Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated in Mexico and Latino communities inside the United States between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2 to remember deceased friends and family.
But this fall, a band from East Los Angeles whose name El Haru Kuroi is loosely translated as "the Black Spring," is bringing the festivities on tour to Japan where it will play gigs celebrating the holiday at venues including Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka in November.
The musical trio, vocalist/guitarist Eddika Organista, bassist Michael Ibarra and drummer Dominic Rodriguez, defies classification by mixing Latin beats, African rhythms and jazz, among other genres. The tour is organized by Tokyo-based record label owner and music promoter Shin Miyata, who has been bringing Chicano music from East L.A. to Japan for nearly two decades.
(El Haru Kuroi perform at the Japanese American National Museum. From left to right, bassist, Michael Ibarra, drummer Dominic Rodriguez, and vocalist/guitarist Eddika Organista)
Miyata had his first introduction to Mexican-American culture when he watched the movie "Corvette Summer" in which Star Wars actor Mark Hamill hitches a ride with some Mexican-American lowriders en route to Las Vegas.
"There were lowrider cars in the film and people who were speaking a language that wasn't quite Spanish or English. They also dressed in ways that I had never seen before," Miyata said, later learning that those to whom he referred identified themselves as Chicano.
But it was Chicano music that really captured his imagination. Miyata decided to study Spanish at university and even took a year off in 1984 to live in East L.A. and immerse himself in the culture. After graduating, he worked for BMG Japan for several years before finally branching out to form his own record label, Barrio Gold Records.
"I felt I had a responsibility to bring a balance to the music scene in Japan, which was primarily dominated by rock and pop music," Miyata said. "I wanted to show that music can be more than love songs, that it can be the basis for fostering community. It can be used to express social interests, values and culture."
El Haru Kuroi, who perform songs in Spanish, Portuguese and English (and even a little bit of Japanese) found Japanese audiences to be very receptive on their first visit two years ago. "Even if people do not understand the words, we do get a good response from people because the music transcends the language barriers sometimes," Organista said.
Their band name is also a bit of a linguistic mash-up: "haru" and "kuroi," respectively mean "spring" and "black" in Japanese.
(Record label owner and Chicano-music promoter Shin Miyata)
Grammatically they are combined the way adjectives are placed after the noun in Spanish, rather than before the noun as in Japanese and English, with the Spanish definite article "el" or "the" thrown in for good measure.
Organista explained, "I wanted something different, and I'm really fond of different languages and sounds. I had a lot of Japanese friends at Pasadena City College, I grew up eating a lot of Japanese food, and I thought Japanese would sound cool because we have the same vowel sounds as in Spanish."
"Black spring came from the fact that our music has, in terms of lyrics, a lot of grim realities. It's duality. There are new beginnings, freshness and sun, but also dark."
Ibarra admits the name sometimes causes confusion, but he chalks it up to being a musician. "You always have to explain yourself," he said. "Personally speaking, I think it sounds cool. It doesn't put us in a box. It makes it open ended. You can do whatever the hell you want (as a band). That's great," he said.
As for their Day of the Dead tour, the band is excited to share this part of their heritage. "It's something that I was brought up with when I was little," said Organista.
"People in Mexico and here in East L.A. build altars to commemorate people that were part of your life who have passed on. Some of my first memories are of families making full plates of food and liquor and putting them down on the altar. It's not for us, but it's for the spirits, for them to absorb the energy. I remember the traditions and dessert dishes vividly."
Rodriguez believes Japanese people will see similarities between the holiday and their own custom of Obon in mid-August, when the spirits of ancestors are honored and many make a pilgrimage to their hometowns to visit family graves. "I think culturally it's very close, like how we value our loved ones who've passed away," he said.
Earlier this year, the Day of the Dead-themed Disney movie "Coco" was released in Japan as "Remember Me." It was a hit at the box office, and merchandise featuring the skeleton characters from the film have become popular.
While the Academy Award-winning "Coco" may be responsible for generating interest in Day of the Dead customs outside of North America, the company faced an online backlash five years ago when it tried to trademark "Day of the Dead" prior to production of the film. Disney eventually withdrew its request amid the uproar.
By sharing their heritage through music, perhaps El Haru Kuroi will be able to enlighten audiences about the difference between appreciation and appropriation of another's culture.
"The commodification of it, that's the problem. So of course, like Disney can never buy Christmas, you know what I mean? But for some reason, they can buy Day of the Dead because they look at us as other and lesser, so they think they can just buy whatever they want. That's American capitalism. Boom, right there. That's what people have a problem with," Ibarra said.
El Haru Kuroi will play Tokyo on Nov. 2; Kanazawa on Nov. 3; Osaka on Nov. 4; Kochi on Nov. 5; Tokushima on Nov. 6; and Yokohama on Nov. 8. For venues, showtimes and other info go to http://www.m-camp.net/ehk2018.html
"Our Man in Tokyo," a short documentary about Shin Miyata and the East L.A. Chicano music scene, will be screened Nov. 3 and 4 in Tokyo and Nov. 17 in Osaka during the Latin Beat Film Festival 2018. For more information, visit http://lbff.jp/index.html