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Report by Katie Forster, photos by Nobu Tanaka for Fukuoka Now
A clicking of cameras and flourishing of furry microphones greets the first audience members to arrive at Gaikokujin Star Tanjo 2013, Fukuoka Now’s fourth annual showcase of international talent in Kyushu. Teams from local media outlets have gathered in the lobby of the JR Kyushu Hall to interview members of the consciously well-dressed young crowd before they grab their free welcome beer and disappear into the flashing lights of the main venue.
Gaikokujin Star Tanjo 2013 Photo Gallery
The prospect of a debut on Japanese TV, along with the presence of celebrity judges including Fukuoka blogger and it-girl Micaela Braithwaite, lends an MTV-esque buzz to the Saturday night party. However, despite this dose of Hakata’s Got Talent hype, at its core the event remains a community-focused attempt to expose an eclectic range of foreign performers and bring the city’s Japanese and international residents together.
This attitude is reflected not only in the crowd’s willingness to make small talk with each other over their Mexican and Middle Eastern street food, but also by the diverse line-up, which pits original acoustic compositions against traditional Nepalese dance and French Chanson. As local drum-n-sax duo Kosuke & Chang warm up the crowd, curiosity begins to mount: there are prizes for everyone who takes part, but which top act will win ¥100,000?
Last year’s winner, Keith Lauher, used the money to record an EP of his folky acoustic instrumental tracks. As this year’s contestants put the finishing touches to their costumes backstage, he takes to the stage to run through the harmonic chords and syncopated rhythms of the victorious song.
“BONSOIR!” shouts MC Sebo, our compare for the night, whose fluent Japanese and ‘allo allo’ English comes secondary to his extreme enthusiasm. He excitedly introduces the judges: TK Ziemba, a radio DJ sporting a blingalicious customised cap, Sumitaka Ikeda, who runs dance studio Stylish Labo Fukuoka, and ‘kawaii’ expert Micaela herself, then it’s straight on to the first act.
Andrew Frisbie, a US Navy Officer who has been performing since middle school, opens with a piano arrangement of a song by Hootie & the Blowfish – otherwise known as ‘that band from Friends’. Andrew may not be appearing at Central Perk any time soon, but no matter: his big smile and legions of supporters in the crowd give him a feel-good send-off.
He is followed by one of the most original acts of the evening, American rapper Asylum, who has lived in Japan since he was a child. The result of this cultural bilingualism is an energetic tribute to his favourite Japanese beer, Asahi Super Dry. Backstage, he tells me that this party song would suit the mood better than his usual dark lyrics, which he often takes breaks from his day job as a rapping English teacher to perform.
The contrast between Asylum’s beer chugging anthem and Nepalese dancer Manisha Bastola’s traditional choreography reflects the difficult choice that the judges will have to make between such different acts. She finishes her expressive performance with an elaborate shower of flower petals and candles. When asked what this signifies, she simply replies, “My country is smiling”.
We are lured away from our deep reflections on this point by three words that, when used together, sum up all that is great about the 21st century: Lady Gaga Medley. Unfortunately the high expectations of this phrase prove difficult to meet by Min Hu & Ximi Yu, a duo from China, whose ‘original interpretation’ of Gaga is undermined by some screechy dud notes. Judge Micaela offers her honest opinion to the pair: “I’m not sure why you used the violin – if you’re going to do harmonies, why not just sing?”
Jared and Curtis, otherwise known as The LAB, have written a song especially for the event, inspired by the old Japanese tale of Zashiki Warashi, a child-like spirit that haunts homes. The band are technically skilled and intensely involved in their work – halfway through the song, Curtis dons a red mask to ‘become’ the spirit of Zashiki – yet the judges point out that their stage presence is perhaps a little too shy: “I would have liked to see the audience getting more involved”, says Micaela.
Next up is Jean-Charles, whose rendition of French classic Champs-Elysées, complete with baguette and a French drapeau, makes him a match for even Sebo when it comes to gallic go-go. The singing crowd continue to wave their hands as he gives the chanson a local twist by changing the words to “Ah… Fukuoka”.
The final act of the night is Oita-based salsa troupe Calienta Rueda. Their Latin soundtrack and symmetrical moves get the front rows dancing and win the compliments of all three judges. So many compliments, in fact, that they are named as the winners of the night’s top ¥100,000 prize! How do they feel? “Excited! We think people enjoyed the atmosphere”. When asked where is best to dance salsa in Fukuoka, they recommend Tiempo Iberoamericano in Tenjin, where they are heading out later that evening.
Manisha Bastola takes second place and Asylum comes in at third, both acts picking up generous shopping vouchers. I catch Micaela afterwards for a quick post-result chat. She admits that it was difficult to choose a winner, but thinks that the media presence is very positive, as her Japanese followers often ask for advice on how to make foreign friends. As the new mayor of Fukuoka’s popular promotional online ‘Kawaii-ku’ ward, who does she think was the most ‘kawaii’ act? “The French guy! He was just cute, he just bounced around on stage with this little grin. The Nepalese dancer too, she had a gorgeous smile”.
With that, she’s off to pose for more photos with fans by the mobile ‘kawaii booth’, as DJs Das Funkt and Sam Troy crank up the volume for the dancers who have now moved onto the stage. MC Sebo rounds up the evening with a suitably keen answer to my question: how is life in Fukuoka for ‘gaikokujin’? “It’s near heaven!”
A special thanks to our sponsors for the night! Gaikokujin Star Tanjo 2013 was presented by Fukuoka Now x JR Hakata City, supported by Hakata Machizukuri Suishin Kyogikai, in cooperation with LOVE FM, and with food & drinks: A&K Beer & Food Station, Coca Restaurant, El Borracho, Hakata Tonbei, Kebabooz.
That’s our last big party for 2013, but stay tuned for more events in 2014… starting with our annual Valentine’s bash in February! Details on the Fukuoka Now website and Facebook page!