The Kansai-based Japanese rock group Soul Flower Union were just making a name for themselves when the Kobe earthquake struck in 1995. While people in the wealthier districts were re-housed fairly rapidly after the disaster, those in the poorer areas spent months in tents and temporary accommodation. Seeing first-hand how desperate the situation was, the group decided to play for the people in these communities. As the places weren’t really geared for rock concerts – many venues had no electricity – they decided to play traditional, non-electric instruments, such as the Okinawan sanshin, accordion, clarinet and the ching dong daiko.

The band changed their name to Soul Flower Mononoke Summit for the concerts and since their birth in 95, they have taken their belief in music as a way of building community around the world. As well as appearing at international festivals, they have played in places where people have found themselves displaced or dispossessed: Palestinian refugee camps, Smoky Mountain in Manila, and East Timor, to name a few.

Meanwhile, the band’s alter ego Soul Flower Union have continued to release some of the most innovative Japanese rock music of the last 15 years, mixing traditional Japanese music with blues, soul and ska. I met singer and songwriter Nakagawa Takashi to talk about the Soul Flower philosophy and asked him how the idea for a fusion of musical styles came about.
“It seems natural for me,” he explained. “Rock music is built on different kinds of roots music. The Rolling Stones music was based on blues, the Pogues took Irish folk, so it just seems natural to explore more local roots music.”

Mononoke Summit doesn’t just combine Western and Japanese music, they actually play traditional songs. The band’s repertoire includes festival standards, as well as enka and folk songs from different regions. As their set includes songs from the Korean, Ainu and Okinawan communities, Japan seems a much more diverse and multi-cultural place in their music.

“A lot of the people we played for in Kobe were older and would request old songs that we’d never heard of,” said Nakagawa, “so we started to learn them to play for these people. The areas that we played in, like Nagata, were poorer, downtown areas and included people from the Korean and Okinawan communities, so we wanted to play songs that they knew and would cheer them up. We wanted to play their requests, which meant we had to learn these kinds of songs. The more we played, the wider the range of our songs grew.”

Many of Nakagawa’s own compositions are political or touch on controversial issues, such as discrimination against minority groups like the Ainu or burakumin. I wondered why, coming from the normally conservative world of Japanese rock music, he decided to deal with such issues.

“As a song writer, it seems natural for me to write and sing these songs,” he explained. “In this, I was maybe influenced by Western musicians like The Clash and Billy Bragg, who made me realize that you can write songs about those kinds of things. I don’t set out to make statements. The content of the songs just comes naturally to me. I think in another way. I wonder why other artists write the kind of songs they do.”

While Soul Flower Union perform and release albums fairly regularly – the last was Cante’s Diaspora in 2008 – Mononoke Summit’s activities are a little more difficult to predict. Their first studio album (and third full release) “Deracine Ching Dong” was released in 2006 on the independent “Respect” label, and there are no immediate plans for another recording.

“I’ve never seen Mononoke Summit as an album-making group,” Nakagawa pointed out, “but more of a live group that plays for communities. The only reason we made the first two (live) albums was because at the concerts people would ask us for CDs or tapes. The only thing we had were Soul Flower Union tapes, which were different from the music we played at these places.”

There is a strong Okinawan feel to a lot of Soul Flower music recently and the band has become involved in Okinawan issues, especially the building of the U.S. military base in Henoko. They recently took part in protest concerts near the proposed site, playing as Soul Flower Union and Mononoke Summit on alternate nights. A DVD of the concerts was released with information about the campaign. It is something which Nakagawa feels strongly about.

“Originally, we were told the U.S. was just going to move the base in Futenma away from the town to Henoko. But now they are planning to build a much bigger base in Henoko, which will be permanent. Henoko is such a beautiful place and there seems to be no reason to build it there. The Japanese government has done nothing to try and stop this.”
I put it to him that it’s an issue that seems far removed from the minds of most people in places like Kanto, where the image of Okinawa is often restricted to nice beaches and holidays.

“It’s a bit like the relationship between European nations and their old colonies,” he said. “People from the mainland want a resort where there is nice food, music and beaches – they take all the nice things – but they don’t really care about life and the problems there. It has happened to a lot of places in the world, not just Okinawa though.”

Having taken Soul Flower music to a variety of places outside Japan in the past, I asked him if there any more plans to perform abroad in the future.

“I have a lot of connections with NGOs, so sometimes we are invited to places and we go, like East Timor. It depends, but there is nothing planned at the moment. It’s sometimes difficult going to places like the US and Britain because they’re not used to hearing music in a different language. But when we played in Ireland with famous local musicians like Donald Lunny (ex-Planxty), they seemed to like us. Although some people came up and said they didn’t know there was any traditional Japanese music!”

Unsurprisingly, the band’s unconventional approach has not endeared them to the more conservative elements of the Japanese music industry. They were dropped by Sony after releasing a Mononoke Summit song called “Fukko Bushi,” which contained criticism of the government’s response to the earthquake. Since their falling out with Sony, getting airplay can be something of a problem. Despite this, Soul Flower Union and Mononoke Summit have a large cult following in Japan and among world music fans abroad. Interest has been sparked overseas by their festival appearances and by being featured on radio programs such as the BBC’s “Rough Guide to World Music.”

Photo ©Soul Flower Union

Their albums can be found in many (but not all) major music retailers. All the albums are available from the website www.farsidemusic.com, which also has information on the band and tracks available for download. The band has a website at www.breast.co.jp/soulflower, where there is information on concerts and album releases.






Photo ©Soul Flower Union











彼ら独自のユニークなアプローチは日本の音楽業界の保守的な人たちには受け入れられず、震災に対する日本政府の対応を皮肉ったモノノケ・サミットの「復興節」を発売した後、ソニー・ミュージックエンタテインメントにより契約を打ち切られた。ソニーに見放された彼らの曲はラジオで流されることも減った。にもかかわらず現在、ソウル・フラワー・ユニオンもモノノケ・サミットも日本のみならず海外のファンにも熱心に支持されている。各地でのフェスティバル出演やイギリスBBCの「Rough Guide to World Music」といったラジオ番組で取り上げられたことによって海外での人気にも火がついた。


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