The New Groove 2011

Why is Japanese music so patently bad?

So we began last year’s music feature, and so we begin this year’s. Because it’s true, at least on the surface.

Japan, home to the world’s second-largest music industry (behind the U.S., ahead of the U.K.), continues to pump out mountains of sonic garbage. Japan actually accounts for 85% of the world’s digital sales! If this were CO2, the world would have become a blackened crust long ago. You might be prone to believe, too, that it’s a nation of Lolita complexes. Sometime this year we can perhaps expect a band of 96 pre-pubescent girls singing with nasally voices on the beach in their bikinis, because the current 48 just isn’t enough. And every city will have its own group. Cities will pass resolutions to have them named “local goods” (meibutsu). Local trains and buses will bear their images. There will be an Olympics. “In tonight’s jello wrestling gold-medal final, AKB96 takes on HOK96. Sakuraba will be officiating. Fujiwara Norika joins as a commentator because K-1 sucks now.” Maruzen, Kinokuniya, Yurindo, other book stores will not collapse in the onslaught of digital book sales; semi-nude idol photography books of all these groups will push revenues through the ceiling. Male masturbation will be at an all-time high. Japan’s birthrate will continue to drop.

And the music industry will call it music.

Inevitably, CNN will report on it and most of the world will not have any clue that there’s great talent here, bands that would blow the roof off venues wherever people appreciate good music. The prism through which the world sees Japanese music needs to be smashed. Even within Japan, only some serious effort and cooperation will improve the situation.

At least there are a few signs of progress. Starting with some of the ‘New Groove’ bands Koe featured in 2010, Soil & “Pimp” Sessions continue to showcase their explosive jazz act internationally. A Suntory whiskey ad I saw on the Tokyo city subway featuring them caught me by total surprise. Such mainstream crossover appeal bodes good things for the group and their musical friends. Nabowa, the earthy instrumental quartet, has enjoyed a year of almost baffling improvement. Did they, like Robert Johnson, sell their soul to the devil? They’ve gone from good to stellar, and will be playing with Special Others and American jam band The Slip at the Liquid Room (Tokyo) in February. The popularity of Special Others, meanwhile, continues to honeycomb, their infectious instrumental melodies turning thousands of pop and mainstream rock listeners on to jam-style sounds. Dachambo enters its tenth psychedelic year as a band and hopes to celebrate overseas with a few frenzied live shows.

An event we hosted with Dachambo last year highlighted part of the challenge ahead. Some expat guests who were long-time fans of Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead told me they didn’t even know Japanese jam bands existed. One guest highly connected with the music industry in New York expressed his surprise, too, “All the introductions we ever get are about pop acts that all sound the same.” This is a guy who wants to help showcase talented Japanese acts! Again, you can’t blame them for not knowing. Japanese media is really a cartel featuring only what it most easily consumed. The foreign media ‘prism’ only seems to project what is quirky; it panders to, and reinforces, stereotypes. Japan is weird. Japan is exotic.

That night, we were also competing with Nabowa, Cro-Magnon and Rovo, who were playing elsewhere in the Kanto area. This was, admittedly, unfortunate timing, but it happens more often than it should. There are just not enough places for these kinds of live bands to play without some overlap. And many of the festivals, as good as they are, seem to draw the same acts and the same crowds. Beyond festivals like Fuji Rock or Sunset Live in Fukuoka, which hosts some healthy diversity, there seems to be too few opportunities for cross-pollination. STS9 opened for Jay-Z in the U.S. and Jay-Z has also performed with Phish. Imagine, say, Cro-Magnon opening at Utada Hikaru’s recent ‘going-on sabbatical’ concert. Or Indus & Rocks for Southern Allstars. Or Soul Flower Union for Mr. Children. At overseas festivals, like Bonaroo or the Glasgow Music Festival, there seems to be a determined effort to ignore genre and let fans merge. In Japan it’s just not happening, at least not often enough.

Which is part of the reason I think Japanese bands of the jam, jazz-rock, and post-rock flavor need to make playing overseas a priority, however they can make it happen. Cro-Magnon was well received in Europe. Soul Flower Union has played to enthusiastic crowds in Asia. Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro (see following article) has funktified Australia. Shibusashirazu Orchestra has been blowing minds for years overseas (OK, so maybe overseas media does have fair reason to think Japan is a little weird). Soil & “Pimp” Sessions recently gave South Africa a heavy dose of jazz.

I’m fairly certain most of the bands associated with “nbsa” (National Band School Associates), a kind of loose collective of jam and post-rock bands, as well as other Japanese bands in that ilk, would find thankful audiences overseas. The reason is simple: their musical roots. These bands have listened deeply to jazz, blues, punk, rock and reggae. They have, through imitation, adaptation and innovation, developed their own sounds. Listeners will certainly hear and appreciate both the unique styles of the bands as well as the underlying traditions. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke called music “a language where languages end.” The language of these bands will transcend whatever other difficulties of communication they may face overseas. Lyrics won’t matter so much.

In playing overseas, these bands may gain the attention of the overseas press, which is important for correcting perceptions and appreciation of Japanese music. This could, in turn, create more opportunities to play. Certainly, Japanese pop music has never fared well overseas. Even Utada Hikaru has had limited success. J-Pop is all too derivative. It’s roots are in money and image. Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake bring something fresh and inspired to the table. A Japanese act finding popularity overseas would, let us hope, gain the attention of the Japanese media, too. Japan loves an overseas success story. And extending soft power through music is something both the media and the government would cheer. Heightened mainstream media attention in Japan would hopefully expand the range of domestic venues for these bands, while also attracting new fans. Mostly importantly, Japanese artists playing overseas would encounter other bands and new kinds of music. No art, whether painting, music or dance, develops in a vacuum. Artists need interaction. This kind of international exchange benefits everyone.

In the meantime, many bands are seeking out new audiences beyond the domestic venues that typically host them. Mainstream Japanese media isn’t going to help one damn bit in spreading the word. YouTube, while great as a means of discovery, doesn’t meaningfully connect with audiences. Hitting the road is the way. It’s encouraging to see bands travel out to small cities like Nasu (Ibaraki), Matsue (Shimane) and Hachimantai (Iwate). Hopefully, music fans in more small towns across Japan will take initiative and organize local concerts. And hopefully, readers unfamiliar with these bands will check out what they have to offer, at least online. I certainly encourage overseas promoters to take a chance with them. There’s risk, sure. Life is a risk. But one of its greatest rewards is music.

text & analog photography: Ry Beville






しかし一方で状況改善の兆しも確かにある。昨年本誌がスポットを当てた新進気鋭のバンドたちを始め、たとえばSoil&”Pimp”Sessionsはジャズ系の音で海外にも精力的に活動の場を広げている。東京都内の地下鉄で見たサントリーウィスキーの広告に彼らが載っていたのには驚いた。彼らのような本物がこのように意外なところで有力メディアに取り上げられることはいいことだし、回りのバンドにもいい影響を与えるだろう。4人編成のインストバンドNabowaにとって昨年は飛躍の年だった。ロバート・ジョンソンが悪魔に魂を売ってテクニックを身に付けた、と言われているように、Nabowaも悪魔に魂を売り渡して今の力量を手にしたのだろうか?と思えるくらいまた一段とパワーアップし、この2月には東京のリキッドルームでSpecial OthersやアメリカのジャムバンドThe Slipとの共演が予定されている。そのSpecial Othersもますますファン層を広げており、彼らのインスト曲のメロディーはポップスやロックミュージックのファンまで惹きつける魅力を持っている。サイケデリック・ジャムバンドDachamboは結成10年目を迎え、その熱狂的なライブパフォーマンスで海外への進出を目論む。



アメリカのBonarooやイギリスのGlasgow Music Festivalなどのイベントではジャンルの垣根が完全に取り払われ、ファンはジャンルを超えて一体化している。日本でもこのような垣根の無いイベントは存在しているかもしれないがまだまだ数が少ない。

日本がこのような状況だから本物の力を持ったジャムバンドやジャズロック系、ポストロック系のバンドたちが海外での活動に力を入れるのも納得がいく話だ。Cro-Magnonのヨーロッパでのライブは好評だったし、ソウル・フラワー・ユニオンもアジア各地で熱狂的な歓迎を受けた。Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro(今号掲載の特集記事参照)はオーストラリアでファンク旋風を、Soil&”Pimp”Sessionsは南アフリカでジャズ旋風を巻き起こしたばかり。ユニークな編成の“渋さ知らズ” はもう何年も海外でファンを魅了し続けている(海外メディアが日本の音楽を変な目で見るのはひょっとすると彼らのせいかも?)。

日本に“nbsa”(National Band School Associate)という組織があり、ジャムバンド、ポストロック系バンドなどクラブシーンで活躍している次世代の国産バンドが集まってライブを行っているのだが、たとえばこの組織で活動しているバンドたちは海外でも好意的に受け入れられそうな気がする。理由は簡単、彼らの持つ音楽ルーツにある。彼らはジャズ、ブルース、パンク、ロック、レゲエなどを聞いて育ち、まずコピーから初めてやがてそれを編曲したり応用したりしながら今の自分たちの音を作り上げてきたミュージシャンである。彼らの音からはバンドの独自性と、その奥に彼らのルーツが同時に感じられるのだ。ドイツ語詩人ライネル・マリア・リルケが「音楽は言葉を超えたコミュニケーションの手段である」と言ったように、これらのバンドが海外でライブを行う時に遭遇するかもしれない言葉の問題は大して問題にはならないだろう。歌詞が無くても音楽が素晴らしければ受け入れてくれるはずだ。



Share and Enjoy:     These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Facebook
  • MySpace
  • Propeller
  • Technorati
  • TwitThis

Comments are closed.