Shindo’s Exotica
  1. Leading up to Hawaii’s statehood in 1959, Americans had been increasingly introduced through films, novels, and the popular press to exotic Asian and Pacific Rim lands that had suddenly taken on strategic geopolitical importance.23 With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the popular imagination was also turned toward the equally exotic realm of outer space. In the 1950s and 60s new styles of “mood music” developed that paralleled this popular interest in the beyond and that seemed aimed at calming Cold War jitters (Lanza 67–69). The coexistence of “exotica” and “space-age bachelor pad” music in the Cold War period recapitulated the earlier simultaneity of European primitivism and Futurism. Whether employing recorded “jungle sounds” or the electronic bleeps of a flying saucer, both musical genres promised to transport listeners to alternative fantastic realms. Joseph Lanza has described exotica music as “an enchanting, teeming, intoxicating, and festering easy-listening sub-genre that vexed many an unsuspecting ear with the dark forces of ‘foreignness’ while staying within the bounds of propriety” (120). In the Cold War, defining the “foreign” took on a new urgency. Christina Klein has argued that the “dual identity” of Asian Americans gave them a particular value as Americans during the Cold War (240). In certain political quarters, Asian Americans were assumed to be capable of aiding US expansionist efforts in Asia and, as a “model minority,” could serve as symbols of America’s pluralism to counter stinging Soviet critiques of American racism in the Third World. In this context, being a Japanese American cultural ambassador could prove particularly advantageous both at home and abroad.

  2. In one of the few surveys of the genre, Philip Hayward listed Tak Shindo as one of the “notable exponents [of exotica] who merit individual study” (15n4). Shindo’s inescapable doubleness as an Asian American musician is nowhere more evident than in the packaging and reception of his exotica albums of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The album covers and

    Figure 4. Brass and Bamboo (February 1960) [top]
    Figure 5. Accent on Bamboo (August 1960) [bottom]

    jacket notes of both Brass and Bamboo (February 1960) and Accent on Bamboo (August 1960) promise an enticing bicultural music and forcefully predetermine our encounters with this music. The cover image on both albums is divided horizontally or vertically into two utterly different racial/musical realms. In each case, the white female model is presented as sexually sophisticated and modern as she appears caressing and surrounded by phallic instruments in front of modish studio backdrops. The Japanese women, in contrast, are presented in kimono in a natural setting or with flowers, demurely holding their instruments and representing an alternative form of sensuality. Clearly, the traditional conflation of the exotic and the erotic is at play here. The photos, line drawings, and text on the reverse side of each jacket emphasize the Japanese instruments and Shindo’s expertise in Japanese music, while also mentioning his military service and native Angeleno status (actually, he was born in Sacramento).24 These albums promise music that is both exotic and familiar. The Brass and Bamboo notes proclaim: “Each tune is cleverly ‘oriented’ to this brilliant blend of two musical cultures in a dynamic fusion of sounds and ideas. So here is Brass and Bamboo—Tak Shindo’s new Japanese-American plan for musical enjoyment, as American as ‘Ichiban’—as Japanese as ‘it swings.’” The Accent on Bamboo notes reassure us that “[a]ll in all, this well-arranged meeting of East and West is a swinging thing, and Oriental too—but scrutable.” The emphasis placed on Shindo’s exotic status was carried over into the promotional campaign for Brass and Bamboo. For instance, in a radio interview in March 1960 introducing this album, Shindo was made to speak in Japanese and the interviewer translated his lines: “I will be overjoyed and humbly grateful if my latest effort meets with your approval,” and “The conditions here are, well … groovy!”25 The success of Brass and Bamboo prompted Capitol Records to request a follow up album to be completed within thirty days.26

  3. Although the album covers promise an exotic sonic experience of “musical sukiyaki” and “far-out sounds of the Far East,” the music consists primarily of strong but somewhat straight big band arrangements of American pop standards. Shindo’s arrangement of “Poinciana,” with its evocative tinkling bell tree and sweeps on the koto, offers a representative example. This approach to Japanese-inflected exotica is also heard on Shindo’s cool and liquid arrangement of Puccini’s “One Fine Day” in which Shindo adds a koto introduction, finger cymbals, and a hip koto interlude to Butterfly’s aria. The three original Shindo compositions on these two albums incorporate Japanese (or at least orientalist) elements a bit more prominently. Shindo featured gong rolls, koto plucking, taiko drums, and mallet instruments in “Brass and Bamboo.” “Festival in Swingtime” on Accent on Bamboo begins with a festive ondo call and response. In general, however, the listener should be surprised by the relative paucity of Japanese sounds. Several of the pieces begin with exotic introductions featuring the momentary color of koto and shamisen, only to switch somewhat theatrically and abruptly to a brash big band style.27 Rather than consistently signaling Japan, a few of the numbers reference the exotic realms of other others. We begin our journey on Brass and Bamboo in the imaginary Middle East with Shindo’s arrangement of “Caravan,” and hear a strong tom-tom tattoo in “Cherokee” at the beginning of Accent on Bamboo. Furthermore, both albums are actually mistitled. The Japanese instruments that we do hear—primarily kotos and shamisen—are not of the bamboo category. Ironically, the arrangements on Brass and Bamboo containing the most sustained exoticism were not by Shindo but, rather, by Bill Holman. In fact, when compared with his exotica compatriots such as Martin Denny and Les Baxter, Shindo’s music sounds rather “white.” Japanese instruments are particularly highlighted in Denny’s musical japonisme. For example, when Denny employed koto for his arrangement of “My Funny Valentine” or shamisen for Irving Berlin’s “Sayonara,” the Japanese instruments were given the melody throughout the number. Denny made arrangements of Japanese traditional songs, such as “Sakura,” as well as of Tin Pan Alley japonisme tunes, like “Japanese Sandman.”28 In the basic concept of their exotica albums, Denny and Baxter are understood to be musical explorers, bringing the exotic to us or leading us on a global tour. Perhaps Shindo, being exotic himself, could choose to be more economical in his use of exotic signals since any music he created would be deemed exotic. (Shindo attributed the success of these albums to the fact that they were “different … not because they were Japanese.” The albums’ difference may be more apparent to the eye than to the ear.) Perhaps Shindo was able to create a particular form of Japanese American exotica by “just being there.”29

  4. In his New Grove entry on “Third Stream” jazz, Gunther Schuller—who coined the label in 1957—states: “Third stream, like all musical syntheses, courts the danger of exploiting a superficial overlay of stylistic exotica on an established musical idiom, but genuine cross-fertilization has occurred in the work of musicians deeply rooted in dual traditions.”30 Clearly, Shindo’s exotica goes further in this direction than mere courtship, although he was certainly “rooted in dual traditions.” What, exactly, is “the danger” of “superficial” exotic musical syntheses? Did Shindo in some way inflict damage upon “Deep in the Heart of Texas” on his 1968 Far East Goes Western album by adding orientalist elements in his arrangement?31 Schuller’s implication that some forms of musical
    Figure 6. Far East Goes Western (1968)
    synthesis are more legitimate than others and that “genuine cross-fertilization” should be held as a constant goal suggests that we should be able to judge Shindo’s brand of exotica in light of other exemplars of the style. Is Shindo somehow deficient in comparison to the more exuberant exotic displays of Martin Denny? Shindo’s more detailed knowledge of Japanese music did not result in a more “authentically Japanese” form of exotica, whatever that designation might entail. In Schuller’s terms, both Shindo and Denny would likely be found wanting when juxtaposed with the more creative (i.e., composed and/or improvised) fusions of jazz with Japanese musical elements heard in recordings by John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, and Herbie Mann. And yet, if we can manage to hear more than “superficial overlay” in the arranger’s art, it might be possible to place a greater value on the exotica of Denny and Shindo than has hitherto been the case. Perhaps the actual “danger” of radical stylistic synthesis for the practitioner is losing one’s sense of musical individuality. Was Shindo assuming a series of borrowed exotic masks as he jazzed up Japanese folk tunes and arranged Latin jazz and country and western tunes in orientalist style, or was such extreme multiplicity at the very core of his musical identity? Were none of these musical traditions—swing, koto, cowboy—exactly native to Shindo, or did he possess a peculiar form of the Midas touch, making exotic anything he arranged?

    Shindo Between Black and White

  5. Shindo’s first and most exotic exotica album, Mganga (1958), avoided Japanese associations almost entirely. In preparation for this album of original compositions, Shindo spent two weeks in the Los Angeles Public Library perusing books on Africa. Once he had collected some evocative names and programmatic ideas for this “Africanized” album, he “wrote the music according to the title.”32 Shindo’s acoustic Africa consists primarily of Afro-Cuban rhythms he had learned from his Latin jazz band days and recorded animal sounds and chanting. On this album’s cover, we see the striking image of a black man in dramatic red and green lighting, wearing a pseudo-African mask and holding a spear, with just a bit of arm and muscular chest visible in the shadows.
    Figure 7. Mganga! (1958)
    There is no mention of Shindo’s Japanese heritage in the jacket notes and no photo of him. The notes claim that “Mr. Shindo’s knowledge and continuous research of primitive music has produced the extraordinary sounds found in Mganga” and that this album offers a “musical high fidelity safari.” The album begins with the “Mombasa Love Song” which “opens with a stirring roll of native drums” and continues with a repeated percussion tattoo and mystic wordless chorus. When listening to the “Bantu Spear Dance,” we are asked to imagine the dancers “brandishing spears, their gesticulations grow wilder with each successive beat” before they finally “fall to their knees, exhausted.” (To some ears, the shrill timbre of the piccolo and the general rhythmic pattern might instead call to mind a Japanese matsuri.) Shindo referred to this album as Afro-Cuban in style and Billboard magazine singled out Mganga on November 10, 1958 as a top “specialty album,” noting that “Shindo produces a colorful and exciting series of sounds with his excellent scoring for instruments and voices. Over-all feeling of the set is African.”

  6. Where do we locate this album on the exotica map and in what ways does this music relate to Shindo’s racial and ethnic heritage? Can we hear Mganga as a form of Asian American music? Joseph Lam has argued that the absence of all Asian musical signs can still point to a powerful Asian American significance (53-54). Where does this leave Mganga? Could this album represent a lateral “move toward blackness” in Deborah Wong’s terms? Building upon the work of Gary Okihiro and others who have theorized connections between the African American and Asian American experience in the US and who have begun to argue powerfully for the political implications of this view, Wong states that “as Asian American jazz musicians and rappers move toward Blackness, their self-conscious movement away from Whiteness is unequivocal. … When Asian Americans explore African American performance traditions, they describe their transit as lateral” (88).33 Shindo’s Mganga might be considered a lateral move toward blackness on the part of a minority musician whose ethnic group had been defined at various points in American cultural history as either black, brown, or yellow, but emphatically not white. However, the musical style of this exotica album clearly does not represent any actual African American musical tradition and therefore is not equivalent to the work of current Asian American rappers. Having experienced internment and other acts of racial prejudice, perhaps the option of moving towards blackness seemed less than prudent to Shindo.34

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Works Cited


23. Hawaii’s large Japanese American population played a direct role in shaping general American postwar perceptions of Japan. GI nostalgia for occupied Japan was met by recordings of Japanese popular and folk songs recorded by Nisei musicians in Hawaii and released by the 49th State Hawaii Record Company. (Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959.) In Japan, some of this music was known by the label “Occupational Forces songs.” Of course, these recordings were also marketed more generally to the Japanese American audience. Some of these recordings have been reissued on the compilation CD Hawaiian Nisei Songs: A Musical Cocktail of Japanese American Songs in 1950’s Hawaii.

24. On the similar treatment of the Nisei actor and singer James Shigeta, see Wang, 445–46.

25. Transcript of a radio broadcast in March 1960 of an interview between John Annarino and Shindo. Found in Shindo’s papers at his home in a folder labeled “Capitol Records Contracts.”

26. The slower sales of Accent on Bamboo resulted in Capitol not renewing Shindo’s contract in March 1961. This is evident in a letter dated March 6, 1961 to Shindo from Ed Yelin in the Capitol Records Artist and Repertoire division. This letter is found in Shindo’s papers at his home in a folder labeled “Capitol Records Contracts.”

27. Shindo’s somewhat theatrical shifts from orientalist signs to a big band style were prefigured in numerous Tin Pan Alley japonisme songs in which the introduction is strikingly split between a staccato pentatonic tune moving in fourths or fifths and a syncopated ragtime lick. The late 1920s/early 30s Nisei blues singer Kono Takeuchi allegedly acted out such sudden identity switches on a grander scale in her performances: “Dressed in a kimono, playing a shamisen … she opened her vaudeville act singing a few Japanese tunes. This was followed by an almost instantaneous change—flinging off her kimono, now appearing in a glittering evening gown, she would break into a raucous rendition of ‘My Japanese Mama’” (Yoshida 16–17).

28. Martin Denny repeatedly turned to Japan for inspiration in his exotica albums. Shindo himself performed on koto for Denny’s 1958 Primitiva and Denny scored for koto, shakuhachi, and shamisen on Hypnotique (1959) and for koto—enhanced with a strong echo and doubled by marimba—in “Sake Rock” on Quiet Village (1959). He employed shamisen to humorous effect in his arrangement of “St. Louis Blues.” Shindo and Denny were not alone in creating Japanese-tinged exotica. For example, Arthur Lyman released an arrangement of “Ottome San (Japanese Drinking Song)” in 1958 and Paul Mark produced two albums of jazzified Japanese tunes—East to West and Golden Melodies from Japan.

29. In this sense, Shindo’s position within exotica can be understood as analogous to Yma Sumac’s. (As a Peruvian, Sumac traded on her “mysterious” and “ancient” Incan heritage.)

30. Of course, Schuller was not referring to the exotica genre and the “dual traditions” of his Third Stream were European classical music and American jazz.

31. This Mercury Records album was produced by Quincy Jones. In my interviews with Shindo, he appeared somewhat reluctant to discuss this recording and claimed to me that the album’s concept was entirely Jones’ idea.

32. During my January 2004 research work at Shindo’s home, I found a piece of notebook paper with translations in a folder labeled Mganga that appears to be the notes referred to by Shindo in my June 2000 interview with him.

33. On the relationships between Asian Americans and African Americans, see Okihiro, ch. 2, and Wu.

34. Some rather peculiar moves toward blackness have occurred in Japan in recent decades. Japanese teenagers have been ardent fans of hip hop since the mid 1990s and have not only adopted hip hop fashions but have also embraced black face (ganguro) in their attempt to emulate African Americans. On the general Japanese interest in African American culture, see Russell and Hosokawa 2002.


















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