Friday, November 05, 2004

Life in the Land of the Rising Sun: The Accidental Activist

"What's your name?" I ask in English.
Eyes sparkling with 7th grade enthusiasm, she replies, "My name is Beauty and Harmony!"
Actually, her name is Miwa, but, as she proudly shows me, the kanji (Chinese characters) of her given name do, indeed, mean "beauty" and "harmony".
Ami, the girl sitting across the aisle, disagrees. "No, no," she says, waving her hand. "It's mistake!" Then, before Miwa can defend herself, she tells me that her own name is Asian Beauty. Once again, she shows me the kanji to prove it.
"Where do you live?" I continue.
"I live in Kashima," replies Miwa.
"She lives in sea," retorts Ami.
Miwa wrinkles her nose. She points at Ami. "Her house is tree!"
"A tree?"
"Yes! She is monkey!"
"Yes," agrees Ami, to my surprise. "I am monkey."
"Is your name 'Monkey'?" I ask incredulously.
"No, no, no," replies Ami. "I AM monkey!"
"She is...," starts Miwa, and then it hits her. "She is A monkey!"
"Oh, yes, yes, yes!" agrees Ami. "I am A monkey!" Then she points at Miwa. "But she is crazy!"
"She eat ba-...ah...she eatS banana!"
"She is very, very crazy!"
And so it goes. I wish my 9th grade students had half as much eagerness and creativity as the 7th graders. About all the 9th grade girls can do is whine and complain about how boring and troublesome everything is. I'm sure the 9th grade boys would probably do the same if their perpetual sugar high ever wore off long enough for them to shut up.
The 9th Grade School Excursion (off-key diminished 7th fanfare) starts next Tuesday. I'm praying that I catch the flu on Monday...or get hit by a car.
Gripe, gripe, gripe. Ah, the joys of life at the private academy!
Speaking of which...I had an interesting experience last weekend.
Apparently the enlightened administration of Prime Minister Koizumi has been toying around with the notion of cutting the subsidies they pay to help finance private education. Apparently they don't have enough money to pay for all those rest areas they're building in the middle of rice fields, highway bypasses that suddenly end in the middle of nowhere, bike lanes on backroads in farming villages where no one rides bikes, assorted pork, etc.. Anyway, they want to eliminate the subsidies. That would drive up the cost of private education, already pretty expensive as it is, to an average of five times the cost of public education. In other words, we'd no longer be able to compete with the public schools very well.
Already, a lot of students, girls in particular, are threatening to quit school altogether if that happens, as they would no longer be able to afford to continue at their private schools, and the public school environment is apparently not all that favorable.
Well, the various private school teachers' unions all over the country apparently got together and decided to stage an event showcasing just what their academies could do besides just academic stuff (which the more exclusive public schools have an edge in, anyway). It seemed like an impossible endeavor; they managed to slap together an all-Japan event in Tokyo in only a few weeks' time using funds that came almost entirely from voluntary donations. Understandably, it was an administrative and logistical nightmare. It was about as organized as Sid Vicious' hair.
The Seishin Flying Eggheads jazz band was asked to be part of Ibaraki's contingent. Naturally, the opportunity to have my kids play for an all-Japan audience, most likely with TV coverage, was too good to pass up. Despite the mixed-up planning and everything else, we went for it.
The night before the big event, I was asked to sit in with Steve and Paul's group, "Cranky, Old Bastards", at a gig at a nightclub in Kashima. I always love doing that. Those guys really know how to jam, and being able to jam with them is always a treat. I especially love it when they invite anyone and everyone with an instrument up to the stage for an open blues session. This time there was a newcomer, a very talented tenor sax player I'd never met before. He really knew his stuff. With me on alto, we wound up playing off each other, whether we were coming up with hooks-in-harmony as backing for other soloists or whether we were trading 4-bar solos with each other. We may have hogged the spotlight a bit, but we were having a damned good time doing it. Trading 4s, we started testing each other, gradually increasing the level of musical bling-bling, and I was amazed that I was able to hold up as well as I did. Even so, I finally hit my limit, and he kept going, but he was cool enough to keep me in the game without playing me under the table too badly. We were both pretty excited when it was all done, and vowed to do it again soon. I think I learned a lot.
One of the things I learned was that it's really stupid to drive home at 2 a.m. in a raging, typhoon-driven downpour (thankfully, the typhoon itself missed us this time) the night before a big event.
It was still pouring down rain the next morning, and I was sure the event was going to be canceled, but the Ibaraki contingent insisted on going anyway, no matter what. I was pretty grouchy at that point.
Fortunately, the rain stopped by the time we made it to the location of the open-air stage, but now we had a new problem. The guides there weren't sure where we were supposed to park our bus. While we were circling around looking for a spot, a call came in on the cell phone. The opening act had failed to show. They needed the Flying Eggheads to be on the stage and playing within half an hour.
That's when I thought for sure I was going to lose it. Finally, I asked the bus driver just to stop where he was and let us jump out and lug our gear on our own. We lugged it, alright. We must have been quite a sight: just under two dozen of us trotting down the sidewalk at a brisk pace with all manner of equipment in our hands and on our heads. The fact that we were able to get set up and start on time was nothing short of miraculous.
The kids did a very good job. After our performance was done, the emcee said, "I feel like we've just had the main course before the appetizer!" Unfortunately, since the event had just begun and the rain had only just stopped, the crowd was still fairly small.
How wonderful, then, that they invited us back for an encore performance at the end, when we got to play for a large crowd from all over the country!
There was something a bit odd about this event, though. I'm not talking about the wonderful kaleidoscope of performances from all over (which we started and finished)(drool). That was cool. I'm talking about all the orange. I mean the color, not the fruit or the flavor. The people running the event were all wearing orange coats. Some people had orange headbands. There were also orange signboards.
When they started distributing orange bandanas to all of us, it finally hit me: I was participating in a protest demonstration, and I didn't even know it.
We were pretty high on ourselves at that point, so we didn't really think about it, but it was only the beginning.
We'd heard that there was also going to be a parade, but we didn't expect to participate in it. Before we played our first performance that morning, we were asked to march in the parade but only that. Just march as part of the crowd. After our encore performance, however, they asked us to play. I informed them that we were a jazz band, not a marching band, so we'd be playing with no rhythm section. We would also be playing without music, since none of the kids had lyres (portable music stands). They told us they didn't care. They just wanted us to play. The kids just wanted to play, too.
Before the parade started, there was a rally. I mean, it was a bona fide protest rally complete with chants and slogans. It went on for about an hour. The kids were a bit too restless. They kept suddenly launching into a number (usually one we hadn't rehearsed), and I kept having to stop them, mainly because the nearby crowd seemed almost more interested in us than the rally. I was happy when the parade started.
I participated in marching bands from the 4th grade until I graduated from college. I've marched in a good many parades, so it was nothing for me. It was only about five miles, after all. For the kids in the Flying Eggheads, however, it was most definitely their first time. They were pretty enthusiastic about it, though. Ms. Namaizawa, the band captain, kept running up to me with requests for numbers they wanted to play. Again, most of them were tunes we hadn't rehearsed for months if not years. Since they had no music sheets, I was amazed they even still remembered them. Even so, they were very persistent. The newbies even impressed me by following along by ear or improvising in the tunes they didn't know. I tried to allow sufficient space between tunes, partly to save the kids' chops and partly out of respect for the van in front of us that was broadcasting protest slogans (that we were told we were supposed to echo. That got old fast). It wasn't easy. The orange-scarved kids were too eager to play, particularly if there was an audience. It was bizarre without any rhythm section (except for some enthusiastic hand-clappers), and some of the tunes sounded a bit rough, but we got the crowd's attention. The kids looked pretty happy, too.
At least they were for about the first mile or two. Then they started looking miserable. Finally, when we were right in the middle of the crowded Ginza high-class shopping district, some of them started begging me to stop. I showed no mercy. We had our main audience, so we gave them a show.
Appropriately, in a metaphorical way, the very last tune we played bricked and crashed in the middle. The kids were pretty much spent, their chops were busted, and we hadn't rehearsed that particular song for over a year, anyway. It was very ironic that that tune happened to be "Chameleon", the main number I had played with Steve and Paul the night before! Right after "Chameleon" train-wrecked, as in just a few beats later, we suddenly found ourselves at the end of the parade. Howling with relief, the kids quickly yanked off their orange bandanas and launched into what looked more like a feeding frenzy than a bunch of young musicians putting their instruments away. They were thrilled with the experience they'd just been through, the first of its kind for them, but they were glad it was over. (They also told me that they hoped not to do it again anytime soon.)
I saw a lot of cameras during the open-air concert and during the parade. There were also a lot of helicopters buzzing overhead. The Seishin Flying Eggheads got to strut their stuff in front of the entire country. We (or I, at least,) also probably got listed in the government records as a radical element in society. Dissident jazz aggressors with flying eggs on their music stands. I know I'm keeping my eyes out for black limousines...or even orange minicars.

1 comment:

Don Snabulus said...

Any idea what you were protesting? The right to look like highway construction signs? Japan should be run by American bandleaders? Ban XBox? What was it?

Sounds like fun anyway though.