The New Groove 日本の移民問題

Why is Japanese music so patently bad?

It’s a topic I’ve heard discussed in numerous circles—academic, musical or otherwise. Japanese enthusiasts of world music often agree. Partially underscoring this, Japanese music charts regularly include foreign artists while charts in the U.S. and Europe never seem to include Japanese music. Even New York-raised Japanese pop diva Utada Hikaru’s foray into the U.S. music scene led nowhere. Not that charts are the litmus test of quality or that the West can claim the abiding standard for musical quality, either. But still, so much of what seems accomplished, original and distinctive in modern music comes from there, not here.

We all know the main culprits. Record companies in Japan churn out ‘hit’ after hit from the same producers processing stale beats and trite melodies for pre-packaged glam troupes with nausea-inducing names. Image is all, and all, nil. Bands that actually play their own instruments compose songs to established—no, exhausted sounds and tastes. Too many ‘artists’ are simply trying to fulfill expectations, and expectations are low. Very low.

Let’s invoke a little historical fatalism. Japan has been, since at least the late 19th century (and more than 1000 years earlier for that matter), a remarkably adept cultural imitator in addition to innovator at times. Its very brief transition from feudalism to a modern society was enabled by an unprecedented campaign of copycat-ism. Habits engendered from that frenetic initiative are still pervasive today. Why shouldn’t Japan’s music seem so derivative? “It can’t be helped,” as the staple phrase goes. I don’t completely subscribe to this hypothesis by any means, but I can affirm that a robust spirit of creativity is notably absent from many corners of Japanese society, especially the educational system. I’ve been in Japan for ten years—ten deep years—and I am still continually surprised and flabbergasted by this. It’s a country too often chained to formula and rule.

There are some rule breakers and exceptions, many more than I am probably aware of, I admit. Certainly, Japan has given the world some doses of greatness. Sakamoto Ryuichi comes immediately to mind. Or jazz impresario Suzuki Isao. Classical guitarist Muraji Kaori occupies an elite league (though playing Western music). Traditional Japanese music (shamisen, koto, etc) also has significant claim to world music heritage. What about more mainstream music? Oyamada Keigo (Cornelius) constantly breaks new ground. Soul Flower Union (interviewed in Koe #2) defy genre with innovative hybrid sounds. Japanese punk continues to produce notables like Midori and the small-venue concert circuit sees countless promising, often unsigned, acts come along. Maybe we should also tip ours hats to veteran pop-rock bands like Mr. Children and Southern All-Stars for thriving through the decades. Longevity, as noted later, may count for more than we think.

Midori can really rile up her audiences. Here, diving into the fans at Sunset Live, Fukuoka, 2009.

The paucity of inspired and inspiring artists with a distinct sound nevertheless remains. It might be instructive to quote Basho’s famous gem: “Don’t imitate the masters. Seek what they sought.” Who is pursuing sublimity these days? Who achieves the sublime?

I’m excited about the recent trend of excellent Japanese bands and artists pushing back in greater numbers against the old norms and detritus of ditties. Instead of top-down, multi-million dollar promotion campaigns from huge record companies, they are building their fan-base grassroots style—through devoted touring and festival participation. Many are aided by websites like MySpace, YouTube and i-Tunes, which are sounding the death knell of some record companies, much more so than music theft, I suspect. The best of these bands are also great improvisational players.

The best of them? I’m certainly partial to good live acts, but how much is personal taste really an issue here? On a certain collective level, and over time, it’s everything.

In his essay, “What is a Classic” from Other Shores, Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee lays out a convincing argument for why Bach’s music is “classic.” Tweaking Horatio’s claim that, quite simply, a classic is what survives, Coetzee explains what it must survive and by what means. Bach survived decades of public obscurity (including the last years of his life) because other composers performed and appreciated his work in private circles. His music withstood the critical scrutiny of professional peers and their protégés until it was brought out to the public again generations later. We often refer mockingly to “the gatekeepers of high culture,” but their piercing, and ultimately healthy, criticism can ensure tradition. Taste—the refined taste of committed practitioners of the art—weaves together with the cycles of popular taste to define, over time, the classic.

It’s important, however, to recognize some artists as individuals who capture the spirit of an age, rather than musical greatness. In Japan, Misora Hibari sings skillfully enough, but is an icon of immediate post-war culture before she is a vocalist. Our appreciation of music with the patina of history is closely tied to our nostalgic tendencies. We call her songs—and Sinatra’s—classics, and maybe they are, but when the generation that grew up connecting its memory of these artists to the ethos of that age is gone, will such artists fade like an echo? Compare them to Robert Johnson. He died at the age of 27 with a scant 29 songs to his name and little contemporary fame. His ‘rediscovery’ by mainstream artists like Eric Clapton helped establish modern blues rock. Clapton has commented in interviews on Johnson’s “weirdness,” or what we might rephrase as the uncanny art of his songs, and Clapton’s simplification of covers like “Walking Blues” comes as a backhanded compliment to Johnson’s sophistication. Bands continue to perform him and director Martin Scorsese paid homage to the genre of which Johnson is king with a landmark documentary. The jazz and blues tradition is largely about reinterpreting older tunes, true, but that ceaseless performing of the collective repertoire means the gems stay hard and polished.

Illustration by Shinohara Akemi

What role do lyrics play? The scope of the question is enormous and the answer is relative. Complicating the issue is that we can appreciate lyrics independent of music. Many professors of literature call Bob Dylan the best American poet of his day. Leonard Cohen, too, is good on paper. But are lyrics even necessary? Obviously not. Obviously so in opera and rap. Ultimately, lyrics are the artist’s prerogative but they can without a doubt enhance the aesthetic effect, especially when sung by careful design. Listen to Jeff Buckley singing Cohen in “Hallelujah.” You get the point. Listen to Love Psychedelico’s mesmerizing vocals in English and Japanese in “Last Smile.” You get the point.

Coetzee’s essay also makes implicitly clear the importance of live performance. Bach’s admirers didn’t simply read his scores and pass around copies. They performed in their parlors. Music should be experienced live for full appreciation. We all know this intuitively. And all performers know that the collective vibe of the audience can push them, and the performance, to another level. The “high gear of the soul,” as Phish—a quintessential jam band that understands this well—sings it. It’s no accident that good artists and bands, the ‘best of them,’ sound much better live than recorded, and it’s not any producer’s fault. Nothing beats a good live gig.

Obviously, all the old paradigms have been overturned in recent years by disruptive technology and other social trends. Since Napster, people have been ‘sharing’ files instead of sharing music in private parlors. “Mashups” from DJs appear on the internet, like Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album,” featuring Jay-Z’s Black Album crossed with the Beatles’ White Album. Chip advances and powerful programs have lowered the barriers to excellent home recording and private studios. Decades ago, the Grateful Dead encouraged live taping and cassette trading at their shows. Some bands continue that practice today, though websites now allow fans to digitally download the shows later. Song covers seem even more common in recent decades, but hardly any of them surpass the originals anymore. Occasionally, someone like pianist Brad Mehldau will come along, take Radiohead’s “Knives Out,” and give us an equally accomplished song. Most other covers seem intended merely for profit. Tribute albums are equally dubious. The fairly recent tribute album to accomplished singer-songwriter Yamazaki Masayoshi, with artists like Hajime Chitose singing his somber “Namae no nai tori,” may make the grade, but these projects are generally conceived of by record companies, not admiring artists themselves. Finally, in an intriguing so-called “post-modern” trend, notions of genre are collapsing and traditions are blending. The Yoshida Brothers mix Tsugaru-jamisen with various world music styles. Dragon Ash, which puts on a powerful live show, mixes rock and rap with Latin beats and rhythms, as on their album “Independiente.” UA sings well to just about any background music, with praise equally due her top-notch producers—her collaborative album “Nephews,” with its creepy-cool cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Missing You,” is a great achievement. Rappers Run DMC and rockers Aerosmith performing “Walk This Way” together decades ago were harbingers indeed.

So where is Japanese music heading? Like all world music: in multiple directions. But in the pages that follow, I highlight three bands I think are going to the distance as they blaze new paths, possibly even becoming ‘classics.’ They are conscious of the multitude of musical traditions that have preceded them and seem to envision a clear, ambitious direction for their own music. They have the improvisational skills to make each live show unique and can go supernova on stage when conditions are right. In the spirit of professional criticism that invigorates artistic traditions, I feel compelled to lodge some concerns. Those, however, are few.

In many ways, these bands are also working against assumptions and expectation—that Japanese music can’t deliver on the level of the West’s best. Anyone with an ear may rethink this. “The times they are a-changing.” These leaders of the new groove are patently good and getting even better.

(Ry Beville, an amateur guitarist, studied song and lyric composition under Pulitzer-prize winning composer William Bolcom and former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass. He is currently writing his dissertation on Japanese poets and lyricists from the Meiji and Taisho periods)






Nakano Yoshie of Ego Wrappin’ has been singing strong for over a decade


最近日本でも気概を感じさせるバンドやアーティストがちらほら出てきていることはとても嬉しいことだ。大手レコード会社による大掛かりなプロモーションに頼ることなく、ライブをこまめに行い、野外フェスやイベントなどにも積極的に参加していくという、いわば草の根的な活動を展開しているアーティストたち。レコード会社にとっては大きな脅威となってきている「My Space」「You Tube」「i-Tunes」といったネット媒体もこのような草の根的活動を続けるアーティストの強力な味方となっている。このようなアーティストたちの中には本当に素晴らしい演奏をするプレイヤーがいる。




Furuya Kenji, of Dragon Ash, whose live show packs some power



一方で、従来からあった理論的枠組みは近年のいわゆる破壊的革新や社会の動向によって覆されつつある。ナップスターの登場で利用者はネットを通じてファイルの共有が出来るようになった。日本ではクラブイベントなどでその名称が広まったマッシュアップという手法も、DJデンジャー・マウスが発表した「グレイ・アルバム」で脚光を浴びた。このアルバムはジェイZの「ブラックアルバム」のアカペラをビートルズの「ホワイトアルバム」を素材としたビートと組み合わせたもの。半導体の活用とプログラミング技術の融合によって自宅や個人スタジオなどでのレコーディングが容易に行えるようになった。何十年も前、グレイトフル・デッドはファンが彼らのライブをカセットテープに録音することや、それを交換し合ったりすることを推奨し、それがさらなる観客動員を促した。今日でも同様のことをやっているバンドがあるが、インターネットの普及で、ライブ音源をダウンロードすることも出来るようになった。過去の楽曲をカバーすることは以前にも増して頻繁に行われるようになっているが、カバーがオリジナルを超えることはますます少なくなってきているようである。ジャズピアニストのブラッド・メルドーがレディオヘッドの「ナイブズ・アウト」をカバーしたのは数少ない出色の出来だったと思うが、つまらないカバー曲が溢れている現状は利益のことだけを追求した結果だろう。いわゆるトリビュート・アルバムの類も怪しい出来のものが目立つ。山崎まさよしの「名前のない鳥」の元ちとせによるカバー・バージョンは合格点をもらえると思うが、トリビュートの多くはレコード会社の企画によるものがほとんどで、アーティスト自身の企画によるものは少ない。いわゆる「ポストモダン」の流れの中ではジャンル分けの概念は無意味で、伝統的なものは新しいものとの融合が進んでいる。吉田兄弟は津軽三味線の新境地を開拓し、パワフルなライブ・パフォーマンスで人気のドラゴン・アッシュはアルバム「INDEPENDIENTE」に象徴されるようにロックとラップ・ミュージックにラテンのリズムを取り入れた。カバー曲やコラボ曲のみで構成されたUAのアルバム「Nephews」では一流のプロデューサーを迎えて、ローリング・ストーンズの「Miss You」をカバーしていて、素晴らしい出来に仕上がっている。ヒップホップのRun DMCとロックの大御所エアロスミスによる「Walk This Way」がこうした流れの先駆者だろう。





L to R: Kageyama Kanade, Kawakami Yu, Horikawa Itaru, Yamamoto Hiraku

Nabowa is young, relatively unproven and perhaps not yet entirely confident of their keen abilities. When I first saw them, however, I was reminded of a time when I used to watch a young fledgling act in my hometown called The Dave Matthews Band. You could hear their promise 20 years ago. World tours, sold-out concerts, MTV awards and many Grammys later, they have confirmed that a new, distinct sound on the live circuit can elevate a band to national recognition before record execs even discover them. Both bands have violinists, but that’s not why I recalled that feeling of discovery. Very early in their career, too, Nabowa has style, so difficult to achieve, but without which art is just imitation.

Hailing from Kyoto, band members Yamamoto Hiraku (violin), Kageyama Kanade (guitar), Kawakami Yu (percussion) and Horikawa Itaru (bass) protest when I try to label them a jam band. “We are aware of great jam bands,” says Kawakami, “but we don’t try to place ourselves in that tradition. We play the music we like—what sounds good to us.” It was a fair qualification. Their sound resonates with many genres, reflecting the individual members’ varied tastes in music. When I try to pin them down on their conscious influences, they produce Steve Vai (Yamamoto), The New Masters Sounds (Horikawa), Mice Parade (Kawakami), and Cornelius, Rovo and Special Others (Kageyama). A full-length set features flavors of folk and bluegrass, new age, reggae, jazz, pop, ambient, lounge and, yes, rock. The space in their songs and lyricism in their melodies also vaguely remind me of U2. The guitarist can get down and nasty, blues-rock style, when the moment calls for it, which is important for another reason; Nabowa doesn’t have much of a stage presence yet. They seem introverted and particularly focused on their music, but larger crowds in the years ahead may draw that intensity out.

After playing a university music festival, the current four members began to meet for sessions. These continue to play an important role in their song-writing process as members bring their ideas and build from there. They all immediately note their current challenge is the labor in putting together their next full-length album, the intimidating sophomore album. Although instrumental until now, they plan to include a vocalist. They do already have a second full-length album of remixes. “When DJs reinterpret our songs, they come out completely different.” Nabowa completes the circle by using these as inspiration and re-performing them live. If you are interested in hearing a sound that transcends not only Kyoto’s local music scene, but national borders as well, do complete another circle by seeing Nabowa live.





L to R: Hata, Omi, Eiji, Yao, Billy Bukka, Ao

Make no mistake: Dachambo is the ultimate post-rock jam band in Japan. Live shows are their raison d’etre, and their devoted touring schedule carries them to the far corners of the country, not just the big cities. They seem aware of their role as jam band torch-bearers and actively try to cultivate a ‘scene’ by encouraging dancing, live taping and all around good cheer. The crazy cosmos of fans that follows jam bands on the road in the U.S. is a phenomenon that doesn’t exist in Japan, in part because the country’s limited size prevents extensive tours dates, but Dachambo is a band that could pull it off. With infectious energy and a remarkable musicianship, each live show is a psychedelic spectacle of the moment.

Dachambo includes Hata (keyboards), Eiji (bass), Ao (guitar), Omi (digeridoo), Yao (drums) and Bukka Billy (drums)—a twin drum section! They started out in 2001, “kind of accidentally,” says Ao. Two members jammed together and the band honeycombed to six from there. Even Omi’s choice of instrument was accidental. “I originally heard the digeridoo while traveling in India. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with myself, but when I went to Australia, I decided to pick it up.” At any given show you may even see the members trade instruments.

Emotional and economic survival is a daunting task for any new band, especially one with six members. “We just have to move forward. But we all get along fairly well anyway,” comments Ao. They admit that after a show they may snipe at each other for mistakes, but laugh that with six members, the blame thins out. They have been able to grow through friends and connections, a network of fans who spread the word about their sound and style.

I know what the naysayers say about jam music; it’s long-winded, repetitive and boring. And a friend who played with Dachambo years ago remarked that they didn’t seem able to build to a proper crescendo. That was then, I’m sure. Their New Year’s Eve concert was one of the more impressive improv performances I’ve experienced—yes, experienced—and I’ve been privileged enough to see acts like Santana and the Grateful Dead (alas, never Zappa). Dachambo reaches a frenzied pitch and passes through different keys before bringing the song crashing down to its often-surprising resolution. Toward the end of the long evening, they did begin to lag some, but continued jamming because the die-hard fans wanted it. In an age of digital theft, this vibe is one thing nobody can steal, and few, if any, can replicate.


メンバーはHata(キーボード)、Eiji(ベース)、Ao(ギター)、Omi(ディジェリドゥー)、Yao(ドラム)、Bukka Billy(ドラム)、という珍しいツインドラム編成。結成は2001年、Aoいわく「偶然集まった感じ」だったという。まず二人がジャムり始め、その輪が広がって現在の6人になった。Omiがディジェリドゥーを選んだのも偶然のようなものだったらしい。「インドを旅行中に初めてディジェリドゥーの音を知ったのですが、その時はまだその楽器をやろうと思ったわけではありませんでした。その後オーストラリアに行った時にこれをやろうと決めました」。ライブではメンバー同士で担当楽器を交換して演奏したりもする。



Dachambo’s new live DVD, Eclipse Road 2009, is available, however, if you just can’t catch them live.

Special Others

L to R: Serizawa Yuma, Yanagashita Takeshi, Miyahara Ryota, Matayoshi Yuya

I was apprehensive as I watched Special Others live for the first time. I had been listening to their CDs almost like an addiction for the nearly two years since discovering their video for “Star” late one night, and I was keen to see them transform their clean studio sound into an even better live performance. Several songs into their set at Fukuoka’s 2009 Sunset Live festival they finally hit their groove and the packed crowd began to undulate. Shooting from a corner of the stage, I looked to my side to find Furuya Kenji and other members of Dragon Ash, visibly impressed by the spectacle. From what I’ve heard, their respect for Special Others is generally shared in the Japanese rock community.

The jazz-rock quartet’s recent sold-out tour culminated with an extra show at Bay Hall, so they could finish in their hometown of Yokohama where it all started for them. The first set charged the house. The second set? That word again: supernova. A week later, after a session at their studio (also in Yokohama), Miyahara Ryota (drums), Matayoshi Yuya (bass), Yanagashita Takeshi (guitar) and Serizawa Yuma (keyboards) sat down to relate their remarkable journey from scrappy high school band to legend in the making. Success came after much struggle and sacrifice. All four reminisce about the long, hard years, when they had to keep their day jobs but play gigs at night, getting little, if any, sleep. Serizawa worked at a pizza shop, Miyahara worked at a soba shop, Yanagashita was a construction worker, and Matayoshi was a fisherman. As Serizawa relates, “Around 2000 we all started to take ourselves more seriously. It was never explicitly spoken among us, just felt in spirit—let’s give this a go!” But it wasn’t until 2005, with the release of their 2nd EP Uncle John, that they were able to concentrate entirely on their music.

Their sound is typically bright and fast-paced. When asked about their influences, Miyahara notes, “All the various CDs that we listen to while recording bear on our music and we listen widely.” When pressed, they give a shout out to African pops and Big Frog. They are also kindred spirits with the likes of Soulive, Galactic, maybe even Charlie Hunter—jazz-funk-rock acts with a head-bobbing groove. A friend once complained that they are like a repetitive wall of sound. Maybe. But I think the looping motifs sound like American minimalism (as in Philip Glass) gone electric and happy.

Special Others is currently focusing on the next tour and CD release. Serizawa confesses that overseas gigs would be financially risky, but that they would go if invited under the right conditions. For now, though, they are happy to be where they are. “We love Yokohama, we can’t explain why—we just do.”

Special Othersのライブを初めて見たときは鳥肌モノだった。2年くらい前に“Star”の映像を観て以来、彼らのCDを聞きまくりながら、そのクリーンなサウンドをどうやってステージで再現し昇華させるのか、とても興味があった。CDで聞いていたお馴染みの曲を初めて生で体験した去年の福岡での「サンセットライブ」では彼らも最高のパフォーマンスを見せ、会場を埋め尽くした観衆も興奮のるつぼと化した。僕がステージの袖で、演奏中の彼らを写真に収めている時、ふと気付くと傍に降谷建志を始めとしたドラゴン・アッシュのメンバーたちが感動の面持ちで立っていたのが印象的だった。Special Othersを崇拝している日本のロックバンドは数多い。

ソールドアウトとなった今回のツアー。彼らの故郷である横浜のBAY HALLで行われた追加公演でSpecial Othersはツアーの最後を飾ってくれた。ライブは前半と後半の二部構成。前半ですでに大変な盛り上がりを見せてくれたが、後半のステージはまさに「爆発的な」興奮状態。その一週間後に横浜にある彼らのスタジオで行われたセッションを終えた宮原良太(ドラム)、又吉優也(ベース)、柳下武史(ギター)、芹澤優真(キーボード)の4人のメンバーはインタビューに応じ、高校の文化祭バンドとしてのスタートから今日の栄光に至るまでの道のりを語ってくれた。今日の成功の裏には数々の苦労や犠牲があったらしい。夜はコツコツとライブをこなしながら、寝る時間を削ってアルバイトも続けなければならなかった辛い日々が続いたという。芹澤はピザ屋、宮原はそば店、柳下は建築現場で働き、又吉は漁業で収入を得ながら一緒に音楽を続けていた。芹澤は言う。「バンドの将来についてちゃんと話し合ったことは無かったのですが確か2000年頃に、このままじゃダメだ、ちゃんと音楽で食えるように頑張ろうという雰囲気になって・・・」。しかし本格的な音楽活動を始められるようになったのは2005年のミニアルバムUNCLE JOHN発表以降のこと。

彼らのサウンドは明るく、テンポのいい曲が多い。影響を受けたバンドやミュージシャンについて宮原は「レコーディング中に聞く色々なCDからも影響を受けますし、僕たちは皆ほんとうに何でも聞く感じです」と言う。忙しいときでもアフリカン・ポップスとBIG FROGは聞いているという。また彼らのサウンドは例えばソウライブやギャラクティック、チャーリー・ハンターなど、ノリのいいジャズ・ファンク・ロックのアーティストたちと比較されることが多い。以前友人が、彼らのサウンドは反復的な音の洪水だ、と言った。その通りかもしれない。しかし彼らがモチーフを反復する印象はアメリカのミニマル・ミュージック(例えばフィリップ・グラスに見られるような)が電子音を使うようになってサウンドが明るくなったのと似ていると思う。

Special Othersは現在、次のツアーとアルバムの製作を予定している。芹澤曰く、海外ツアーは経済的に難しいが、いい条件でオファーが来たらやりたいとのこと。しかし当面は国内での活動で忙しいようだ。「僕たちは皆、横浜が大好きです。理由はうまく説明できないけどとにかく大好きな街です」。

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