Earlier this week I was chatting with a friend about vernacular music in Japan. The conversation turned to the venerable form enka, a popular genre often likened to country-western music in the US or Portuguese fado. Deceptively simple, highly sentimental to be sure, but beyond the patina of kitsch, there’s plenty of beauty to be found in enka. The singer Misora Hibari is the gold standard for the form, and is happily recognized as such in Japan. Famous for her heart-wrenching performances, she sold 68 million records throughout the course of her career, and in the six months after her death at the age of 52, sales of her recordings multiplied by twenty-five.
Reliably, YouTube has its share of Misora clips, but the one that really kept my attention is from a TV broadcast in 1985, a performance of the song Kanashii Sake (Sad Alcohol). The YouTube clip is from a rebroadcast a few years later, and one of the commentators tells the story of how, even during the dress rehearsal and camera tests, the song would reduce Misora herself to tears. Her emotional outbreak is clearly visible in the video, and even without any real consideration or understanding of the language, only the most stone-hearted could watch this performance and not feel moved.
What brings anyone to crave sadness in art? Emotivists have argued, to quote Peter Manual in his study Does Sad Music Make One Sad? An Ethnographic Perspective that “negative emotional responses do play a central role in the apprehension of much music, that is, that actual sadness is a natural, intentional and essential response to sad music.” Yet Manual’s conclusions—based on survey work done with music listeners, albeit in a distinctly western cultural setting—seem to find otherwise. His research lines up more with “the cognitivist position…that while a musical piece or passage might be expressive of a negative emotion like sadness, the listener’s experience consists primarily not of sadness but of a more generalized state of being moved by the beauty of the music.” For the full article take a look here.
Steven Feld, an Austin-based jazz musician and ethnomusicologist, has studied expressive culture in music and language and has lived among the Kaluli people of New Guinea. He wrote a most interesting book called Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression. While some music might make us weep, Feld writes about weeping that moves people to song. It’s an ethnographic study of sound as a cultural system, wherein the author reveals sound expressions as embodiments of deep sentiment. The Kaluli live in a tropical rain forest in Papua New Guinea. One of their rituals, gisalo, takes place when one community hosts others coming from afar. The overall atmosphere is meant to be welcoming, with food, animals, pork distribution, even marriages being exchanged. The guests are charged with singing and dancing for their hosts. Yet, according to Feld:
(The guests) dance up and down the hall, singing with the accompaniment of rattle instruments and a chorus. The songs are sung in a plaintive voice, and the texts are sad and evocative, reflecting on loss and abandonment. They cite places and events familiar to all or specific groups of the hosts and are composed with the intention of making the hosts nostalgic, sentimental and sad. The hosts listen intently, identifying with the map that the singers construct by weaving together place names, metaphors, and onomatopoeic devices.
At points in the songs where they become overcome with sadness and grief, the hosts burst into tears and loud mournful wails. This may set off a chain reaction of waling throughout the house.
Then, in a ritual twist, the hosts become angry because of the grief they have been made to feel, and actually attack and inflict burns on their guests, but apparently no hard feelings remain at the end of the night. For the Kaluli generally, what is central is the extent to which the compositions and their manner of performance were effective, as judged by the extent to which they moved the hosts to tears.
It seems perhaps universal to take some pleasure in our sadness through sound, however guiltily we might do so. What “sad” music do you like to listen to, and does it make you feel happily sad, or sadly happy? I’d be curious to know your thoughts.