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In a Groove, in a Grove

Jozenji-dori Avenue in Sendai, Japan (partial) (photo by Atsi Otani)

Even in the dead of summer when a cacophony of cicadas clinging to the limbs assail the ears, the visitor caught in the grove cannot help but be sucked into the mystical vortex.

In Japan, groves are magical places. Or, if not quite that, then spaces where cultural stuff happens. In literature, for instance, the grove was the setting for one of the famed stories by Akatagawa Ryunosuke, that served as the premise for the Kurosawa movie Rashomon. And in religion, groves are employed for perspective and effect: as both framing and significatory devices. Often attached to temples, groves help craft the proper spiritual ambiance. The dense thicket of trees -- pines or sakura or maple or elm -- form a canopy that begets a stillness that, in turn, forges a connection between nature and the human interloper, the spiritual pilgrim. Even in the dead of summer when a cacophony of cicadas clinging to the limbs assail the ears, the visitor caught in the grove cannot help but be sucked into the mystical vortex.

In Sendai, a town in northeastern Japan, the temple with a most astounding grove is called Rinoji; but in the town proper, there is a grove, as well. It is also the third busiest East-West artery downtown -- a street called Jozenji dori. The grove is the result of scores of Zelkova trees -- positioned on either side of the road, as well on both edges of a center meridian -- whose precocious limbs clamber over traffic, blotting out sun, banishing views of the sky, and providing a natural umbrella against the elements. Grove thus fabricated, pedestrians are encouraged to enter the vortex, and do so daily: nursery-schoolers tromping down the red-brick midway hand in hand; teenage lovers taking up residence on the cast-iron benches; and seniors setting up easels so as to play connect the colors.

But Jozenji-dori is more than a natural anomaly in an otherwise concrete jungle. It is also site, four times a year, for Sendai's most important celebrations: the Tanabata Festival, Aoba Matsui, Michinoku Yosakoi Festival, the Sendai Pageant of Starlight, and the Jozenji Street Jazz Festival.

It is the last that, you might infer, provides today's title: the jazz-fest being the groove in the grove. Although, like a lot of these ReDot entries, the title isn't the complete story. For, Sendai's jazz festival transpires in more places than the street that furnishes its name, and it also offers more musical offerings than the name suggests. In fact, the annual jazz-fest, held on a weekend in mid-September, spills off of Jozenji Street, filling up parks at both the western end and in downtown, as well as filling tents and risers dappled along the Zelkova-speckled avenue. Depending on what you read, this is the largest musical gathering in: Japan and/or the world, drawing over 600 bands. So, that is a lot of noise being generated in a half kilometer radius.

Music that might be an updated classic:

...next door to a more contemporary styling:

Beyond that, though, and belying its moniker, the jazz-fest is something more like a musical smorgasbord; in its two days everything from country and western to punk rock will get sampled.

This wasn't how it always was with the festival. Eighteen years ago, it came into being when a local saxophonist who ran a nightclub had the idea that perhaps one reason why jazz wasn't very popular in Japan was because it wasn't being sampled enough by the public. "If only they heard more of it, they'd certainly come to appreciate it," he thought. Encouraged by friends, he took out a permit to reserve some space on Sendai's marquee road, recruited some friends to pitch in with a few sets, and the Sendai Street Jazz Festival was born.

I know a bit of this history because sometime about the festival's tenth year, my kids were recruited to join the jazzman and play a short set in the mini-amphitheater. The recruitment came through a music school they were attending and about 15 kids originally showed up to the first meeting. This was maybe five months before the event. The jazzman's ambitious idea was sort of along the lines of "Professor" Henry Hill's in The Music Man: "I will teach your kids to play an instrument such as the trumpet or clarinet or sax well enough to perform in the festival: just give me a few months, your unwavering belief, and enough desire and commitment from your kids to make it happen."

Weekly sessions -- held on Sunday afternoons in his dank, cramped, stogie-smoky club -- drew an ever-diminishing number of participants through the summer, such that, by the time of the actual concert, attrition had whittled the ensemble by half. My kids, enjoying the impromptu improv with the professional bassist and pianist who sat in, became Henry Hill-committed fixtures at those weekly jam sessions. Although tempted by the idea of branching out into a brass or reed instrument, they settled for what they knew best: my daughter on keys, and my son on drums. The song the group practiced for the festival was an extended version of "Little Brown Jug" which they played to a capacity crowd of a couple hundred under the stars.

Well, that was then. Now, even though jazz is still the major calling card (as the festival's official home page indicates), the event has sort of outstripped its founder's original vision. For now those prowling the Jozenji strip on jazz-fest weekend are as likely to encounter pop accordion:

...as they are world music:

They will certainly stumble across some version of rock 'n' roll:

...and stub their toe on heavy metal:

...before being soothed by contemporary alternative:

Pop accordion? World Music? Rock 'n' roll? Heavy Metal? At a jazz festival? Why the lack of purity?, you might ask. Why the refusal to hue to the festival's own charter, adhere to its pedigree? Well, one answer may lay in the nature of and role of festivals in ReDotland. In the words of Ted Bestor, festivals -- or, "matsuri" in ReDotspeak -- are "a quintessential part of Japanese communal life" (in Powers, et al.:20). And why is this? For reasons both past and present.

Matsuri connect a community's members to those people and acts who have come before (i.e., the past), and they also serve as symbolic acts of public celebration, where participants are expected (if not encouraged) to enter a state of active communication with the gods (hence, the present). Although matsuri are often tied to the agricultural cycle -- to the solicitation of fecundity and/or the warding off of pestilence -- there is something beyond mysticism, something much more fundamental and elemental about them; in a word, there is in ReDot festivals, an element of play. This is probably because the festivals grew up, in part, to provide the lower classes (who possessed little leisure and even less disposable capital) an opportunity for respite, a chance for recreation. Play translated into chances to engage in "The Three Ds": drinking, dancing and debauchery.

Thus do we find in contemporary celebrations paeans to each element. Although matsuri assume various incarnations -- from carrying (and vigorously shaking) portable shrines bearing human cargo, to riding massive tree stalks down the face of steep hills, to seeking to negotiate long, heavy phallus-like objects through figurative vaginas, to synchronized dancers in uniform attire gliding and gyrating in unison -- all public festivities amount to socially-sanctioned excursions away from everyday propriety and circumspection. A couple of examples follow -- the first being a ceremony known as Ki-otoshi, in which men try to prove their bravery by riding decorated logs (symbolic phalluses, anyone) down steep mountain slopes:

...and the other, being Satobiki, where new logs are (symbolic of what, exactly?) raised by hand in front of the local shrine, with a ceremonial group of log bearers riding the log as it is hoisted skyward. At the conclusion, they sing from atop the log, announcing its successful conclusion:

Hmm.

One would need to be five years old (or blissfully synapse-free) not to appreciate the fixation here on anatomy -- a point that Ian Buruma has made in observing the "fascination in religious ceremonies, myths and popular arts for the sexual organs" by ReDotters (A Japanese Mirror, 1988:9); a point that has been explored in this column, elsewhere.

Beyond the sexuality, though, is the sheer robustness of the gala. And here, as well, Buruma weighs in with a sage observation: Japanese festivals are "outlets for frustration" and "exuberant celebrations that are constantly teetering on the edge of chaos" (ibid:10). The raw, raucous, physical display that characterizes matsuri has prompted some analysts to suggest that festivals were the precursors to sports in Japan (William R. May 1989). Whether or not this is true it is certain that matsuri privilege the special moment over the daily mundane; the profane is made (temporarily) sacred, and accorded (evanescent) precedence over the everyday.

Walking down Jozenji dori on the weekend of Sendai's annual jazz-fest makes such privileging abundantly apparent; look right, meander left, sit center: wherever you drift beneath the Zelkova's verdant canopy, you will encounter a chaos of musical genres, a cacophony of instrumentation, a jangled celebration of notation. And you will realize: "Hey, this groove in the grove is ReDotPop incarnate."

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