Petty Booka History
by Keith Allison / petty-booka.com
A country boy expects to see a lot of strange things when he moves to the big city. In my few short years as a resident of New York, I've seen everything from a guy dressed as Batman patrolling the East Village to a drunken twenty-something businessman whirling his suit jacket wildly over his head while standing in the middle of the street screaming, "Ken Starr, fuck you!" a full year after everyone else in the country lost interest in the man.
None of those, however, really prepared me for the otherworldly delight of watching two cute Japanese girls in cowboy hats doing an impromptu ukulele in-store performance for a group of amuse Hasidic men at a corner store in south Williamsburg one chilly winter evening. But such is life if you spend a portion of it with Japan's Petty Booka.
This ukulele-strumming duo from Japan takes classic pop, country, and traditional tunes and reworks them into ultra-cool exotica or country- western covers. Hardly an obvious combination, but Japan has long been recognized as a country with artists proficient in putting a new spin on traditions from other countries. Just look at how Italian jazz, cocktail music, and bossa nova beats were revitalized on the Japanese underground club scene. To make Petty Booka that much more unique, they can trace their roots back to, of all things, a snarling lo-fi garage punk band.
"I was a member of the Flamenco A Go Go," says Booka, one half of the Petty Booka duo. "Petty was the vocalist and I played the guitar. After our 2nd album was released, Fla Go was disbanded. It was 1995. But Fla Go was supposed to record 'Karma Chameleon' for a compilation of 80's hits. Audrey [owner of the Benten Label, former home to Flamenco a Go Go and current home to Petty Booka] asked Petty and me to do an acoustic set for that. We just did the vocal and chorus part and the Toconuts, the band of our Hawaiian set, played the music."
The combination stuck, and in 1996, the duo of Petty Booka, backed by Toconuts, recorded their first album. Petty Booka's garage punk roots go long way in explaining the somewhat unusual sight of two young women from Japan strumming ukuleles and wearing hula skirts and combat boots. Their first album, Toconut's Hawaii, was destined to become a cult classic, but Petty Booka were not content to simply sit back and ride the wave of exotica nostalgia that was gaining momentum during the 1990s. Along with their producer, the music-savvy Hiroshi Asada, Petty Booka were determined not to be pegged as a one-trick novelty act. Asada lived in New York during the seminal years of that city's music scene in the 1970s, and his vast knowledge of music both popular and esoteric and forgotten insured Petty Booka would have an endless supply of musical tricks up their sleeves.
For their next album, Fujiyama Mama, the duo went country-western, a move no doubt influenced at least partially by Hiroshi Asada's love for the music of western swing legend Bob Wills. Aside from their the Wanda Jackson title track, the album included covers of songs by Patsy Cline and even Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" all executed with classic country- western flare. Petty Booka also proved that they were more than a curiosity. These weren't just novelty records. They were full-fledged country-western accomplishments that, despite their Japanese origin, had a lot more in common with the soul of classic country music than has the current crop of mainstream country artists in America.
So, what do we have? A Japanese ukulele duo that boasts such numbers as a laid-back Polynesian cover of The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" and a rousing bluegrass rendition of Madonna's "Material Girl?" Strange but true, and things were just getting started. Petty Booka recorded several more albums, alternating between country and exotica, and even threw in a collection of Christmas songs for the holidays. For Dancing With Petty Booka! Go Go Go And Go! the gals incorporated bossa nova, samba, and dancehall beats into their covers as well as recording their first original tune, "Petty Bookaloo."
In addition to a growing repertoire of styles, Petty and Booka were moving ahead as musicians as well. The ukuleles started out as stage props but the girls quickly picked up the skills needed to become accomplished uke strummers and were soon making their own music.
"I had not played ukulele before we started Petty Booka," says Booka.
"Then it was quite natural getting used to playing it."
Petty left the duo in 1997 and was replaced by Petty (Naho). A fan of new wave and old school British punk.(Booka prefers reggae music) and old Sonny Chiba films, the new Petty had to scramble to get her ukulele skills up to snuff.
"I knew my grandmother had one," she says. "I studied how to play Ukulele very hard when I decided to join Petty Booka project in 1999. It was not very difficult; it was fun! Ukulele is getting very popular here.
During the summer we have lots of shows because of this uke market."
Luckily, Petty was a quick learned, and recent albums like Ukulele Lady and Singing in the Rain showcase the girls as accomplished musicians and beautiful vocalists. They've been able to record with some of the best musicians in the world backing them, including exotica legend Martin Denny, who played piano on their 1998 release, "Blue Lagoon of Petty Booka," and Shorty Long and Hot Club of Cowtown from Austin, who backed Petty Booka during their SXSW appearance. When asked about other artists they would like to perform with, Petty and Booka had several.
"Gomez and Beck!" exclaims Petty without hesitation.
"Dan Hicks," adds Booka. "We met Wand Jackson in Austin! And we would like to see Les Paul."
"Yes, we love all the songs of Les Paul and Mary Ford," affirms Petty, "and would like to make Les Paul and Petty Booka record."
Petty Booka's unique sound and stage show may baffle some domestic crowds, but their infectious blend of talent, charm, and quirk has acquired them an international cult following. Appearances on international compilation albums and radio shows increased their sphere of influence, and by 2002 the duo was ready to head to the US for an appearance at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas - the perfect setting for a couple of cowgirl hula girls from Japan! Subsequent shows and radio appearances - including a feature on NPR - insured more heads than ever would be turning to take a gander at Petty Booka.
"The show in Austin, SXSW, was the biggest show we have ever had," says Booka. "And the set we played was different than we do in Japan. It was more like mixture of Hawaiian and country western."
Adds Petty: "Yes! And reggae, ska and Okinawan ...it's very Petty Booka style!"
In November of 2002, Booka had to leave the duo in order to take care of her new baby. Taking over her spot is Maiko, a former member of the amazing a capella group Candy Eyeslugger. Not only does she have the vocal and uke skills, but she's also an accomplished banjo player!
Petty Booka are excited about the possibility of returning to the US for another appearance at SXSW and an accompanying tour. It's no surprise that Petty Booka’s passion for and wonderful interpretation of so many American standards is garnering them an ever-growing Stateside fanbase.
"Sometimes audience in Japan seems to be shy," explains Petty, "though we understand that they are very happy from their smiley faces. Audiences in the US excite us a lot. They are very different, and I learned huge things from their reactions."
What is perhaps most intriguing about Petty Booka's appeal is its ability to transcend boundaries that usually confine music, especially somewhat offbeat music, to small niches and specialty audiences. But genre, age, and gender have no meaning to a group that mixes it all up as effectively as Petty Booka. As their SXSW show demonstrated, it's commonplace to look into the crowd at a Petty Booka concert and see green-haired liberty-spike sporting punkers smiling and grooving alongside senior citizens, cowboys, hipsters, and young children.
Heck, even a bunch of Hasidic guys braved public ridicule and bad weather to hear Petty Booka play "Ukulele Lady" one dreary New York night.
Petty Booka brings the cultures of the world together in their music, and while that may not translate to bring the cultures of the world together in real life, it certainly makes the world a damn sight more entertaining.
Keith Allison / petty-booka.com