George YUI transforms himself into a musical ‘cyborg’ with his one-man band that plays fun music. Sonny Inbaraj Krishnan recently met him in Good Times Bar, in Phnom Penh.
We often encounter a one-man band in street festivals and carnivals, where it is often a singer playing an acoustic guitar and harmonica in a metal rack below his mouth. The singer might also include wind instruments strapped around his neck, a large bass drum mounted on his back with a beater connected to a foot pedal, cymbals triggered by a pedal mechanism and tambourines and maracas attached to the limbs.
The most celebrated stand-up one-man band is in fact fictional. Bert (known only by his first name), played by Dick van Dyke in the 1964 Walt Disney film, Mary Poppins, is certainly the most widely known one-man band.
That said, playing all the instruments and singing vocals involve a special set of skills. Despite being impressive musicians, dividing one’s attention and resources among several different instruments means that the music produced by one-man bands is not the same as music produced by, say, a four-person band.
Take Shakey Graves, for instance. He became known for his one-man band set up and most of the music in his 2011 self-released debut album ‘Roll the Bones’ feature him playing solo.
According to Billboard magazine, Shakey Graves grew tired of having to borrow kick drums and high hats in order to perform. His solution consisted of a modified suitcase that functions as both a kick drum and a tambourine stand built by a close friend.
It’s really rare to encounter professional one-man bands in Cambodia. But, last Saturday was an exceptional treat for music fans at Good Times Bar with the George YUI one-man band from Japan.
George YUI is a street performer from Japan who plays multiple instruments simultaneously including guitar, drums, harmonica, bells, and percussions. He also whistles and sings.
George is licensed as a street performer by The Tokyo Metropolitan Government and he used to be a professional drummer and an instructor – so he handles complicated rhythms with his two legs while playing other instruments.
Before kicking off his performance, George tells the already hyped up crowd in Good Times: “I play guitar, I play harmonica, I play the whistle, I play the horn, I play the bell, I play the drum, I play all, I am a one-man band…”
He then plays his version of Louis Armstrong’s and his orchestra’s ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ as he strums his guitar, beats the bass drum, side drums and cymbals, plays his harmonica and sways his head to the rhythm, while moving around in circles like a wound-up toy.
After winding up the crowd, George renders his one-man band’s version of the Japanese classic ‘Sukiyaki’ and mesmerises the predominately Japanese crowd in Good Times Bar run by Shuei Murakami and Royta Ito.
“I used to play in a band with George,” says Shuei.
“But man, this is awesome. I never imagined he could be in a one-man band. It’s out of this world!”
“George used to work as a professional drummer and an instructor – so it is quite easy for him to handle elaborate rhythms with both his legs while playing other musical instruments,” adds Shuei.
“Also, he constantly performs in festivals, amusement parks, schools, nursing homes and everywhere all around Japan.”
The story goes that George gave up his job as a professional drummer to travel and that he “just wants to make people around the world, especially children, happy”.
“It is hard to imagine a more perfect example of DIY music-making than the one-man band,” writes Matt Brennan from the University of Edinburg in an academic paper titled “One is the loneliest number: One-man bands and doing-it-yourselves versus doing-it-alone”.
“A one-man band performance is the dramatic enactment of musical self-reliance, of not needing anyone but yourself to play multiple instruments and make a full sound.
“It is also an economic model of music-making that resists the problem of relying on intermediaries who inevitably take a cut of revenue streams: no need for a trucking company and roadies to haul gear, and no bandmates with whom to share royalties or gig fees,” adds Brennan.
The George YUI one-man band is the embodiment of the artistic vision of a solo acoustic musician – doing it alone and keeping it simple.
Take George’s version of The Beatles’ ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ – George made it a fun music for a fun song about fun, with the crowd stomping their feet, and just feeling the remarkable musical entertainment offered by the one-man band so eager to showcase his knack and passion.
And as George spins around-and-around the stage, his captivated audience sings with him.
As Brennan writes, one-man bands historically, geographically, and stylistically can be traced at least as far back as the tradition of the pipe and tabor player in 13th century Europe – novelties not to be taken seriously.
But the George YUI one-man band has broken that mould – moving to command respect as a legitimate artist in his own right.