INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Gerald Ishibashi Still Building Bridges Across Generations

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

You’ve seen the ads in this paper and on Rafu.com. You’ve seen it mentioned in this column, Wimpy Hiroto’s “Crossroads to Somewhere” column and elsewhere The Rafu Shimpo as a standalone photo with a caption touting this Sunday’s 50th anniversary Society of Seven concert at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.

Doing something creative for five decades is a major achievement, of course, and worth celebrating. For fans and followers of SoS, this concert featuring members Jun Estanislao, Michael Laygo, Hoku Low, Wayne Wakai, Tony Ruivivar, Bert Sagum, Roy Venturina and guest vocalist Lhey Bella, is an event worthy of celebration.

In an era where even big-name recording artists are guilty of energetically pantomiming to aerobically challenging dance routines that would leave one breathless as they lip-sync to prerecorded, Auto-Tuned tracks in which they didn’t play an instrument, there is something heartening about a band that has stood the test of time, that actually plays instruments and sings live.

“They sing. They play,” said the concert’s promoter, Gerald Ishibashi. “All the acts we work with are that way. It’s not a canned show. They’re probably the greatest show band in existence.”

He should know. The namesake of the Stonebridge Band (“Ishibashi” means “stone bridge” for those who are more Nihongo-impaired than I) has been professionally involved in music for decades now, first as a singer and guitarist in his band and in more recent times as an impresario and promoter via his company, Ishibashi Entertainment. Regarding what Society of Seven does, he says “it’s a lost art.”

Asked if he thought as a younger man that he’d still be in music in 2017, Ishibashi just laughed and said, “When I was a little kid, I just wanted to be in this industry, I wanted to entertain people, I wanted to perform, I wanted to sing, I wanted to be in a rock band.”

Ishibashi noted that as an Imperial Valley-born Sansei, there was no Japanese American role model or template for him to follow in order to pursue that goal. “I had no idea. I just knew that I wanted to do it,” he said. And he did.

Early on, that path was rock ’n’ roll music, like a lot of his Baby Boomer peers, during a time when it seemed as though every neighborhood had its own band and the Stonebridge Band was just one of many different bands with Japanese American players — Ishibashi recalled bands like Carry On, Free Flight and Winfield Summit.

He noted that the Stonebridge Band has “morphed” into a nine-piece horn band from its earlier incarnation. Meantime, regarding perhaps the only extant band from that era — Hiroshima — he said, “You’ve got to tip your hat to those folks, Dan and June [Kuramoto], for staying the course, just constantly stepping up and delivering with their authenticity. It takes a lot of discipline. That’s one group that’s stood the test of time.”

Gerald Ishibashi

Ishibashi has also managed to stay in music, but by a different path. He recalled how, a few years ago, he was producing the Taste of Newport (a now-defunct music and food festival held at Fashion Island) and three childhood pals visited.

His band appeared just before the headliner, Blondie, but Ishibashi was also in charge of making sure the stage, sound, lights, equipment and generators were in place, that the bands had their travel and hotel arrangements taken care of, made sure the acts’ contractual riders were met and so on.

After his band and he finished, those three friends were waiting for Ishibashi, smiling. “I go, ‘What are you laughing at?’ and they go, ‘You’re doing the same thing as you did when you were a kid. It’s just bigger.’

“They were all at my shows when I was in high school, being in a band and going out and putting up posters and selling tickets to our own dances so we could have a gig. … It was kind of a gift to me because I didn’t really realize it or think about it until they said that. I had to reflect on that.”

Over the years, Ishibashi has also fulfilled his dream to work with many of the acts he admired when he was a kid, be it Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, Eric Burdon of the Animals, the Young Rascals, Kool and the Gang, Tower of Power and more.

Despite being a true blue Baby Boomer, Ishibashi has been cognizant of providing entertainment for the Nisei generation, which is why he also produced a pair of concerts known as the Great Nisei Reunion I and II — and is thinking of doing one final concert. “It’s one of my most favorite, as far as being rewarding personally, events,” he said. “The idea was that when they [the Nisei]were at camp, the only luxury they had as far as art was concerned was music, and the music that they loved was Big Band-driven.

“The response from these Nisei — it was more rewarding than anything, they were so humble and so gracious and so thankful. Some of them had tears in their eyes.”

Regarding the generation currently in their 80s and 90s, Ishibashi said, “People ignore them. They sell them funeral plots and reverse mortgages, but they don’t sell them entertainment. It was one of the more fulfilling concerts we’ve ever done.”

Via Ishibashi Entertainment, Ishibashi has also been a supporter of Japanese American National War Memorial Court in Little Tokyo by helping to raise funds through raffles and other means.

With Society of Seven celebrating its fifth decade, it must be inspirational to Ishihashi to know he can still continue to pursue his own path in the music business. But if he ever wanted a career change, he could probably author a book about the many eras of his life and share some stories about the long and no doubt sometimes strange trip his musical path has been.

Meantime, there are still some tickets available for the SoS concert. If you’re interested, (800) 316-8559 or visit www.purplepass.com/ishibashi, to buy tickets and literally tell them The Rafu Shimpo sent you by using the promo code “rafu” for a 10% discount.

D.O.R. Dept.: This past weekend marked the 75th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, with Feb. 19 serving as the official Day of Remembrance. But there were also related events that occurred beforehand and there are still some yet to come.

Seventy-five years would have been a significant milestone regardless, but I have to agree with others who point out that there was a greater sense of urgency following the inauguration of a new American president whose rhetoric has been, to be diplomatic, divisive and unsettling. It probably caused a spike in attendance at the various events.

One thing I heard on more than one occasion was how some Japanese Americans still encounter other Americans who never heard about the experiences of mainland Japanese Americans during WWII and are shocked that such blatant disregard for constitutional rights could have occurred.

It almost sounds unbelievable, right? Somehow, despite the efforts of a host of community institutions and organizations, there are still so many who “didn’t get the memo.”

I wondered whose fault it was that the message didn’t reach everyone. Was the blame on this community? (Talk about blaming the victim!) Was it our educational system? Was it mass media?

While I’m of the opinion that the Japanese American community has done a good job overall under the status quo to get the word out, it’s still a conundrum to me that so many average Americans in the present day still are surprised upon learning of E.O. 9066 and its aftermath.

So, who to blame? The educational system nationwide is a mixed bag. Some teachers and public schools really seem to make an effort to tell the story, while others evidently do not. (At the college level is where many young people really begin to understand the import of E.O. 9066 and make an effort to absorb its meaning and history.)

Then there’s media. Many newspapers in the 1940s aided and abetted the federal government with anti-Japanese editorials; today, newspapers like The Los Angeles Times admit they were wrong.

In terms of mainstream movies and TV, however, the pickings are slim. Yes, there are dozens of documentaries and indie films that have various aspects of the Japanese American experience front and center — but you can count on one hand the Hollywood movies that made E.O. 9066 and its aftermath central to the story. “Farewell to Manzanar.” “Snow Falling on Cedars.” “Come See the Paradise.” “Allegiance.” (I still have one finger remaining, Hollywood. Guess which one?)

Los Angeles is home to the largest Japanese American population in the continental United States. Los Angeles is also home to the largest, most sophisticated societal influencer the world has ever seen: Hollywood. Somehow, the twain haven’t met.

Hollywood has given us “Hidden Figures,” “King,” “Malcolm X,” “Roots,” “Selma,” “Ghosts of Mississippi,” “Mississippi Burning” and “The Help.” It also gave us “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Defiance,” “Holocaust” and more. We are all the better for those movies, miniseries and telefilms.

Hollywood has not, however, given the world anything comparable to those aforementioned productions that have had similar societal impact. For good or bad, the Hollywood machine still has more impact than nearly anything else. Meantime, there are still so many for whom E.O. 9066 is an unpleasant shock.

I wonder if Hollywood will have delivered by the time the centennial anniversary of Executive Order 9066 arrives.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

 

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