HappyFunSmile – The Name Says It All

Reviewed by Alexei Esikoff (Fukushima-ken, 2001-02)

(Fall 2005 Issue)I feel closest to Japan when at Kenka on St. Marks Place. There’s far better Japanese food to be had in the city, but nothing beats Kenka in terms of cheap rowdy fun. Their colorful menu includes various animal, uh, body parts on the menu. Once my brother and I gamely ordered turkey testicles. We were served bull penis instead (and no, it wasn’t sliced or anything, merely unadulterated penis stretched on a white plate covered with mysterious yellow sauce). As for the taste, let’s just say my brother, who was the kind of kid to make scary food experiments on his lunch tray in middle school, could only manage two bites.

But I digress. On Thursday, November 10, I went to Kenka with your newsletter’s editor extraordinaire, Steven, to see a group called Happyfunsmile. All I knew about them was that they performed Okinawan pop songs. Whatever that was.

Kenka was even more crowded than usual: since there’s no stage to speak of, seating was removed from the middle of the restaurant. The band set up as we devoured curry rice and nama beeru. So far, things looked familiar; there was a keyboard, guitar, bass, and saxophone. On the floor, a guy in a white headband laid out instruments that looked like smaller versions of taiko drums.

At least eight people gathered on the “stage.” The only female was a singer, clad in a yukata. A male singer, sporting a full head of spiky hair and wearing tabi on his feet, joined her. Some of the other instrumentalists were decked out tropical-style in Hawaiian shirts and Mardi Gras beads. The most conspicuous performer strapped to his chest a wooden contraption with a tub-sized drum and high hat, which he beat on either side.

And the music was joyful! Those with movable instruments danced in the confined aisle, inviting people to join in. Their movements, to my unknowing eye, resembled those performed by groups at an obon dance. Most of the songs were upbeat, with simple shout-worthy choruses. Brian Nishii and Miho Tsuji, the lead singers, exchanged lyrics conversationally. When they occasionally slowed it down, Miho performed enka numbers. Her voice perfectly captured the sweeping emotion enka requires. Songs and sets were both short, perfect for my attention span. Surprisingly, not every song sounded “Japanese.” The Okinawan ones owed more to the Pacific islands than Tokyo. Others, recreating a sound and rhythm like a klezmer band, were nearly Eastern European.

Steven was smiling. I was too. The music, the sense of fun, was totally infectious. “This is the closest I’ve felt to Japan since I’ve come home,” I said, meaning it.

Later, I spoke with Wynn Yamami, the founder of the Happyfunsmile and the performer of the chest-drum. Besides Okinawan pop and enka, they do chindon, something I was unfamiliar with. “Chindon is onomonopeia for the sound of the instrument: the ‘chin’ of the kane and the ‘don’ of the taiko drum,” Wynn said. Chindon is a dying musical form in Japan, mostly because it’s never been recognized as a legitimate one. At the turn of the last century, stores, theaters, and arcades hired musicians to stand outside their places of business, trying to lure people in through flamboyant costumes, catchy tunes, and short skits mocking kabuki. As Japan grew technologically advanced so quickly, chindonya fell out of style. (Think about it: how many chindonya did you come across in your JET tenure?) Today, it’s hard to find a group with members under sixty. Happyfunsmile is one of the bands attempting to revive the art. They aren’t the only ones interested; there’s an annual chindonya festival in Toyama, which Wynn attended this year.

Overall, watching Happyfunsmile was one of my best Japan experiences outside of the country. Even in a multicultural city like New York, it’s not a sound often heard. Combined with the cheerful enthusiasm of a Kenka crowd, it makes a terrific night out.

Happyfunsmile will be performing at Kenka again in December; visit happyfunsmile.com for a confirmed date. Go, eat your curry rice and bull penis, and find yourself transported back to Japan.

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