I was unsure about going to the SXSW Japan Nite this year since I’ve been so busy lately and still recovering from my international trip. However, when a friend was nice enough to put me on the guest list, I figured that I should take the opportunity. I could do a whole series of posts just on SXSW — the interactive portion finished and the music events are in full swing, The corporate media environment of SXSW Interactive have morphed into a crazy street party which fits the “Keep Austin Weird” mantra that the city is known for. I could also do an entire posting on Japan Nite, which I may do in the future. Today, however, I want to highlight just one band, which I thought was so original, that it deserves to be showcased by itself.
Many of the groups at Japan Nite are Japanese versions of Heavy Metal, Punk, Rock, Pop and Jazz. Sometimes quirky, slightly unusual Japanese variations on musical styles that can be found in other places. Kao=S is a completely different kind of band. One that I have not experienced in the several years that I’ve going to these Japan Nite events. Kao=S fuses traditional Japanese elements, music, its instruments, the clothing and culture and wraps them in a modern twist. Kaori Kawabuchi, dazzling and beautiful, is more than a lead singer, she is more of a performance artist. Her dancing, poetry, singing and yes even Samurai sword swinging performance is a spectacularly visual and original show. Shiji Yamagiri on guitar and Jack on Shamisen, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument, complete the trio that forms this most unusual group. And in an era of globalization and standardization across the world, it is refreshing to see traditional elements being used as a showcase, especially in a different country. There are rich cultural traditional around the world, wouldn’t it be a shame to have them lost in a single generic international style?
Rather that me try to describe what their performance is like, I found a YouTube video of Kao=S’ “Ogre of the Cherry Tree” performance that I added below. Like many YouTube videos, the production quality is not the greatest but it will give you a good idea of what I’m talking about. Modern music with a mix of Western and Japanese instruments. The flute sound you hear is the Shakuhachi which is a traditional Japanese flute. Unfortunately, they didn’t have Shakuhachi player at my performance, which I think adds another level of depth. You can also see and hear Jack on the electrified Shamisen, which along with the Japanese flute, gives this piece a distinctively Japanese feel. You can see Kaori performing her artistic dance, more like poetry in motion set to music. The story seems to end just after the 5 minute mark but keep on watching the video, you won’t be disappointed, especially if you like Samurai swords. For Final Fantasy video game fans, apparently Kaori’s dance moves have also been motioned captured and incorporated into the video game.
For me, I was busy capturing still frames, admittedly mostly of Karori. She is the visual star of the show and certainly very pleasant to photograph. Photography is certainly my passion and it was wonderful shooting this event but after watching the YouTube video, I have a twinge of regret not putting down my camera and watching. Most bands are fine to listen to and I can do that while photographing. This band is different and I feel I’ve missed an element of it by being distracted in capturing images. Though I have to admit that If I saw Kao=S perform again, I will still shoot photographs. My love for shooting and the lure of capturing beautiful visuals will be too much to resist.
Photographically speaking, I’m happy with the stills that I’ve captured. I’ve talked a lot about my recent Olympus Pen experiences and my Canon 7D has sat quietly at home, feeling unloved I’m sure. For this SXSW event, I decided to bring the 7D as my primary and my Olympus E-PL1 as a wider angle backup. On the 7D, I attached my 50mm f1.4 and also used my 430EX external flash. I’m out of practice with the Canon but after 10 minutes of so I got back into the swing of things. For me getting great images in these dark venues is always a fun challenge. I shot in Manual exposure mode, which I usually do not do (I usually prefer Aperture Priority), and used the external flash to bounce light off the ceiling. And yes, the club had relatively high black ceilings but you can still use a bounce flash and it does help, especially if you have a wide aperture lens. The Canon 50m f1.4 can be tricky to focus properly especially in dark areas with a large aperture. I ended up setting the aperture to f2 – 2.5 range and the shutter speed from 1/160 to 1/200 of a second. I wanted to have a fast enough shutter speed to catch the action and have a deep enough depth of field to have decent focus. The bounce flash adds enough fill light to get decent exposures at ISO 1600. The flash exposures were wonky at times and I constantly change the flash exposure compensation to get good exposures. Part of the challenge is that as I move the camera and the angle of bounce off the ceiling changes, I can get vastly different exposures. Though I also think that my flash was acting a bit more temperamental than usual. The light at the venue varied and was generally challenging. I didn’t use my E-PL1 much since it was too dark most of the time, even with my 20mm f1.7. Also complicating the issue on the Olympus is that I don’t shoot my Olympus at over ISO 800. I did end up with a few decent natural light images like the one below. I have a few Olympus shots scattered in this posting and if you can’t tell, hover over the image to get the image details. I used the Olympus when the action was slow, so that I may capture images with less motion blur
Using the right tool for the job is important and that is why this night was owned by the Canon 7D. When I need speed under dubious lighting and need to use my bounce flash, the Canon 7D rules. Under these conditions, the biggest apertured lenses on the Pen is not going to be enough. And even with my 7D, at times I struggled to lock accurate focus under these conditions. It’s times like these when I wonder what a Canon 1 series (professional) body can do.
It was a late night at SXSW, past my bed time but I had a fantastic time. Beyond the Kao=S performance, many of the other performances at Japan Nite were great. At 2:30am, downtown Austin was going strong with laser lights and throngs of people who would compete with the street life in India, which I saw just a couple of weeks ago. Many of the Japanese musicians were thoroughly taken with Austin. I assured them that SXSW was an anomaly and the life in downtown Austin is not usually quite this active. Many of these Japanese performers are from Tokyo which is a much bigger, world-class city. Yet, many of them were impressed with the energy and vitality of Austin. Good to know. And just maybe, at least for a couple of weeks a year, Austin might rival any city in the world for its street life and energy.
The photographs were primarily taken with my Canon 7D with a 50mm f1.4 lens and external flash. A few of the photos were also taken with my Olympus E-PL1. Please make sure to click on a photograph to see a larger image and hover over the photo to see the exposure details.