Heavenly and piercing

Chances are you may not like Hajime Chitose’s singing if you don’t fit one of these criteria:

  • You dig Bulgarian women’s choirs.
  • You listen to traditional Japanese music.
  • You are an ethnomusicologist.

(All the power to you if you don’t fit any of these points but still like Hajime anyway.)

Trained in performing a form of traditional Japanese music called shimauta (“island songs”), Hajime embellishes her singing with short trills and employs a stratospheric falsetto that’s both heavenly and piercing. When she overdubs her voice, she can sound just like a Bulgarian women’s choir.

But rather than forge a career solely on traditional music — or even enka — Hajime is following a pop music course.

So what does a major label like Epic Records do with a traditionally-trained singer whose voice is overqualified for idol pop? Answer: compromise.

Hainumikaze, Hajime’s first full-length album, draws from a melting pot of different popular styles — the orchestral sweep of enka, folk-pop from the West, reggae and dub.

On paper, such a melding of disparate styles would usually spell disaster, but Hajime’s songwriting collaborators — Mamiya Takumi, Ueda Gen, Yamazaki Masayoshi — manage to balance everything nicely.

The laid back feel of “Wadatsumi no Ki” isn’t too far removed from the introspective minimalism of “37.6”. The soaring chorus of “Natsu no Utage” posseses the same earnestness of “Rinto Suru”. Even the chiming acoustic guitars of “Shinshi Raika” have the same Celtic feel as the lilting tempo of “Kimi wo Omou”.

Hajime’s voice, of course, ties it all together. Even though the songs on Hainumikaze are mostly mid-tempo, poignant ballads, they serve a perfect setting for Hajime’s incredible vocal range. Had she adopted a Western singing style, these songs would lose their bite, instantly becoming pastiche.

After a while, Hajime’s technique gives way to a humanity inherent in her performance. Like her Bulgarian cousins a continent away, Hajime could be singing about baking bread in the morning and make it sound like the most important act in the world.

But don’t think Hajime Chitose is easy to warm up to. It takes some work to get through her highly stylized technique and to reach that human center. The pay off is great when you get there.