Dispatches from Brooklyn: Shoko Nagai’s Tokala: Mythologies and Fantasies in the Construction of a Global Music Scene

Jeremiah Lockwood

Shoko Nagai’s musical involvement with the culturally intimate space of the synagogue resonates in her fantasies about mythic pasts and their uses in constructing desired futures.

When I sat down recently to discuss her music with Shoko Nagai and her husband and musical collaborator Satoshi Takeishi, they told me a story they learned from a thousand-year-old Japanese text. According to the story, five castaways from a shipwreck washed ashore in Japan. These foreigners were said to be from the land of Tokala, a distant kingdom located somewhere in Central Asia. The castaways were treated as exalted guests and given an audience with the Emperor, an almost unheard-of honor reserved for the upper echelons of the aristocracy. [1]

Nagai and Takeishi have proposed a question about this tale: What kinds of music might these special guests have brought with them from their far-off land? And what impacts across history might contact with “foreign” music have had on the formation of Japanese culture? These questions are not merely a playful source of fantasy, although fantasy is acknowledged as an important part of the creative practice Nagai pursues. Nagai and Takeishi are seeking to give a definite answer to their mythological musings through musical explorations that center imagination as a constructive element in exploring their musical identities.

Through practices of reconstruction that center imagination as a methodology for defining the musical past, Nagai is creating a vocabulary for herself that is responsive to the particularities of her identity as a Japanese-New Yorker, an avant garde composer, and a performer of music from an imagined past. As I will discuss in this essay, Nagai’s creative life finds a fulcrum in a fairy tale kingdom located in the “center of the world.” This mythological space of blurred and hyphenated identities is given form and substance by the Brooklyn scene of musical multi-culturalism. In the musical ecology in which Nagai lives and works, Jewish music and musicians have played a special role in creating a sense of a cultural “center,” defined by a flow of ideas that destabilize binary identities by incorporating the “foreign” into the intimate space of the community. Nagai and Takeishi have long been associated with the “downtown” music scene, in which artists of Jewish heritage play an outsized role. In this essay I attend to their connections to synagogue ritual contexts, spaces in which the formation of musical identity through musical experimentation is a central act.

By featuring Nagai and Takeishi in a series on music in American Jewish experience, I am making a claim about the salience of people who do not identify as Jewish to the construction of Jewish culture. As performers of Jewish music, Nagai and Takeishi help Jewish communities express changing, fluid identities through music. Their musical skill sets help Jewish artists and communities fulfill aesthetic desires for new forms of expressive culture. In contexts of social change, synagogue musicians have historically looked to their non-Jewish neighbors as collaborators to help them discover new musical concepts that will represent the community. Although they do not have a public identity as Jews, Nagai and Takeishi are important “Jewish musicians” in that they offer vital contributions to Jewish religious and social experiences. I suggest that Nagai’s participation in Jewish musical experimentation in the culturally intimate space of the synagogue has had an impact on her explorations of identity in music. Listening to her recent project through the filter of her work as a synagogue musician, I hear Nagai’s fantasy about mythic pasts and their uses in constructing desired futures as in dialogue with her work as a Jewish musician.

Shoko Nagai

Nagai is an award-winning keyboard player and composer. With Takeishi, a percussionist and composer and long-time stalwart of the New York music scene, she is currently working under the rubric of two separate projects that feature their duo: Vortex, a showcase for improvisation and compositions stylistically emerging from contemporary classical and experimental jazz idioms; and Tokala, a project that takes its name from the aforementioned mythological kingdom, that I will focus on in this essay.

In addition to their backgrounds in jazz and improvised music, Nagai and Takeishi are important participants in the New York Jewish music community. Takeishi is the house percussionist at B’nai Jeshurun, a Manhattan synagogue that is an innovator in including a band in its weekly Sabbath services. For the last two decades, B’nai Jeshurun has employed musicians from a diverse range of New York music scenes. Takeishi’s versatility and comfort with rhythms derived from jazz, popular music and international vernacular music styles make him a compelling choice as a member of the B’nai Jeshurun synagogue band. [2] The services at B’nai Jeshurun take a variety of stylistic strategies that draw on popular and “world” music genres. The musical agenda of the synagogue attempts to reflect the identities of its congregants; educated urban Jews who are attuned to the multi-cultural basis of life in New York. Takeishi’s broad suite of genre skills and his charismatic musicality is suited to the exploratory synagogue music aesthetic at B’nai Jeshurun.

Nagai has played accordion in Eve Sicular’s long running klezmer group Isle of Klezbos for over a decade, establishing herself as an important voice on klezmer accordion.

Isle of Klezbos perform Cartagena Chosidl at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan in 2014

She has also worked for years on projects relating to khazones (Yiddish, cantorial music), working with me in a band I co-led with Frank London called Songs of Zebulon, that focused on the music of Cantor Zawel Kwartin. I recall when I first started working with Nagai on the Songs of Zebulon project in 2012. I sent her a copy of the record “Cantor Zawel Kwartin Sings his Best Cantorial Works Volume 1.” Nagai told me she had stayed up late alone listening to the sounds of the famously emotive cantor. She described an experience of deep responsiveness to the haunting sound of his voice. I got a kind of chill thinking about her listening to the music and felt a sense of gratitude to her for receiving what I understand to be a neglected sacred sonic relic, one that has been largely neglected by Jewish Americans. In this project, Nagai was contributing to Jewish cultural continuity, lending her creative skill set to recontextualizing sounds from the “lost” past.

Later we worked together for the annual High Holidays services I lead for the Because Jewish community, with Nagai playing organ. In recent years, Nagai has worked as keyboard player for the High Holidays at B’nai Jeshurun and as a regularly appearing guest artist at that synagogue. Nagai’s sensitivity as a keyboardist and her special interest in sonic texture and rubato rhythms make her an unusually adept accompanist for the non-metered and emotionally charged genre of khazones I am interested in. Her skills as a jazz and popular music performer equip her with a flexibility and comfort with genres I draw on in my arrangements of cantorial music, including rock, blues and West African vernacular musics.

Nagai accompanies Jeremiah Lockwood in an instrumental performance of the Kol Nidre melody

Both B’nai Jeshurun and my services for Because Jewish draw on sounds of contemporary music to forge an aesthetic that will represent contemporary Jewish life. Historically, musicians from outside the Jewish community have taken on important roles in representing Jewish communal needs and aesthetic desires during periods of social transition. Nagai and Takeishi’s work as Jewish liturgical musicians recall the period in 19th century European synagogue music when rapid musical reform required the employment of non-Jewish musicians who held musical competencies Jews desired in their new forms of synagogue music. Writing about Joseph Czapek, the organist who served as the accompanist for Cantor Abraham Baer in 19th century Gothenburg, musicologist Anders Hammer writes, “Since there was no customary practice using organ music in traditional synagogues, there were hardly any Jewish musicians who were able to claim the position of professional organist… This became a widespread phenomenon in reformed synagogues all over Europe. In the field of religious music, Czapek in fact, acted as a multifunctional and versatile expressive specialist.” [3] In an echo from the period of the creation of modern cantorial music, once again the skill sets and musical knowledge of non-Jewish identified artists is desired for the performance of new synagogue repertoires. The role Nagai and Takeishi play in synagogue music is dynamic; they are expected both to bring new sounds into the synagogue and to be able to perform “tradition” as it is understood by the communities and/or cantors and music directors they work with.

Both Nagai and Takeishi came to New York separately from Japan in the 1990s to pursue paths as musicians. In her early days, Nagai had been an electronic organ champion, playing a first-generation computerized keyboard at juried competitions and focusing on Western classical repertoire. [4] She told me that her audition to attend Berklee School of Music was the first time that she played an acoustic instrument, and that at Berklee, after years of professional experience as a keyboard player, she experienced performance with other musicians for the first time. Nagai initially sought to master jazz piano, but came to feel that she was “cheating,” in that she did not feel herself to be fully immersed in the music she was trying to perform despite jazz piano being the focus of her education. Around the turn of the century, she had opportunity to play in the free jazz music community and felt a change in her self-expression. “I was very comfortable. There was a structure, but I could be myself.”

Nagai and Takeishi emphasized the role of timing in being able to express the particularism of Japanese experience in music. Both musicians studied “Western” music in school. The binary between “East and West” is carefully defined and maintained by the curriculum of Japanese schools. Japanese traditional art musics, such as Noh or Gagaku, are played exclusively by musicians born into families with genealogical descent lines in these rarified genres. In Nagai and Takeishi’s experience, Japanese traditional music is not taught to young people in Japan. Traditional instruments are expensive, and the theory of Japanese music is inaccessible to those who do not have access to rigorous training. According to Takeishi, as a rule young people who are interested in music are steered towards studying Western art music, join rock and jazz bands, or gravitate towards other genres derived from American or European sources.

A performance of Shigin, a genre of Japanese poetry recitation

And yet, Takeishi asserts, he feels connected to the rhythms of Japanese traditional culture through ambient exposure in daily life. “There is a religious quality to public ceremonies,” he told me. “You hear a bell ringing, or the Shinto drum—very uneven but there was a reason for the sound. All these sounds come out when we play. Improvised music places no limitations.” As Takeishi suggests, Vortex acts as a staging ground for sounds that reference ritual. The sounds of their improvisations offer a sense of purposeful play with time and timbre.

Vortex performs at Soapbox Gallery in Brooklyn for a virtual concert in May of 2021

In contrast to the free approach to time that is characteristic of much of the music heard in the Vortex project, Tokala fits roughly into the “world beat” musical phenomenon. It shares an orientation with bands that draw on international pop and vernacular genres to achieve a dance-oriented sound. Tokala is stylistically at home at Barbes, a Brooklyn venue that presents many bands that are at the forefront of a “global” music aesthetic. This music scene favors acts that borrow styles and sounds from international sources, reconfigured towards a “party” framework of presentation. A variety of genres have received this treatment in which musics from around the world are sculpted to fit a festival atmosphere. Many of the bands heard at Barbes follow a pattern in which performers with strong backgrounds in jazz experiment with international “folk” musics.

Tokala is an entry into the world beat market, but one that is tailored to the specific contours of Nagai’s musical interests and sensibility. (While both Nagai and Takeishi perform in the band, contribute to the conceptual framework, and develop material together, both partners refer to the project as Nagai’s. I follow their lead in this article). The band performs a varied repertoire that includes Okinawa pop songs, late Ottoman Turkish dance pieces, and a variety of Japanese folk songs arranged for Nagai’s accordion and Takeishi’s percussion. At times the duo expands to include guest artists, including klezmer clarinetist Zisl Slepovich, members of the popular brass band Slavic Soul Party, and Stomu Takeishi, Satoshi’s brother, on bass guitar. The music veers away from the rhythmic abstraction of Vortex, embracing an orientation towards dance and holding improvisations within song forms or over rhythmic ostinatos.

Tokala performs Hachinohe Kouta at Barbes in Brooklyn, pre-pandemic

In our conversation, and in her spoken intros to songs at Takala concerts, Nagai talks about the Silk Road, cultivating a romanticized image of a pre-modern past in which transnational flows of commerce brought ideas from across Asia into contact with each other. The imagined kingdom of Tokala and the myth about mysterious foreign visitors to medieval Japan are the basis of a musical fantasy for Nagai. Her choices of repertoire and the arrangements she creates are intended to gesture towards reclamation of a past that she imagines and desires, grounded in old stories and fragments of historical evidence. Takeishi notes that traditional Japanese string instruments, such as the biwa, are based on Persian instruments, evidence of Middle Eastern music as a force shaping some of the most intimate aspects of Japanese musical expression. From such fragments, he constructs a whimsical vignette about Persian musicians visiting Japan and playing music, perhaps collaborating with Japanese court musicians. “What would that have sounded like?” he mused. “We would have loved to play with them!”

This imagined past in which worlds of musical expression were brought together in a festive atmosphere of collaboration sounds very much like the New York music scene of the 1990s and early 2000s, a period characterized by voracious cross-cultural experimentation. This was the scene Nagai and Takeishi encountered when they began their musical careers in the United States. In Tokala, cross-cultural experimentation is figuratively located in a Central Asian geographic imaginary, placed literally in the center of an East-West cultural dichotomy. But in the context of the New York music scene, the “middlemen” of world culture were often Jewish artists whose work constituted an exploration of heritage through genres related to their religious and ethnic identity. Takeishi commented on what he refers to as “traditional musicians,” to identify artists who work in musical genres that map onto their public ethnic identities, and who may or may not have been born into genealogical music making lineages—a category that he included me in as a Jewish person who performs music related to historic Jewish genres connected to a family legacy. He said, “I have played with traditional musicians from around the world. I envy you guys that you can say, this is our music. For better or worse we don’t have that. We have to produce our own confidence.”

Tokala perform Chinsaku in a recent video

In several statements in our conversation, Nagai used the image of “DNA” to explain why some forms of music resonate with her subjective musical experiences and others do not. Her use of the image of biological essence subverts a popular abuse of the science of genetics to support narratives of racial purity or the biological basis of normative cultural attributes. Nagai’s “DNA” refers, perhaps, to a more abstract sense of artistic intuition grounded in but not controlled by cultural identity. Rather than pre-ordaining adherence to a set of culturally prescribed normative attributes, Nagai seems to say that her DNA grants her an intuitive access to the connections between seemingly unrelated cultural forms. For example, she mentioned that the first time she heard khazones, she felt that she could hear its relationship to Shi-gin, a Japanese traditional poetry recitation form. Both vocal music styles involve melismatic singing and intricate ornamentation, but the connection here is dependent on her perception rather than objective formal attributes or historical connections. Her perception of overlap and similarity in these styles serve as evidence in support of her conception of a musical Silk Road and the myth of Tokala.

Nagai suggests that her embodied subjectivity (synonymous with her “DNA”?), lends her the power to see past cultural divisions based in national identities. Her assertion recalls historian Arif Dirlik’s critique of the concept of hybridity. Dirlik calls out the problems of hybridity as a model for discussing cultural contact between groups, “not only because the metaphor of hybridity invokes the possibility of uncontaminated identities but also because such identities are essential to the discourse on hybridity as its dialogical Other…Apparently transparent, hybridity is in actuality quite an elusive concept that does not illuminate but rather renders invisible the situations to which it is applied—not by concealing them but by blurring distinctions among widely different situations.” [5] Echoing Dirlik’s criticism of an over reliance on the idea of “purity” in discussing identity categories, Nagai imagines her Japanese-ness as dynamic, constituted from a partially hidden history of trans-nationalism and in dialogue with a range of historic and geographic experiences. Her conception of Japanese-ness in music relates to histories that have been obscured and rendered into the form of myth. These historic experiences of “mixing” have been erased by the contingencies of nationalism that have dulled the ability to perceive connections that do not fit neatly with ideologies of cultural purity.

Nagai and Takeishi talked to me about a certain stereotypical strain of Japanese music making that appropriates Western musical styles in pursuit of a vision of excellence that is located externally to Japanese historical experience. Takeishi called this “Japanese over-loving foreign cultures.” He explained, “We hide our identity by taking something from ‘better’ cultures, initially China or Korea, and later the West…” In contrast, Nagai and Takeishi seem to be forging a usable concept of Japanese-ness that will express the fluidity and multiple layers of their identities by finding the Other within. Putting a magnifying lens on the internal diversity of Japanese culture, perhaps at times discovering musical histories that did not exist previously, they draw into question definitions of national identification and foreground the porosity of boundaries between ethnic and cultural groups.

“DNA” is a concept with a history of nationalist misuse, but in the context of Tokala this trope is given a different spin. Rather than framing a narrative of purity, Nagai and Takeishi seem to be seeking a version of identity in the fraught point of contact between self and Other. They place their origin myth in the space of the Silk Road, a processual space of cultural flow rather than a static point of biological origin. In their musical map of the ancient world, Jews play an unspecified but prominently audible role. Jews and rumors of the existence of “traditional” Jewish music are heard in Tokala. This appropriation, however, is reciprocated. Nagai and Takeishi are co-creators of the Jewish tradition they are borrowers from. What may have begun as one of a multitude of New York music gigs has evolved into a permanent part of the professional agenda for both musicians.

There are ethical problems that arise from projects of reorganizing normative definitions of identity which I have intentionally sidestepped in this essay. Rather than training my view on the potential for crime in musical borrowings and recasting of history, I prefer to understand Nagai and Takeishi’s appropriation of diverse music artefacts as a critique of the destructive effects of cultural boundary maintenance and racial binaries. In the context of the New York cultural matrix with its incessant juxtapositions of languages, scenes and stories, Nagai has become an important creative force in Jewish music. She is a figure who supports the social life of the Jewish community through her leadership role in ritual and life-cycle event performance. In this essay I suggest that a discussion of contemporary Jewish music must make room for Nagai’s work. The Tokala project resonates with the history of synagogue music and the attempt to create a culturally intimate sound space through musical experimentation. Like synagogue liturgical musicians who have labored to keep up with the changes in Jewish identity in their sacred music offerings, Nagai is attempting to locate a sense of Japanese-ness in music that matches the plurivocality of her life by drawing exuberantly from a heterogenous world of sounds and genres.

In seeking new material for Tokala, Nagai looks into a broad range of potential sources. She holds a high standard for choosing pieces that will help her articulate the concept that she is seeking to represent. Takeishi articulated the goals of this process as culminating from a lifetime spent as students of a range of styles and sounds related to the cultural geography of their lives. “All these years I wanted to learn. Now the question is, who are we?” These vital concerns about the role of music in answering basic questions about identity surface a substrate of longing in the myth-making and fantasy that characterize the Tokala project. While the nomadic kingdom of Tokala is shrouded in myth and its sounds are lost, the ancient kingdom is raucously resounding today in Brooklyn. Nagai and Takeishi’s musical crypto archaeology offers a glimmer of the boundaryless land of their fantasies and surfaces a musical history that is just on the verge of coming into existence.



[1] In this essay, I foreground Nagai’s imaginative uses of the story of the visitors from Tokala in her creative practice. In our conversation, Nagai and Takeishi stressed that this story is derived from a historical source and that the name is a Japanese variant on Tokharista, a kingdom that is discussed in multiple ancient sources, and that is thought to be the same region referred to by ancient Greeks as Bactria. They offered me the following web resources for more information about Tokala/Tokharista, which I include here for the insights they might offer into their creative process: “Tokharistan,” Wikipedia [Website]; “Who Were the ‘Tokharians’?” Japanese Folklore Research Center [Website], September 4, 2020; “Tocharians,” Wikipedia [Website]

[2] “Musician Satoshi Takeishi,” B’nai Jeshurun [Website]

[3] Anders Hammerlund, “A Prayer For Modernity: Politics and Culture in the World of Abraham Baer (1834–1894),” Svenskt visarkiv/Statens musikverk, 137. Accessed November 12, 2021.

[4] “Shoko Nagai, Bio,” Shoko Nagai [Website]

[5] Arif Dirlik, “Bringing History Back In,” Beyond Dichotomies: Histories, Identities, Cultures, and the Challenge of Globalization, edited by Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi (New York: State University of New York Press, 2002), 104.