racoon alley

Soran Wataridori album coverSeveral years ago I acquired a rather mysterious album at a garage sale. Well, the only reason it was mysterious was because it was a Japanese record with hardly a shred of English on it, save the title that was printed on the center label: “Soran Wataridori.” On the cover was a technicolor-ish photo of two young ladies wielding shamisens and wearing some crazy pointed straw hats. Based on their outfits alone I could tell this music was gonna be gangsta.

I was right. These ladies could really sing and play their shamisens, and they were backed by an orchestra. The arrangements were nice and definitely reflected the era in which it was recorded (1961, I believe). For the most part the tracks are fairly traditional Japanese folk songs, but towards the end of the album they start letting loose. The closer of the album, my favorite track, starts off with a kind of Rockabilly / New Orleans shuffle, and by the time the shamisens kick in I was hollering “wooo!!.” Shit is hot, check it out:

I decided to find out more about this album, so I enlisted the help of my grandma, who can read Japanese. When I showed her the name of this song, she laughed and said it was a rather strange title. The title, “Tanuki Kōji no Onēchan,” literally means “Elder sister of Racoon Alley.” When she translated the lyrics (which were thankfully printed on the album jacket), it started to make sense. I guess Racoon Alley is the name of a street. Here’s my grandma’s rough translation of the 1st verse:

Does everybody know them? Does everybody know them? / A lady has a little shop on Racoon Alley / a red neon sign comes on in the evening / 2 sisters are real sexy and charming, that’s the selling point / customers come every night, and it’s full of people / big sister plays the shamisen and sings with charm / the customers join together and dance

As it turns out, this genre of music is called Min’yō–traditional (or not so traditional) Japanese folk song. Coincidentally, my friend Lisa was trained in this style of music (her mother is a well-know and respected sensei of this style). I met Lisa when I had a weekly jam session gig down in Little Tokyo. One of the regular guitarists who would come and play at the session was a guy named Yu, and one of the bartenders was a singer named Natsu. Well, it turns out all three of them are in a band that fuses traditional Japanese folk songs with rock music, called Minyo Station. Check out their myspace page and listen to the track called “Yosakoi Naruko Odori.” It’s a dope, catchy song that makes me throw up the evil hand and thrash my imaginary hair–and what’s more, I’ve never heard anything like it. I imagine that if you could find Racoon Alley today, you’d find a cool little divey music club where the customers all get up and dance, and on the stage you’d find this band.

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Published in: on June 12, 2008 at 2:07 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. straight up.. G-A-N-G-S-T-A! and those outfits are banging! that’s why they’re the sexy sisters of racoon alley. it’s the hat, it’s gotta be the hat.

  2. straight up.. G-A-N-G-S-T-A! and those outfits are banging! that’s why they’re the sexy sisters of racoon alley. it’s the hat, it’s gotta be the hat.

  3. That’s awesome!!! I used to play the shamisen when I was a kid and lived in Japan!!


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