Timothy Nishimoto of Portland’s “little orchestra,” Pink Martini, sings “Zundoko-bushi” at the 2019 Seoul Jazz Festival. Olympic Park, Songpa District, Seoul. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
Zun, zun, zun, zun, zun, zundoko!
Portland’s “little orchestra,” Pink Martini, were one of the headliners at the 2019 Seoul Jazz Festival, and “Zundoko-bushi,” sung by the band’s vocalist and percussionist Timothy Nishimoto, was one of the most memorable songs they played. The meaning of zundoko (ズンドコ) is said to be unknown. Some sources suggest it may be an onomatopoeic word imitating the sound of soldiers’ boots while marching. This seems a possibility, given that “Zundoko-bushi,” sung by Tomifusa Sato (佐藤富房), first appeared in 1937, the year the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out, and gained its early popularity among Japanese marines. Bushi (節), on the other hand, is a genre of Japanese folk songs that feature distinctive melodies, and on its own, bushi means “melody” or “rhythm.” The word is rarely used on its own but is usually prefixed by a term referring to an occupation, location, personal name or the like. Please scroll down for an early version of the song sung by Japanese singer Mishima Toshio (三島敏夫, 1926–2014). The video features the lyrics of that version in both Japanese and English.
Over the years, many acts have covered the song and altered the lyrics, since, according to the Japanese Wikipedia page about “Zundoko-bushi,” there are no copyright issues as both author and composer of the song are unknown. Two adaptations became particularly popular. The first was sung by Japanese rock and roll band and comedy group The Drifters (ザ・ドリフターズ), active since 1964. Canadian blogger J-Canuck, a Japanese-to-English translator and long-time fan of Japanese pop music, notes on their blog Kayo Kyoku Plus:
As sung by Ikariya Chōsuke, Kato Cha, Arai Chu, Takagi Boo and Nakamoto Koji, the song came off as this slightly jazzy choral group song, a little too quick to be considered enka and perhaps too upbeat to be included in Mood Kayo, although it seems to have elements of both. With lyrics by Japanese novelist and songwriter Nakanishi Rei, each verse was sung by one of The Drifters, each singing about a particular instance of the hopes and pitfalls of being girl-crazy in high school and while working in a company. Released in November 1969, “Drif no Zundoko-bushi” quickly soared up the charts to debut at No. 3 on the recently established Oricon Singles Chart, and then peak at No. 2. At the end of 1970, it would become the second highest ranking song for the year, just behind the monster novelty hit, “Kuroneko no Tango” by the 6-year-old Minegawa Osamu. Selling over 800,000 copies, their third single would become The Drifters’ biggest hit.
The Drifters “Drif no Zundoko-bushi” | Source: Taylor Jessen
Another popular version, “Kiyoshi no Zundoko bushi,” was sung by Japanese singer Hikawa Kiyoshi (氷川 きよし). He became known as “The Prince of Enka,” as it was unusual for a person in his 20s to become a professional enkasi, a singer of the popular Japanese music genre considered to resemble the style of traditional Japanese music. Released in 2002 and peaking at No. 5 on the Oricon Single Charts, his version of “Zundoko-bushi” has since become a staple at Bon Festivals, a Japanese custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors, which feature a traditional dance (Bon Odori) and music of various genres. Please scroll down for both The Drifters’ and Hikawa Kiyoshi’s interpretations of “Zundoko-bushi.” A translation of the lyrics of “Kiyoshi no Zundoko-bushi” can be found on translator Ash Jackson’s blog Blue Sky Prince.
Pink Martini’s “Zundoko-bushi”
“Zundoko bushi” is sung by Timothy Nishimoto who, during the recording, really came to life in a different kind a way than any of us had ever seen before. At one point during the instrumental section, he exclaims “Ooowhh … BIG ONE!” This is a reference to his uncle Hiro, who, in the 1960s in Los Angeles, didn’t speak very much English, but was very secure with the words “big” and “one”. And so at Christmas time, or whenever there were presents on the premises, as the presents were opened he would say: “Ooowhh … BIG ONE!” Now Uncle Hiro’s phrase is forever memorialized. We also decided we needed a Japanese chorus behind Timothy, so we flew his father Torao Nishimoto from Long Beach, and enlisted some leaders of the Japanese business community from Portland, Oregon, [who] became the Japanese chorus. Japanese businessmen know how to sing because everybody in Japan does karaoke. … Everybody knew exactly what to do in the studio and they were remarkable. That’s “Zundoko bushi” … maybe the most uplifting moment of the album.
And uplifting it is indeed. I’ve listened to “Pink Martini no Zundoko-bushi” every day since the festival and especially the performance on New Year’s Eve 2014 with the above mentioned chorus of Japanese businessmen is a sight to behold.
Pink Martini at the 2019 Seoul Jazz Festival. Olympic Park, Songpa District, Seoul. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
Epilogue: The opposite of disappointing
I wasn’t sure whether or not to include this part because the spirit at Pink Martini’s performance had been so beautiful and the band members so kind and funny. Right at the start, lead vocalist China Forbes had told the audience that whenever she was asked about the band’s favorite city to perform in, she always answered ‘Seoul.’ Bandleader Thomas Lauderdale then impressed and amused the audience when he read out plenty of Korean text he had prepared for the occasion. At one point, one of his printouts flew off the stage, so he and another band member raced each other to recover it. Later, after reading a longer introduction to “Hang On Little Tomato” from their 2004 album of the same name, Lauderdale lay down on the stage, groaning, “Korean is so hard.”
Pink Martini are well known for their multilingual repertoire, which includes songs in 25 languages, explaining the quote by Thomas Lauderdale at the top. If I remember correctly, apart from “Zundoko bushi,” the band played songs in English, Spanish, French, German, and Korean, the latter, of course, being met with an enthusiastic response from the audience. After the conclusion of the Seoul Jazz Festival, Pink Martini posted a photo and message on one of their social media accounts.
One of the highlights of our 2019 was performing at the Seoul International Jazz Festival tonight in front of 15,000 people…Seoul has always been home to the BEST audience in the world, but this was truly memorable! We LOVE Korea, thank you!!
While many unreservedly thanked the band, the reply by one Korean woman illustrated once more the anti-Japanese sentiment some Koreans seem unable to shed, no matter what the situation. (Please note: including this woman’s comment is not intended to encourage anyone to harass her. Just leave her be.)
Hey. I’m big fan of you. Thank you for giving me a wonderful performance. It was really cool, but I think it was inappropriate to sing in Japanese in Korea. That was disappointing…
Far from disappointing, Pink Martini responded perfectly.
We are sorry to offend you and anyone else, but we are a very inclusive band: for example, we will also perform Korean songs in Japan. We perform Armenian songs in Turkey. And, you may not know this, but the man who sings this Japanese song, Timothy Nishimoto, is Japanese-American.
But now, cast that little sour note aside and zun zun zun along to the videos below!
Thomas Lauderdale reads a prepared Korean text, while Nicholas Crosa picks up some of his printouts and tour photographer Timothy Nishimoto captures the scene. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
Pink Martini play “Zundoko-bushi” at McMenamin’s Edgefield in Troutfield, Oregon (2013)
Pink Martini and a group of Japanese businessmen play “Zundoko-bushi” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (New Year’s Eve with Pink Martini 2014)
Japanese singer Mishima Toshio (1926–2014) sings “Zundoko-bushi”
Please note that this video is only included to allow people to listen to this early version and read the lyrics in English translation. It is in no way intended to glorify the military of the Japanese Empire.
Japanese group The Drifters perform “Zundoko-bushi” on Japanese TV in 1969
Japanese singer Hikawa Kiyoshi performs “Kiyoshi no Zundoko bushi” (2002-ish)
Pink Martini play “Amado Mio” at the 2019 Seoul Jazz Festival
Comments and corrections of any factual errors in the above blog entry will be appreciated. I slightly edited the excerpt from J-Canuck’s blog, including adding links and switching around the band members’ names, since in Japanese, surname come before given names. Thanks to Sayaka Arai who helped jump-start my research for this piece.