(Music by Brown Rice Family)
The Etsy video team has invited experimental and documentary filmmakers to contribute to our original video series, Handmade Portraits, Process and There’s No Place Like Here. The multi-talented photographer Pascal Perich produced this first guest filmmaker episode on soap and music makers, Brown Rice Family. French-born Perich has lived in New York City for the past 15 years. His portrait work is often featured in various publications such as Men’s Vogue, Time, Newsweek, Grazia, Fortune, The Financial Times, the New York Times.
My first encounter with a Japanese Rastafarian was in the subway. My daughter pointed at him playing his guitar on the platform, drawn to his stylish attire and long dreadlocks. A couple of months later, during a conversation about Japan, a musician friend mentioned a community in Brooklyn called the Brown Rice Family. I happened to come across a soap in a Japanese store in SoHo, made by a company carrying the same name. When I discovered that these were all linked, I turned to Etsy, inspired to make a video portrait of them. It was a fascinating experience to meet them, visit their world, and share a brief moment along their journey.
In the year 2000, a Japanese student (Yuichi) met a Korean student (Joe) at the City College of New York, studying sound engineering. They were both musicians, interested in healthy food and healthy music that could lead to joyful living. For Yuichi, “you are what you eat,” and the better the food, the better you can produce and create. They decided to form a band called the Brown Rice Family, a world roots band who “delivers the message of unity and diversity to the people.” From Japan and Korea, they believed that the “most natural way is the most civilized way” and they gathered musicians from Haiti, South Africa, Nigeria, and Jamaica. Following the concept of “one world” music, their sound is a mix of reggae, ska, rock, African/Jamaican traditional drums, and dancehall. Sometimes they call themselves a “world roots band,” a reminder to the world that we are just one big family with a common “vibe.”
A couple of years later, Joe got married. As a present for the guests, the band decided to create soap, made out of rice bran following an ancient Japanese recipe. They started to study all kinds of processes to make the best handmade organic soap and soon outside orders flourished. Despite the fact that they lived in the United States, they remain close to their Asian roots and they realized that rice bran, as a natural exfoliator, was what people in Japan used to wash themselves before soap came from Europe. In the Japanese translation of “brown rice,” the word gen mai includes the strong ancient Chinese character gen, which can be translated as “the beginning,” “the root,” or “the original.” The ancestral subsistence of brown rice could be considered as a perfect and complete meal, it was a fundamental food during the samurai age. Just like their music, the soap is a way to make people feel better and show their dedication to quality food and products in a world where quality is often a rarity.
This video takes place in a brownstone in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. Only a couple of the band members live in this three-story building, but the soap making process happens here, and the apartment often possesses the feeling of a workshop. Guests remove their shoes, enchanted by the sweet smell of incense and cooking vegetables. There reigns a beautiful harmony, a rare quietness, where they all share this space without a fuss. All of the roommates may be present but it never feels crowded or noisy, even if we can hear the murmur of a piano in one room and guitar in another.
When the soap making process starts, containers and buckets start to cover the wooden floors. Mei (Yuichi’s dog) watches over as the space becomes a workshop where a serious, tedious and organized process begins. I was struck by their scientific technique. The soap making is like their music performance: shining, civilized and philosophical. In a spotless environment, they alternate mixing while controlling temperatures and ratios. This process of measuring, blending, cutting, and packaging happens in a very controlled and undisturbed environment. The challenge in this video was to properly reflect this scrupulous 8 to 10 hour mixing process. Like a tea infusing for a given time, all of the different products blend slowly into a magical color and texture. They use an organic green tea they import from Japan. It comes from a small organic farm in the mountains of Yuichi’s childhood. Their craft is close to a monastic and meditative activity. For me, it has echos of the respected Zen master Suzuki‘s life (who was leading “a life of humility, a life of labor, a life of service, a life of prayer and gratitude and a life of meditation”).
Sometimes, when we listen to music we love, isn’t it true that we have the feeling of something inside being cleansed? With their soap, the Brown Rice Family also considers “the outside.”
It was later during the editing process of the video that I truly understood the hidden meaning of this handmade soap. It was a job, an activity made with love, without rush and precipitation, with the noble intent to do it well, to be good for the follower’s soul, spirit and health, and also good for the earth. What a message for the way we understand our own activity! Are we true to the making process or are we distracted by the result, the outcome and the profit of our activities?
The Brown Rice Family vision is to create originality, trying to give birth to diversity. They see success as “sharing nice vibes with people.” They did it with my daughter and they did it with me.