanic Garden 4/30/2011

The tri-state area has no shortage of cherry blossom festivals in April. When their sakura trees are in full bloom, parks across the region celebrate the hanami season with performances and vendors. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Sakura Matsuri is easily a standout and arguably the best of the bunch. Boasting the garden’s superior beauty and an appealing range of entertainment, from taiko drumming to a character creation lesson hosted by artist Misako Rocks and actress Veronica Taylor of Pokemon fame, it draws people ranging from anime fans in cosplay to families in normal attire.

The relaxing ambiance makes the Brooklyn Botanic Garden a pleasant venue for music, and previous Sakura Matsuri have included overseas musicians such as Ai Kawashima and Masayo Ishigure. This year’s event was all about the multicultural, local acts. On Saturday afternoon and evening, the Cherry Esplanade stage hosted Neo Blues Maki and happyfunsmile, both bands comprising Japanese and American members, reflecting the diverse makeup of the festival attendees.

Neo Blues Maki formed just two years ago, but their sound looks back on enka and old-school Japanese soul through a modern Western lens. In a set that included Eiko Shuri’s 60′s classic “Shiroi Kobato,” vocalist Kayo provided the retro Japanese flavor, while the rest of the band backed her up with progressive-sounding jazz music. Kayo reminded me of an enka-tinged version of pop legends Momoe Yamaguchi and Akina Nakamori, both in her low timbre and graceful, stoic stage presence. The instrumentalists were more openly enthusiastic and interactive with each other, especially drummer Lucianna Padmore. Neo Blues Maki’s music was relaxing and interesting, although at times the Japanese and Western elements clashed more than they complemented each other, perhaps by design.

The closing act was Happy Fun Smile (typeset happyfunsmile), a cartoonish, Okinawa-inspired ensemble present throughout the festival, such as in providing the music for the Parasol Society Promenade. The band consists of a whopping 13 musicians, including four singers, clad in flamboyant outfits and accessories including a cotton candy-colored wig and an anime-style plush of the Statue of Liberty. Appropriately for the day, their act was matsuri-centric; they began their set with a camped-up version of Hibari Misora’s “Omatsuri Mambo,” and at one point they left the stage to lead the audience in an Obon festival dance. Akiko Hiroshima and Kaori Ibuki often sang while MC Brian Nishii pumped up the viewers. I can’t say Happy Fun Smile’s wackiness appealed to my tastes, but it was certainly fitting for the Sakura Matsuri and interactive enough to entertain the children in attendance.

Overall it was another thoroughly enjoyable Sakura Matsuri. The only musical disappointment was the lack of big-name overseas guests. Perhaps we will see more next year, when time has passed since the crises in Japan.