Reading How did the guitar change Japanese song? (ギターは日本の歌をどう変えたか) by KITANAKA Masakazu (北中正和) today, I came across an interesting claim regarding the etymology of sabi.

As music jargon, sabi can mean "B-section", "bridge", or even "chorus" depending on context—it's the part that stands out. Wikipedia lists the two most common theories about where it came from:

  1. Wabi-sabi, possibly via sabigoe, "sabi voice", a term in traditional Japanese music.
  2. Wasabi, because the sabi in a song functions like wasabi in a piece of sushi, intermediating between and dramatizing the other ingredients.

Kitanaka offers an alternate explanation which he attributes to HAYATSU Toshihiko (早津敏彦)—it seems to be in Hayatsu's History of Hawaiian Music and Dance in Japan: Aloha! Mele Hawai'i (日本ハワイ音楽・舞踊史—アロハ!メレ・ハワイ). According to Hayatsu→Kitanaka, the word sabi was invented inadvertently by Hawaiian music demigod Ernest KAAI, who made a big impression when he came to Japan in the 1920s.

The story goes like this: Back when AABA was still the most common popular music form, the B part would often be in the subdominant. Ernest would therefore write "SAB/" (for "subdominant") on the B section in sheet music, to give the players a broad heads-up. Japanese musicians thought the slash was a capital I, and read it as sabi. A word is born.

I have grave doubts about this etymology, starting with the idea that Kaai didn't know how to spell "sub". But I still think it's more likely than the "wasabi" explanation.

Popularity factor: 10

John King:

Grave doubts, indeed. I can't recall seeing any of Kaai's published music with that indication. However, coming from the glee club tradition popular in Hawaii ca. 1900, Kaai did include fully written out harmonies for the chorus, or B section. The tenor took the lead, and the other voices soprano, alto and bass (SAB) were indicated by name in the score. But I've never seen it written that way. Are there any Kaai publications from Japan? I'd be glad to hear of them. John King

language hat:

I gotta say, even though my grasp of Japanese etymology is virtually nil, the "wasabi" think instantly set off my bullshit alert.

language hat:

Thing, even.


But how did the guitar change Japanese song?


In modern pop usage, sabi is only "chorus." Verse is A-mero (A melody), the "pre-chorus" is B-mero (B-melody). Sabi is the chorus.

Kohrasu (chorus) means "harmony vocals."


Interesting topic. "Sabi" will more often than not mean the refrain, but I've seen Japanese argue with each other over what is the "sabi" of a tune (it's become amusing enough that whenever someone hollers out to take it from the "sabi", I'll ask where that is, just to see if I can start an argument.)

Not that we play it, but tunes like "Rock The Boat" by Hues Corporation will cause this argument to occur.



I've heard the term "hirauta" for pre-chorus (or build-up) a lot, but that term too has led to some disputes...


I'm more familiar with 32-bar AABA (and more in theory than practice), where it's all much easier. What do Japanese rock/pop artists call an actual bridge these days?

LH: Yeah, I knew if I didn't disown that think I'd have another thing coming.

John: How did you find me so fast?! Soprano/Alto/Bass sounds more likely than a misspelling of "sub", but alas, if he didn't actually write it that way... I'm not aware of any Japanese writings by Kaai, but he did record a bit here. Drop me an e-mail if you're interested in more info (sounds like you might already be on top of that area, though).


P.S. Anonymous: I'm up to about 1950, and the answer, frankly, is hardly at all. So far it's mostly just been riding the coattails of Hawaiian music and to a lesser extent jazz rather than doing any changing of its own.

Peter Cabral:

I know a Japanese guy who plays bluegrass, and there, where the form is fairly cookie cutter, the parlance is well understood. Somebody starts in ("maku" is the verb used, I think) and there is an agreed ending ("musubu"), and everything else is almost understood.

To answer your question, though, the groups I've played with have always used "burijji" for the bridge of a tune.

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