Journey to the heart of Kawachi-Ondo

The folk-music genre which originated in Osaka is now celebrated by a dedicated museum, which opened last year in a suburb of the city

A recent business trip to Japan left me with a few days in Osaka to find out more about the lively summer-festival music kawachi-ondo, one of my favourite Japanese roots styles. My mission was simple: pay a visit to the recently opened Kawachi-ondo Museum in Yao City and find some vinyl.

Contacts: Kawachi-ondo Museum, Osaka Honmachi 7-Chome, 21-14, Family Road shopping district, Yao City, Osaka.

In a column published earlier this year, I wrote about Japanese bon dancing for the summer Bon Odori festival, and that two of the forms, kawachi-ondo and goshu-ondo, had striking similarities to the molam music of northeastern Thailand and Laos. All these styles have their origins in narrative folk song, which means that the lyrical content is often about sagas, history, religion and current events. The way they sing, too, is also similar, as with the predilection for vocal ornamentation through vibrato, sometimes called luk kor in Thai (and kobushi in Japanese).

If you're in Osaka, you have to head downtown to Namba, the famous shopping and entertainment area. Behind the "walking streets" and in amongst the gamers, shoppers, tourists and cosplayers are excellent used-music stores, some of which have huge selections of vinyl. And at Soundpak in Namba, guided by Takuo Yasuda, I found what I'd been looking for: goshu-ondo albums and an early album by Teppou Bushi, the man credited with modernising kawachi-ondo with the introduction of electric guitar on his hit single Rokyoku-Ondo in the mid-1950s.

Next I headed off to Yao City, which necessitated four changes on the train system, but eventually I found my way from Yao station out of the West exit and down to the covered Family Road shopping area, where the Kawachi-ondo Museum is located. It was a chilly November morning, but the warm welcome I received from director Yuji Ishida soon had me thinking of matsuri (Japanese term for "festival") happi coats and the steamy summers I enjoyed in Japan 20 years ago.

Ishida explained that the museum opened in July 2012 with the aim of housing Kikusuimaru Kawachi's personal collection of kawachi-ondo music and memorabilia, as well as promoting the style. He noted that museum had to be located in Yao city "because that's where kawachi-ondo comes from". It's also where the genre's biggest star, Kikusuimaru, comes from. You can buy CDs and cassettes at the museum, too; I got a rare cassette of Kikusuimaru's first "newspaper ondo" and some CDs of different artists.

The display features rare lyrics sheets and books on kawachi-ondo, along with classic albums and (very hard to find) singles. There is even a kawachi-ondo 8-track on display and a pachinko machine that features a figurine of the star and his name. Photos of Kikusuimaru's father, Kikusui Kawachiya, and his records along with early photos of the star, who started learning his trade at the age of nine, are also on display. Mounted on the walls are happi coats, T-shirts and posters showing the luridly hued, almost iridescent kimonos so favoured by kawachi-ondo singers.

The museum's window display contains the essential elements for a modern kawachi-ondo band: a big taiko drum (called beta-o-taiko), kimono, guitar and portable amps. In more recent times, keyboards have also been added, but the traditional basic format was drum, shamisen and singer.

From what I read earlier this year by Isao Sawa and Hiroshi Koyama I discovered that the genre goes back more than 500 years to Jokouji Temple in Yao City, also used as a venue for the Bon-Odori festival, where an older style of folk music, nagashi-bushi-seichou-kawachi-ondo, was performed. The music is also related to rokyoku, a traditional form of storytelling.

At festivals, a tower is erected to house the drum, musicians and the singer. Dancers progress in two circles around the tower, clockwise and anti-clockwise, moving to one of the standard dances like the mamekachi; there's a good deal of improvisation and local variations.

As people dance, they join in the two main kakegoe (chants): "Ha enya korase, dokkoise!" and "Sorya yoi, dokoi sa, sa no yoiya sansa!" I've been to a kawachi-ondo festival and it's a lot of fun, although I've never been to the main one held annually in Yao City, which is attended by all the big stars. Go to the Yao City website for more details.

After several very enjoyable and educational hours at the museum, I trotted off to find a nearby department store which I was told would have CDs by the enka singer Mitsuko Nakamura, who has created a huge following for her style of kawachi-ondo. Getting a little lost, I asked a couple of elderly gentlemen the way and they took me to the building I was looking for. As we waited for the traffic lights to change I told them of my search for kawachi-ondo and they laughed, then quietly sang a verse of a kawachi-ondo song before breaking into the refrain together: "Ha enya korase, dokkoise." "This is kawachi-ondo," one of the gents said, giving me the thumbs-up, before they waved goodbye.

My time in Yao City, proud home of kawachi-ondo, was made much easier by Fumie Nishizawa and DJ Masa Niwayama, to both of whom I would like to extend thanks for their generous assistance and all the help with translation.


The writer of this column can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com

About the author

columnist
Writer: John Clewley
Position: Reporter