Japan Odyssey: Gigging with Grace Nono at the World Expo 2005

The Grace Nono and Bob Aves Group 2005 at the World Expo in Nagoya, Japan

From April 5 to 9, 2005, I was in Nagoya, Japan, as keyboardist and techno-guy for the Grace Nono and Bob Aves group. We performed for one hour at the Expo Dome, a 3,000-seater auditorium located within the 300-hectare World Expo 2005 Nagakute site, which just days before us, featured Alanis Morisette. And we rocked the house with a set featuring songs which mixed traditional Philippine tribal music with Western-flavored and electronic arrangements. Traditional + experimental = spiritual world music in ancient languages.

Blade Runner got it right. The movie’s production designer decided on a particularly Japanese-looking futurescape filled with urban decay, geisha faces on neon billboards, and hovercar noodle shops. And his view of the future is spot on. See, I have been to the future and the future is Japanese!

Preparing for the World Expo Gig

In order to prepare for this gig, there were two pre-production meetings before a grueling stretch where we were asked to rehearse daily for two weeks at the Aves house prior to the gig . We kept going, thinking: “At least we’ll get to see Japan for free!”

So we were knee-deep in a sweltering summer heatwave, doing continuous runthroughs of our hour-long set in an un-airconditioned corner of the Aves house, with sweat dripping down the backs of our knees. Rehearsal started at about 2 PM and went till about 11:30 or 12 midnight, with snacks and dinner in-between. And we were dehydrated like crazy. There was not enough cold drinking water in their fridge and the running water situation in Roosevelt Avenue, Quezon City wasn’t exactly overflowing. Still, we managed to bring together a show from scratch, fusing the different folksongs and tribal traditions that each of us learned from his/her own ethno-linguistic groups. Midway through the rehearsal period, the songs were dripping out of our ears and finding their way into our dreams.

Grace Nono flustered
Grace Nono flustered

PARTICIPANTS

The Grace Nono-Bob Aves Group version 2005 was composed of 2 Kalinga dudes, Alex and Charles, 2 Maguindanaoans, Faisal and Kalatuan, and 3 Manilenyos, Grace, Bob and myself. The religious backgrounds totally differed: there were Christian, Muslim, Eckancar, and more. It was an interesting mix of cultures within that one diverse group, and we definitely had fun.

Alex blowing his flute
Alex blowing his flute

The show consisted of about 10 songs, each flowing into the next. And most of us were playing multiple percussive instruments throughout, mostly traditional Philippine instruments like kulintang, agong, tongatong, and tambi, while Bob stayed on his octavina, and I manned the CD player (the safest way to make sure everything was perfect) and my laptop setup for softsynth pads, softsynth lines and FX.

Acid42 enjoying the Sakae district
Acid42 enjoying the Sakae district

JAPANIMATED!

And then on April 5, we finally set foot on Japan soil.

This was my first time in Japan, and the familiar shock of setting foot in the “first world” got to me when I realized no car horns were being honked whether on the freeway or on busy city streets; policemen were actually friendly whenever we got lost, and accompanied us to point out where we should walk in order to get home; freeways were seamless; food service was impeccable, and waiters over polite (and to think: tipping is not practised here). It was a whole new world though not that far from Hong Kong– where I spent five years as a child.

And the weather was a blissful 15-20 degrees celsius! A change from the sweltering 33-28 degress of Manila. We cracked open our heavy jackets and started exploring the city we were in.

Sakae sidewalk
Sakae sidewalk

CONVENIENCE STORES:

First off, there are convenience stores at almost every corner of Nagoya: 7-11, Circle K, SunKus, MiniStop. And oh the lovely stuff they have in there. I remember reading a Time Magazine article a few years back about how fast-paced lifestyles in Japan have facilitated the selling of more and more instant/microwaveable meals at convenience stores. So stuff like seaweed-wrapped rice balls, dumplings, and breaded fillets, are stocked near the instant noodles. And I saw it for myself. Rows and rows of lovely, exotic junk foods not available in my own country.

And just so you know how expensive stuff is over there: the cheapest thing you can buy off the racks on a 7-11 is a 500ml Coke for ¥150 which translates to P75.

free magazines, baby!
free magazines, baby!

FREE MAGS

Next difference:the free magazines and newspapers were all in full color, mostly glossy format. The free music mags especially were comparable to our best P120 mags, color sep-wise and printing-wise. No half-assed output there. The free mag for Tower Records (BOUNCE) is about 150 pages thick. There were free mags covering the live band scene as well, one in particular, JUICE, had its regular rock coverage and an additional variant JUICE CLUB, strictly for electronic/dance music.

BIKES AND SKIRTS

A large number of people get around on bicycle in Japan. And it doesn’t matter to them if they’re wearing mini skirts or not. Basta bibisikleta sila, bahala ka na mag-avert ng mata mo.

my room at Ekimae Montblanc Hotel
My room at the Ekimae Montblanc Hotel

HOTEL

We were billeted at the Ekimae MontBlanc Hotel next to a major transport hub and thus there were a whole bunch of malls around, as well as a mazelike route of underground tunnels all leading to the main subway ticketing area of Nagoya Station.

Interesting things about our hotel rooms:

  • – good for only 1 person, thus tiny. Shoebox, anyone?
  • – bathroom looks exactly like those found on Superferry cabins: tiny and compressed.
  • – no cable tv, so I wasn’t able to follow the Pope’s funeral.
  • – a robe and sash are provided along with slippers.
  • – the fridge has no contents: you are invited to fill it with stuff you buy outside– it’s like they realize no one will consume stuff in a hotel ref, so they won’t even try.
  • – the toilet bowl has two different settings: shower and bidet. Don’t even try the settings if your ass isn’t on the bowl– unless you like re-enacting Marikina floods in a Japanese hotel room, complete with drenched clothing.
  • – the switch for airconditioning? actually turns on the heater during cold evenings. Not sure whether there was a thermostat hidden in the room. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t any.
LaChic Mall in Sakae
LaChic Mall in Sakae

MALLS

Here’s the thing about their malls: the first five floors are all usually devoted to women’s wear. The remaining 3-4 floors are distributed among menswear, books, arts and crafts, dvds, cds, etc. Quite a difference from Manila where ground floors always contain menswear since here, men are typically too lazy to go up to find their floor. Or so certain retail studies say.

Still, their malls have everything–and so much of it! Couture denim jackets at ¥24,000 and hardbound Evangelion design books at ¥5,000… Excess and hubris everywhere.

my bag--underneath the gear are my clothes
My bag--underneath the gear are my clothes

WILD TV

Since our hotel didn’t have cable TV, we had to make do with local stations. And what fun it is to view TV in a foreign culture. They had wild and wacky game shows like you’ve never dreamed of.

I remember one on CTV6, where two men would sit at a table opposite each other and play rock-paper-scissors. The loser would grab the construction hat on the table and wear it as quickly as possible because the winner would grab the giant, folded paper fan and whack the loser’s head with it– whether or not the loser got the hat on in time.

Then there was one show where people would take turns lying face-up on a platform with an alumnium basin suspended over them. A switch was located next to the person which controls the basin’s fall. The object was to let the basin fall towards your face and hit ther switch to stop it as close as possible to your face without hitting you! Hilarious stuff! Alien stuff!

acid42 at the rehearsal studio
Acid42 at the rehearsal studio

FINAL REHEARSAL & OCULAR

Anyway, after taking in the sights and the sounds of the new country, we had a final rehearsal at a large studio in Sakae, the fashion district. The studio was set up with masking tape laid out on the floor to demarcate the actual stage platforms we would be on at the venue.

It took ages to prepare for it since we had to unpack all the wooden percussion instruments and set up, and put microphones on everything. Still, we were finally able to practice the show with a better idea of how much space was needed, especially for the dancing portions. (Not that I ever danced around, mind you. After all, someone had to man the CD player.)

The actual sound technicians were present, very helpful and quite observant. I was wondering why. Only later did it become clear. At midnight on the same day as the rehearsal, we were finally able to visit the actual venue, the Expo Dome, and lo and behold: the crew had set up our gear and instruments exactly as they were at the studio rehearsal. Apparently they were taking down notes as to positioning of instruments, layout of gear and wiring so that they knew how to put it in place at the venue. For the first time in my life, I felt wonderfully spoiled — like a world-class performer. It’s a pretty cool feeling after gigging for years in dives like Mayric’s and Freedom Bar, and having to lug your own gear all over the place and unpack your own stuff. I COULD get used to that.

the huge expo dome
The huge World Expo dome

Anyway, the Expo Dome was HUGE. Reminded me of the Folk Arts Theater, what with its almost open-air appearance and large structure. The audience seats were comfy too. Couldn’t imagine how we’d fill up the place though. The other thing was: since we were there past midnight, vapor was streaming out of our mouths whenever we spoke. Chilly. I loved it.

Some of the guys were slightly apprehensive about the weather though because they were going to wear traditional woven loincloths (Bahag) and not much else.

The Grace Nono-Bob Aves group right before the gig
The Grace Nono-Bob Aves group right before the gig

THE ACTUAL GIG

The actual performance was on April 7, 2005. An hour or two after a full-fledged presentation on Ikebana was held at the same spot. We were on for 7 pm, but were at the venue from 3pm onwards in order to soundcheck and prepare.

It went off without a hitch. See, this is what it boils down to: 4 years of preparation from our Japanese organizers, 2 straight weeks of preparation on our part, and the end result was one performance, which lasted 1 hour and 10 minutes. Whoah. I don’t think I’d have patience enough to prepare for something that long.

The audience was present, and probably numbered a little less than 500 people. But the feedback we got was all positive. One person whom we met a day after was commenting on how spiritual the entire thing was. Truly, language is no barrier when paired with music that comes from the soul.

curry powder at the Coco Ichi Curry House
Curry powder at the Coco Ichi Curry House

Afterwards, we returned to our hotel and had dinner at a nearby late-night eatery called Cocoichi Curry House. Mmmmm. I [heart] curry. To top it all of, we finally got our talent fees.

A LITTLE SHOPPING & THE EXPO, FINALLY

With freshly minted US Dollars in hand, we were finally able to do a little bit of shopping the day after the performance, and so headed off to the Ohsu area which is kinda like our Greenhills except, much more fashionable. We were even able to visit Kannon Temple, a palce where musicians traditionally go to offer a prayer before launching a new album. Anyway, there were lotsa shops with traditional fabrics and lotsa shops with 2nd hand goods. Lovely lovely stuff. We were at a mall which was 5 floors high which was mostly 2nd hand electronics.

At the Kannon Temple
At the Kannon Temple

Afterwards, we went back to the expo where Grace Nono gave a short talk on her Tao Foundation, a non-profit which seeks to keep traditonal culture alive within the Philippines. Much of it had to be translated to Japanese, so really, half of the time was the talk, and the rest was the translation.

one of the walkways in the European section of the World Expo
one of the walkways in the European section of the World Expo

But after that was through we had free time to discover the wonderful glories of the individual pavillions at the World Expo. We zoomed into as many as possible given the alloted time, and were knocked out by the sheer extravagance with which some countries decorated their pavilions. The Philippine pavilion was ultra-tasteful and down-to-earth, using local materials (abaca fiber, coconut) to construct an organic looking diorama showcasing local culture and tourist destinations as well as snippets of art.

The next day, we flew home.

All in all it was a blast. My only complaint is: we weren’t GIVEN ENOUGH TIME FOR SHOPPING. But I guess that only means that I will have to come back at another juncture in my life. Go Japan!!!!!

Cherry blossoms along a main avenue in Nagoya
Cherry blossoms along a main avenue in Nagoya

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