SA11: The Ritual Issue

Noriko Manabe on Carnivalization and Japanese Anti-Nuclear Protests

Sound American: I read your article in the Asia-Pacific Journal - Music in Japanese Antinuclear Demonstration: The Evolution of a Contentious Performance Model - and felt like there were elements of ritual in the way that Japanese protestors used music and sound to connect people. I know it’s a large topic, but maybe you can start by giving a brief overview of the protest movement and the way it used music?


Noriko Manabe: There have been anti-nuclear demonstrations in Japan since the country started to promote nuclear power in the 1950s and build nuclear power plants from the 1960s onwards. There were massive demonstrations against nuclear testing, particularly in 1954 after the Bikini Atoll H-bomb test. That explosion was much more powerful than the US government had expected. A Japanese fishing boat, called the Lucky Dragon Boat #5, got exposed to radiation, even though it was outside of the restricted area. All the people aboard that boat had to be hospitalized for radiation sickness, and one of them died. In the meantime, the tuna on board had already been sold in the Japanese markets, causing a massive panic about radiation in food. This sparked major protests around Japan and a major petition campaign, which gathered about 33 million signatures—more than a third of the population in Japan at the time.


After 3.11— what we call the triple disaster of the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear disaster [which occurred on March 11, 2011]—many people got involved in social movements for the first time. Historically speaking, protests are looked down upon in Japan. They’re also highly regulated: protest organizers have to apply for permission with the police to hold them. Also, the police have control over your route, which they can change at the last minute, messing up your protest plans. The organizers have to specify how many vehicles they’re going to have and what’s going to be on them, and give an estimate of how many participants they’re expecting. The police get upset if more people show up than specified on the application. It’s a highly controlled, highly contentious environment.

The most contentious kind of protest is the street demonstration, where protesters are walking, and trucks are rolling, down a street. A rally is less antagonistic, as you’re in a more controllable environment. A rally stays in one area; it’s in a park, some distance away from daily traffic. In a street demonstration, you’re literally on the street with the cars whizzing by you. These demonstrations feature so-called sound trucks, piled with sound equipment for DJs, rappers, reggae singers, punk bands, chindon wind bands, and occasionally noise bands. Typically, big name artists don’t perform in street demonstrations - their record companies or agencies probably wouldn’t allow it, and it is awfully difficult to control sound on top of a moving truck. So, performers on sound trucks are usually independent musicians.

These “sound demonstrations” with sound trucks go back to 2003. They began primarily as demonstrations against the Iraq War, but more accurately, they were “reclaim-the-streets” protests against globalized capitalism, which was filling urban space with fancy office buildings and retailers and shoving out the youth, who were increasingly marginalized economically. The main music of these earlier protests was techno, noise, and drumming, which filled the street with sound and allowed people to dance. The demonstrators saw the nuclear power issue as being much more immediate and close to home for the Japanese than the Iraq War (as serious as the latter is), and the primary music for the [post 3.11] demonstrations shifted quickly from wordless techno to rappers who verbalized the problems with nuclear power and engaged with the protesters. They developed specific raps that were anti-nuclear.


After about a year of sound demonstrations where musicians performed pre-composed and pre-rehearsed songs, a new kind of performance developed where the musicians engaged the protestors in a call-and-response pattern to the beats of the music. Sound trucks were playing hip-hop beats, and drum corps would beat a steady rhythm at each protest. Demonstrators got into the habit of chanting to these beats, “Genpatsu iranai,” or “We don’t need nuclear power,” and “Saikadō hantai,” or, “We oppose restarting nuclear power plants.” The rappers would use such short slogans as call-and-response patterns with which to engage the protestors.

Shortly after the crisis in 2011, it was appropriate for the anti-nuclear movement to have musicians perform songs on top of sound trucks, because the focus of the movement was to raise awareness of the problems with the industry: for example, the nuclear power industry had falsified safety inspection reports and paid a lot of advertising dollars to media companies, which refrained from presenting anti-nuclear materials. After a year of these protests, many Japanese residents understood the problem, and 70% of the population opposed nuclear power within a couple of months. By the second year after the crisis, however, the main focus of the movement was not so much about raising awareness as mobilizing people into action to convince the government to change its policies.

The music in these protests naturally became more participatory, where performers focused more on call and response, rather than prepared songs.


SA: And you’re talking about participatory versus presentational.


NM: Yes, that’s right.


SA: So what do you think the difference is? I think you’ve explained it politically, but where a crowd is concerned, do you think there is a different social atmosphere that is created by presentational acts versus participatory?


NM: The terms participatory and presentational come from Thomas Turino, who is an ethnomusicologist and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois. Presentational means the performer and the audience play separate roles. The performer has a set piece, which he or she has prepared, and performs it. Most concerts are set up this way. You’re a jazz musician, right?


SA: Right


NM: So, there’s a lot of give and take in jazz improvisation, but you’re not improvising with the audience, unless it’s a very unusual kind of audience. You’re playing to the audience, and the audience is sitting back and listening to you. This is presentational.


A participatory performance would be where everybody in the audience is taking part in some way, whether it be singing or dancing or playing a tune. So that people can participate, these tunes are made very easy so that you can perform them without much practicing, and certainly without rehearsing. In a participatory performance, there’s no gap between the performer and the audience because the audience is performing. You are paying close attention to what everyone else around you is doing.


[Participatory music] helps you to feel a certain affinity with the people around you, much as you might by either playing or singing in a group. It’s the same kind of feeling you would have if you were singing the national anthem with everyone else in a stadium, or if you’re singing your school's song at an event or a hymnal at church. These experiences make you feel at one with the people around you. It instills a sense of solidarity, which is exactly what activists needed to accomplish from a political point of view: together, the protesters feel bigger than they are alone. In participatory music, you make it easy for anyone to join, participants feel like everyone’s in this together, and the experience mobilizes them into action.

SA: There’s one thing you said in the article I read, and it’s a word I didn’t know. You said a lot of the sound demonstrations were connected to matsuri and that created a positive effect. Can you just give me an explanation for our readers of what that is and how it played into the protests?


NM: Yes, matsuri means festival. And in a Japanese matsuri there’s often a procession involved. There are festivals all over Japan. A lot of them take place in August during what is called Obon, which is like the Day of the Dead. People go back to their hometown, or ancestral hometown, to visit the graves of their ancestors. Small towns all over Japan have festivals in which they celebrate the town, often during the summer. They’ll often have local dances and a procession.

A demonstration can be a bit like a matsuri in the sense that it’s festive and it also carries an atmosphere that [Mikhail] Bakhtin describes as carnivalesque. At a carnival, people lose their inhibitions, and some societal norms are turned upside down. The stratifications of society are upended during this one time of year when people can let loose. A lot of the social tensions are expressed in the rituals of carnival, as one can see exemplified in the Trinidadian carnival or the Brooklyn carnival. The Japanese matsuri is a similar experience, because after a lot of drinking, people will talk to each other in ways that they probably wouldn’t otherwise; there’s a mixing of people from all social classes.


Matsumoto Hajime, who organized the first anti-nuclear sound demonstrations in 2011, likened the sound demonstrations to a matsuri, because both feature music, processions, and the mixing of people from all sorts of backgrounds. A matsuri procession also has floats with musicians on top of them, which is visually similar to sound trucks. Overall, there is a joyous quality to many sound demonstrations that are reminiscent of these festivals. Demonstrations became less joyous when the Liberal Democratic Party was re-elected in 2012, and it became clear that energy policy was not likely to change. But certainly in 2011 and much of 2012, demonstrations involved a lot of people dressing up like clowns or in radiation suits. A group of people made drums from what looked like the steel barrels in which radioactive waste is kept. There was more of a carnivalesque aspect to the demonstrations earlier on, which seems a little less prevalent now.


SA: And the thing that was important about that, I would think, would be the ability to bring a lot of people in regardless of their political leanings or class. It was a way to involve more of a mass of people in a way that may have seemed more fun and less threatening as opposed to a kind of harsh protest. Is that safe to say?


NM: Yes, that’s a very good way to put it. The old style of protest was the type run by labor unions. These protests happened in less youth-oriented parts of town like Shinjuku or the Ginza. They would chant, “Genpatsu wa . . . . iranai!” or, “We oppose . . . nuclear power!” There would be a certain melodic cadence to it, but it lacked rhythm and could be really boring.


What the younger people wanted to do with these sound demonstrations was, as you were saying, make it more fun, make it more inviting, make it easier for people to join in even if they hadn’t been to a demonstration before. Certainly if you have lots of people in clown costumes playing different instruments and looking like they are having a lot of fun, it’s a lot easier to attract attention on the street and have people join in the protest. The presentational aspect of music in the early stage of the anti-nuclear movement helped to attract people on the street as well as raise awareness of the issues. Once there was a critical mass of protesters, and things got more serious, then the musician-activists could focus more on mobilization.

Filmmaker Vincent Moon on Capturing Ritual

Articulating ideas about the sound of ritual, or the way ritual informs soundmaking is the predominant part of our story in this issue of Sound American. It feels hollow, however, to separate the ontology of the thing into epistemology. So many words, sincere as they are, are not able to begin to get at the heart of ritual. They dance around it, and through that we gain a certain kind of understanding, but as anyone who has been conscious enough to understand when they are inside a ritual knows, this articulated knowledge is just a surface understanding of something deeper and indefinably human.


It would be naïve to assume that a very basic website could begin to approach something deeper than this kind of peripheral learning, but I set out to find a way of showing - rather than telling – what the sound of ritual can mean. In that search, I stumbled upon the films of Vincent Moon, an independent French filmmaker who, along with filming rock, electronic, and experimental music, has the unique ability to capture the spirit and experience of ritual events around the world for his Petite Planètes collection.

I spoke with Moon (real name Mathieu Sara) while he was in Brazil, working on a new film project called Híbridos, the Spirits of Brazil with his wife, Priscilla Telmon, due for release in the spring of 2016. About the project he said:



    It’s a deep look inside rituals and trances, all around the country, as Brazil offers a fabulous playgrounds in terms of cults and the re-invention of spirituality - a lot of it has to do with the new uses of the plant Ayahuasca in urban settings, but it also involves research based on new forms of mixes between Afro-brazilian syncretic cults, indigenous traditions and European scientific minds, including Kardecism: a form of codification of spiritism originating from France in the 19th century. All this research is also of course a quest for new forms of music, emerging from the visions and the relationships to spirit entities.



The result of the project will be an 'expanded' cinema experience, from a 2 hours long experimental documentary to a collection of more than 70 films on rituals, to sound pieces to museum installations to vinyl releases and books etc.*


My early acquaintance with Moon’s work was through his films that followed experimental rock and electronic music, and so I wondered when and how the fascination with ritual surfaced.



   I just found the need to travel and discover something else based on pure curiosity. I ended up listening less and less to rock music, but listening more and more [to] music which was a means to a very ancient way of being together. That’s something I really didn’t expect at all. I didn’t enter with any [preconceived] ideas. And I ended up realizing that music was a way of originating some sacred relationship with people and nature, and when I bumped into this, I was so moved by the relationship that people were having with music in the moment, which was not a relationship with musicians at all, but purely social and human. [I was in a] state that where I was not existing anymore in a sense… that I was not a viewer but a participant.


    And in that, that respect, my mode of conception of what was music is about completely switched. Little by little, I dedicated all my time and energy into really diving into rituals and try to keep making this [work]



Moon's work has the rare ability to involve the viewer in the ritual in a way that doesn't feel invasive, studied, or manipulative; a difficult task for such an intimate proposal. I asked him what how he thought he had developed the respect necessary to be allowed to take part in events that are special and often sacred to their cultures.



    Being allowed in such rituals is an experimental practice that I have been pursuing as much with my own body as in an experimental cinematic adventure. I am not an anthropologist, and i have no desire to actually explain anything about such rituals. My knowledge of some of those cultures is often quite limited, and this limit is actually what allows me to approach them. As i can not communicate with the word, i use the body, with the pretext (always a pretext) of the camera.


    The might of such ceremonies resides in a big part in the untold, in the ‘impossible word’. My work in a sense has more to do with an experimental ethnography (the subtitle i gave to the entire Collection Petites Planètes) than anything else - a potentially poetic ethnography who could rework some characteristics of the culture itself, telling another story instead, a story based on vibrations more than words. I am thinking a lot about the fabulous cinema work of Robert Gardner around his 1986s ‘Forest of Bliss’ and the refusal of information. As with certain simplification of the language of cinema (getting rid of the voice over, of the subtext), comes a complexification of the relationship to the other. And we might seriously need this distance nowadays - how to rebuild cerebral distance while at the same time building bridges between bodies?


    The respect to such cultures comes from your body language first thing - and developing this body language in parallel to your own cinema language has been a great adventure in those past years traveling around the world, in quest of the sacred in general and the trance in particular. The only way to document a trance ritual would be then to make a trance cinema. We are going this way.


This simplification of cinematic language has allowed Moon to present ritual in a way that is powerful and meaningful, as the films attest. They are not studies of a culture from the outside, but a purely cinematic existential experience made by an artist that is interested in being over understanding. They are made with a thirst to be a part of rare and special human events.


Moon chose four movies to make up an exclusively curated set for Sound American’s ritual issue. It’s our hope that these very special films provide a visceral experience to enhance the other modes of our study of ritual in this issue.

Justina is a master shaman from the Shipibo ethnic group. Famed for their complex relations with Ayahuasca (their mythology has been making its way even into James Cameron’s Avatar), they are nowadays more and more demanded by young tourists flocking to the Peruvian Amazon.


Justina is still far from that - she is a great healer for the few villages near her, and receives people to cure of various diseases almost every night . The use she makes of the master plant Ayahuasca is deep and constantly linked to the icaros: the healing songs she sings, which are most of the time given by the psychoactive visions of the moment. - Vincent Moon

Christianity in Ethiopia goes back a long way - it’s famed as being the second Christianized country on Earth. From the moment the religion reached the high plateaus of the mystic land, it didn’t move much. This makes viewing any orthodox ritual feel like a step back in time.


In Gondar, the gorgeous Debre Selassie Church is a masterpiece with hundreds of angels floating on the ceiling. Here’s a film on the Easter ritual there, a whole night of singing and drumming presence. - Vincent Moon

Sufism, the mystical part of Islam, is mostly famous in the western eye for the whirling dervishes of Turkey. But around the world, there are infinite numbers of variations on those zhikr, the communal encounters with Allah. In Chechnya, in the mountains of Russian North Caucasus, people don’t chew khat like in Somalia or smoke hashish like in Morocco - they just dance for hours, in circles sometimes, in an extremely physical way. Here’s one film from a collection of five made on Sufi rituals in the tiny republic. - Vincent Moon

Len Dong rituals are mostly encountered in the suburbs of Hanoi, in Northern Vietnam. Building on ancient pagan beliefs, they are a poorly studied culture by the elites, allowing them to be more readily able to integrate new musical and spiritual elements to their rituals.


In a strange way, for Westerners, encounters with the master shaman are paid by the shaman himself; using donations received from the community to constantly maintain a spiritual work. This short film depicts the integrality of one ritual, with the various entities coming one by one thru the shaman, almost like experimental fashion theater. - Vincent Moon


Ryan Sawyer on Drums, Voices, and the Bar Ritual

Ryan Sawyer is one of those people you don't remember meeting. They are just there one day and your friendship with them is natural and unquestionable. Over the past ten years, I have learned to trust Ryan's musical and personal decisions, and to respect the way in which he approaches living his life.


One trend that has made it self clear in this issue, is that many people view ritual as a way of providing a space in which a person or group of people can feel a specific way. That may be a socio-political space, such as the protests featured in Noriko Manabe's article, or religious spaces like those found in Vincent Moon's films. In each of the examples given in SA11 something has happened to charge a room; charge a people with energy. Ritual creates this energy through tradition or rules; through the intellect or a group emotion. It happens in churches, synagogues, concert halls, and street protests. This is ritual with a capital R.


But what about ritual with a small r? In our day to day lives we are existing in daily moments that are charge with a ritual energy, but how often do we recognize it? Something as banal as making coffee becomes an intimate ritual. Battling a line at a food truck for lunch is nothing if not a charged space. There are people that roam freely within these moments that we recognize as having "something special"; people that change a room. I like to think of these people as "shamans" of the everyday (not to take any special power out of the word shaman). Ryan Sawyer is one of those people.


In this interview we talk about two of the most tangible and outwardly affecting rituals in his daily life: his solo drum and voice performances as Lone Wolf and his day jobs as bartender and DJ in Brooklyn. While Lone Wolf may fit more neatly into the ritual in music box that's been set up in this issue, the "night culture" that Ryan talks about in this issue is even more fascinating as an insight into the rituals of relaxation, sex, and alcohol that take places thousands of times under the watch of the person setting the scene or charging the space.


We recorded at Ryan's Williamsburg apartment in the middle of a crazy Saturday afternoon. The interstitial music is from his upcoming solo recording, One Day Your Heart Will Be Your Skin, and includes (in order) a Mbuti Pygmy song, Kathy Leisen's I Don't Want To Be Friends, and Norma Tanega's You're Dead.

Ryan Sawyer Talks to Sound American Editor Nate Wooley