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The Scarlet & Black

CHAI brings body positivity and brightness to Gardner

CHAI perform their highly energetic set. Photo by Ariel Richards.
CHAI perform their highly energetic set. Photo by Ariel Richards.

By Audrey Boyle

Here at Grinnell College, we are currently in the middle of a lot of things — the state of Iowa, the 2019-20 school year, a contentious election season, a long, cold winter, multiple major administrative changes (goodbye, President Kington …). While I could buy into the rhetoric that the journey transcends the destination, mostly it just feels a little like we’re deep in the middle of … nowhere. Far enough from the beginning that I can’t pinpoint where we started, but far enough away from the end that I can’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel yet. Part of me isn’t totally convinced there is a light, and I’m certainly not sure what that light might look like. Maybe it’s seasonal depression speaking, or maybe I’ve just fallen victim to the cliché of liberal arts student cynicism that gets us all in the end.

Whatever the case may be, last Thursday, (allow me to indulge in this extended metaphor for just a little longer) the deep, dark, tunnel cracked a bit to let in the light that is CHAI, a four-person band that hails from Nagoya, Japan and specializes in optimism and celebration. For this reporter, at least, a dose of bright pink cheer was just what the doctor ordered (another metaphor, as I’m still waiting for my SHAW therapy appointment). 

CHAI has curated a specific aesthetic they deem “NEO KAWAII,” redefining the concept of kawaii, or cuteness. On their website, CHAI defines NEO KAWAII as the concept that “all girls are pretty from the moment they were born, and that there is not a single girl who is not KAWAII. … Our insecurities make us who we are. The insecurities become art. KAWAII is a never-ending journey!”

The resolutely unfaltering exuberance of CHAI’s performance belies the radical message behind it, especially for an audience unfamiliar with their work. To the uninitiated, it may have been surprising when lead singer Mana began talking about her struggles with various “body complexes” in her rousing introduction to fan-favorite song N.E.O., embracing her body as “neo-cute — NEO KAWAII!” 

Indeed, the celebration of things that aren’t typically celebrated seems to be part of CHAI’s ethos. From housework (“Great Job”) to dumplings (“Horechatta”) to flat chests (“Flat Girl”), CHAI’s enthusiasm and celebratory spirit seems to know no bounds. 

While the topics of their songs may be somewhat banal, CHAI’s determined optimism is anything but. I admit I was a little skeptical going in — it was a Thursday night. I anticipated their unwavering adorableness and enthusiasm to quickly wear thin, to become grating or kitschy or repetitive. But CHAI aren’t simply musicians with a message; they’re also skilled performers. For about an hour, Mana (vocals and keyboard), Kana (guitar), Yuna (drums), and Yuki (bass) flitted around the stage, dressed in identical pink tops and red shorts, their matching pigtails swinging in time with the music. The members never dropped their smiles as they played with very few pauses, hitting every beat and every note, often while simultaneously nailing their delightfully simple choreography. The expertise demonstrated in their performance makes it impossible to dismiss CHAI as a twee group of young girls with a charming concept. There is nothing fake or affected about CHAI’s enthusiasm; they believe their message so earnestly it’s hard not to buy in. They certainly know how to work a crowd; when Kana announced to the Gardner audience that CHAI had gone to Goodwill and Second Mile that day, we erupted in cheers, many of us probably wearing clothing from those very places. CHAI: they’re just like us.

Well, except for their enviable stamina, as they finished their set with, naturally, a dance break, donned in green ponchos complete with multicolored streamers. As CHAI ran offstage, grinning from ear-to-ear, I couldn’t help but smile back. Yes, we may be in the middle of everything and nothing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take some time to celebrate our legs and our eyes and our favorite foods and our friends and ourselves. I can’t speak for the other patrons of Gardner, but I left the concert feeling pretty damn neo-cute.

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