A Few Words with Fuwa

by Ry Beville

Shibusashirazu Orchestra is more than music. A spectacle of the senses that includes Butoh, cabaret-style dancers, stage props (like a huge inflatable dragon that bobs above the audience), an unlikely ‘orchestra’ of musicians and a frazzled, slouched conductor in the center of the carnival, the group has thrived as a distinctly Japanese phenomenon on international stages for over two decades. With internet video now able to disseminate their performances to viewers worldwide, their recognition will likely grow further. It’s clear from the videos, though, that the magic of the show abides in the live moment. Shibusashirazu Orchestra must be experienced in person.

The origins of S.O. weave back to live performance, albeit in somewhat less spectacular fashion. And the center of it then, as now, was that wiry, gray conductor, Fuwa Daisuke. Actually an upright bassist heavily immersed in jazz traditions, Fuwa is often seen backstage at musical festivals, sitting on the ground quietly smoking a cigarette or reading. When not conducting, he still plays the bass with a stripped-down version of his orchestra that simply goes by the name Shibusashirazu, roughly translated as “knowing no cool.”

The smaller unit also plays freestyle jazz, but much more intricately and impressively than the orchestra orgasm that typifies the festivals. Intimate neighborhood jazz clubs provide a perfect setting. At Airegin in Yokohama, a monthly venue for Shibusashirazu, Fuwa sits down at the old table, explaining, “I love drinking, but I’ve got to drive home tonight,” as he sips some water. “Normally, I’d love a beer.”

Perpetually disheveled, with drooping, world-weary eyes, Fuwa always seems exhausted, and yet somehow also intensely focused, as if on some knot in his mind he’s trying to unravel. He thinks back to the beginning.

“We started back in 1989, for an underground theater in Kichijoji called Hakken no Kai. We were to be the live orchestra for a production there, but also occupied the vacant seats. We played again about a month later at Mandala, another club in Kichijoji. Some of the members from that second session have stayed on over the years. A few have passed away.”

It was the height of the bubble years in Japan, and both the timing and location seem appropriate now. From beneath all the excess and arrogance of that age grew an act perhaps best described as Dadaist. Kichijôji, meanwhile, is still today a locus of underground music and counter-culture activity, with locally-grown artists like Miyake Yohei keeping the spirit alive.

“The Butoh and other stage performers didn’t join us until later. I think it was the Honmoku Jazz Festival in Yokohama, back in 1993. But we’ve always been around performers. We started in the theater, after all. And most of what we do is shibai ongaku (performance music). I leave the choreography completely up to them.”

It’s a curious description for music created by some of Japan’s finest jazz musicians, including the likes of Katayama Hiroaki. Electric violinist Katsui Yuji also graces the orchestra’s ranks, and has been doing so since even before he joined the psychedelic jam act Rovo, with whom he is mostly closely associated.

“We had over 100 members come and go over the years, but these six or seven years, the same core members. I write many of the songs alone. At our jam sessions, others bring their own ideas to the music. The format of the live setting changes our sound, and we have lots of different formats. As a band, though, we don’t really practice. We just play live.”

When asked which artists he’d like to jam with, his eyes light up briefly, “Lots of them, lots of them.”

And when pressed, he offers a name few might expect: Bjork. The Japanese jazz musicians he admires are, he admits, all dead now. Among living artists in other genres surfaces another surprising name: Kitajima Saburô, a god of the enka (folk ballad) world. Offered the names of contemporary jazz acts in Japan, Fuwa seems at a loss and apologizes for not knowing them. He is, in his music and his interests, as eclectic as Zappa—and even resembles the crazed genius, too.

That he commands the show becomes evident as early as the sound checks, when he gives the sound man meticulous instructions on the levels of specific speakers. The other members stand by, without a word, fingering their instruments. During their session, Fuwa cues the transitions from musician to musician with a nod of his head. There are a few sidelong glances and suppressed smiles as signals are missed and some musicians keep playing furiously. Fuwa laughs and shakes his head as if to say, whatever, all is good. Having played bass since he was thirteen—the last thirty-seven years of his life—he has to keep the music fun somehow.

Fellow musicians have obviously contributed to the pleasure of playing. Shibusa has shared the stage with members of jam-style bands from all over Japan. Overseas, Sun Ra has joined them as well as prolific jazz percussionist Don Moye and punk funk pioneer James Chance. Fuwa mentions freestyle tenor sax player David Murray in particular as having been a highlight of his collaborative efforts.

But Europe, and not America where jazz was born, has provided Shibusa the greatest opportunity so far for extending their legacy. Says Fuwa, “We’ve performed in most countries in central Europe, as well as Sweden, Finland and England. Wherever we go, people think, ‘These Japanese are weird.’” He smiles, nods with contentment.

Although playing at the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts on the pyramid stage marked one triumph for the band, a more memorable, if not quieter, performance took place in the small border town known as Tesin in the Czech Republic and Cieszyn on the Polish side.

Cieszyn hosts a summer film festival simultaneously with its Czech counterpart, one of many happy cultural endings to difficult history shared between the two towns. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the unified town was a place of much ethnic and religious diversity, with a sizeable Jewish population as well. After the fall of Austria-Hungary, violent disagreements between the Czech and Polish governments that filled the power void eventually lead to a treaty in 1920 that divided the town. The town was annexed by Germany after it invaded Poland in 1939, and nearly all the Jews were killed in concentration camps. After WWII, the 1920 borders were reestablished, but the iron curtain quickly fell and communism ruled for decades thereafter.

Today, the two countries are a part of the European Union. Economies are flourishing, as are culture and the arts. Czech and Polish residents of the towns may now pass freely across the border. That very border was the site of a Shibusashirazu Orchestra happening.

During one of the film festivals, they took to the streets with their dancers and instruments, putting on a traditional Chindon’ya (marching band) parade as they have in other European cities. Here, though, they passed through the border gates, performing from one country to another, with the guards greeting them as they went. All caught on video and put on DVD, it is a marvel to watch, and particularly poignant when you remember history. Perhaps no other act could better show how arbitrary and fluid borders can be. With its medley of musical styles and artistic genres, Shibusashirazu Orchestra is, itself, borderless.




















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