The threat of diluted Westernized pop leers everywhere. A little TLC goes a long way in markets like Japan, where hip-hop and rock knockoffs have more than saturated a music industry that's the second largest in the world. Pizzicato Five, Shonen Knife and Ken Ishii have built on the alternative scene for years, but it's the slick, hyperglossy J-pop that dominates the Japanese charts. In L.A.'s Little Tokyo, the Kinokuniya (123 Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka St., Suite 205) and Asahiya (333 S. Alameda St.) bookstores carry nothing but these syrupy love ballads and quasi funk from singers like Kinki Kids, Speed and the immensely popular Hikaru Utada -- all equal parts Boys II Men, Brandy and Mariah. This Japanese spin on American influences keeps voraciously up with the trends, but isn't indicative of a musical culture that goes as far back as the nobility of the seventh century, with gagaku (court music), the thunderous taiko drumming and the highly stylized kabuki theater. The music might sound thin to Western ears, but it's quiet and meditative, especially when played on koto (zither) or shamisen (three-stringed banjo).
Browsing at the Bun-ka Do (340 E. First St.) gift store is a transcendental experience in itself. The music section on the second floor sits atop like a pristine Buddhist temple, neatly packed with 8-tracks and loads of Japanimation laser discs next to rice-paper calendars and minisamurai swords. Magic Cat (336 E. Second St.), however, is quite a different venture: After 30 years in business, Magic Radio was bought by Michiko Kishimoto, who turned it into a cat shrine that also sells shakuhachis (bamboo flutes), as well as cat-shaped confetti, cat books, cat posters, cat key chains, and bumper stickers that read "We're staying together for the sake of the cats." Then there's the Elvis memorabilia. Why Elvis? "Because Elvis was a hillbilly cat," says Kishimoto.
Traditional Japanese music does have its place at Magic Cat. The melancholy of enka, part of the Japanese pop mainstream during the '50s and '60s, dotes on the painful pangs of love, separation and sorrow. With more than 30 albums of her work, Magic Cat also pays tribute to the late singer Hibari Misora, "the Barbra Streisand of Japan," and other enka entertainers who are now mostly popular among the older generation.
As sure as the scent from Canter's deli beckons passers-by, so does the buoyant wailing of klezmer clarinet and violin coming from Hatikvah (436 N. Fairfax Ave.). It's hard to pin down exactly what makes this place, founded in 1948, such a treasure: the fact that songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller worked here when it was called Norty's Music Center (also a hangout for a young Herb Alpert and Phil Spector), or that it's part Library of Congress and part historical landmark. Owner Simon Rutberg is more of an ethnomusicology professor than some guy who runs a store. Although he'll admit that his real love is R&B (hence the Jackie Wilson poster), Rutberg could turn the entire world on to Jewish music. There are Hasidic standards, baroque Jewish music, cantorial (for religious services), "Holocaust music" (European WWII recordings), Ladino (the music of Castilian Jews) and, of course, klezmer. Here, the various styles of klezmer -- the jovial and sometimes bittersweet folk music primarily from Eastern Europe -- are represented as far back as the 1700s and up to current bands like the Klezmatics and Yid Vicious. Want Connie Francis singing in Yiddish? No problem. From rap-parody group 2 Live Jews (remember As Kosher As They Wanna Be?) to the big-band/swing of the legendary Barry Sisters, Rutberg can whip out any recording without missing a beat.
Just as Hatikvah is a musical memorial of the Old World, Musicall (517 N. Fairfax Ave.) represents what's explosive and fresh in current Israeli pop. Zehava Ben sings in Hebrew and Arabic; Yehuda Poliker does Hebrew while playing the bouzouki (Greek mandolin); and Tel Aviv siren Ofra Haza has done everything from ancient Yemenite songs to working with Iggy Pop and Eric B. and Rakim.
Armenian and Middle Eastern
Ask anyone where to get the best falafel sandwich or baklava and they'll quickly point to Zankou and Panos Pastry. But while the food needs no introduction, Armenian music stores in Glendale and Hollywood, where the diaspora has spread like wildfire in the last 15 years, are virtually undiscovered. The music pours out of crowded delis, gift shops and the ever-abundant lowered BMWs. The mere mention of Armenian music might conjure up percussion-drenched belly-dancing songs done in taverns, and there is an Arabic influence, Armenian musicians even sharing the same instruments with Arab and African countries. But Armenian music stands completely on its own: generations-old patriotic anthems like "Erebouni" and "Sardarabad"; the excessively romantic synth-driven ballads; duduk and zourna (woodwinds) instrumentals of the highlands; and, yes, the wining-and-dining "shish kebab" party stuff overdone by a hundred different singers in a hundred different ways, specifically made for the dance floor. Usually, half of what these stores carry is Armenian, while the other is "international," mostly Middle Eastern. The standard crop includes Lebanese singers Feirouz and Sabaha, Greek singer Ronios, Russia's Red Star Red Army Chorus and, of course, anything from the "Persian Elvis" himself, Andy. Turkish music takes up half of Akhtamar (616 E. Colorado St., Glendale), and Chaterian (1022 E. Broadway, Glendale) even has Gone With the Wind dubbed in Farsi.
But if you're going to stick to Armenian, you're better off visiting PE-KO (730 S. Central Ave., Glendale), where cherished classics from composers Khachaturian and Armen Dikranian, Komitas' mass music, and the national Sardarabad ensemble loom large. Hollywood's Parseghian Records (4900 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood) is a small, unassuming store (also a record label of the same name) that encompasses everything Middle Eastern, but if we're talking popularity alone, Harout Pamboukjian and Paul Baghdadlian have crafted the L.A. Armenian music scene for so long you'd have to apply for financial aid to get either one of them at your wedding.
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Indian and Pakistani
Long before becoming part of '60s psychedelic rock, Indian music's incantations and recitations -- the heart of Hindu ritual -- were and have remained an unchanging force as both ancient art form and beguiling influence. Its roots are historic and religious, its centuries-old ragas serving as a means to a higher spiritual plane. Qawali (qawal in Arabic means "one who speaks well"), which dates back to the 10th century, is a form of extended improvisation of wailing and octave-leaping outbursts, usually by a "party" of 10 or so musicians and singers. Qawali has been dominated by a long line of Pakistani male singers, the greatest being the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and others, including the Sabri Brothers.
With 24 states in India, and numerous languages, there's a bewildering array of national Indian styles, including Punjabi, Rajasthani, Bengali and Pakistani. The carnatic style, another form of improvisation based on folk melodies, is dominant in the south, while classical instrumentals come mainly from the north. Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar is the ambassador of Hindustani music, wielding an incalculable influence on Western musicians. Equally vital outside India, sarod master Ali Akbar Khan blends technology and Rajasthani folk. And Zakir Hussain has given the tabla a major spotlight in the percussion family, weaving rhythms from India, Africa, Cuba and the Middle East into haunting new forms.
Music courses through the veins of Artesia's Indian community, as inviting as the smell of burning incense and curry, and as plentiful as the wonderful sari shops. Raaga (18625 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia) has the L.A. area's largest inventory of regional folk, instrumentals, carnatic, pop, and soundtracks from the prolific Indian film-music industry. A short walk away, Ziba (11806 E. 186th St., Artesia) even sells a few musical instruments. Though they're not in the best condition, the manager advises, the tamburas and dholkis (drums) are as close to the mother country as you can get.