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Mambo Nihango
Shoukichi Kina:
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    Tajima Tadashi

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    Shang Shang Typhoon
    Bad News
    Haroumi Hosano
    Takio Itoh
    Kohichi Makigauri
    Masami Shinoda
        and Compostela

    Everything Play
    Tetsuhiro Daiku,
        with Cora and Bennett
    Synagetic Voice Orchestra

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  • The Music of Japan and Okinawa

    Kodo Ibuki
    Tristar Music

    To many listeners, an earful of nothing but drums, drums, and more drums is an invitation to the medicine cabinet. Jarring snare-rattles and booming bass are one thing, but the drum is actually the closest musical instrument to the natural rhythm of the human heart. Western over-reliance upon melodic ornamentation can yield a sticky rush of sugary euphoria, but often neglects the music's most natural, vital, supportive framework.

    Kodo, a globe-trotting twenty-one member ensemble from Japan, convey the emotional range of melody through powerful rhythms; bypassing tonality and burrowing deep, monolithic channels with vein-bulging intensity.

    Following sixteen years of tours to five continents, Kodo is aiming to become more than exotic entertainment, which is evident in the involvement of New York-based producer Bill Laswell. With a full palette of credits, Laswell has lent his skills to "new jazz" revival, ambient scores, beatnik funk and hip-hop. Through many styles and instruments, Laswell's production has always remained organic; a bedrock maintained by Kodo for over sixteen years.

    The resulting bipolar mix is splendid, at times exuberant, beautiful and then harrowing. The primary drum of choice is the Taiko, a traditional Japanese barrel drum, of which is capable of thunderous earthquakes and the traditional derivation of a mother's heartbeat in the womb. Laswell's production retains the fleshy recoil of the Taiko's drumhead with little or no sonic disturbance, that is, unless you find an approaching thunderstorm anything other than a gorgeous reminder.

    No razzle-dazzle or over-zealous polyrhythmic virtuosity, just Kodo's natural patronage of wind, crashing waves, twilight drones and a brush fire where songwriter Rutaro Kaneko "feels shaken to [his] very cells by some half buried instinct." These are the narcotics which fuel Kodo's fiery intensity. Broad rhythmic cantilevers are pierced by the ensemble's orgasmic shouts and screams of encouragement; pushing the arrangements to heart racing climaxes. Purge, cleanse and continue -- repeat. - W. Todd Dominey

    Shang Shang Typhoon

    If you have ever been subjected to some of the horrible American pop music produced by Japanese bands and played in American restaurants, you will appreciate this group. They are the ABBA of Japan in some ways, heavily produced and synthesized, covering many different genres from show band to folk rock. Shang Shang Typhoon II (Epic/Sony-Japan) is essential listening for an understanding of where Japan folk/pop could go. The gongs and koto riffs on "Paper Tiger" are embedded in a sixties surf sound. Other songs have familiar Broadway tunes lost in them, with occasional English slang and slogans thrown into the otherwise all Japanese libretto. The tour-de-force of the album is an absolutely insane and familiar Beatle's song, with kotos, kazoos and gongs holding equal sway with the synths, electric guitars and kit drums. With its reggae bass lines and Sumo wrestler choir, it takes a few minutes of listening before it sinks in, and you find your self humming along with "Let It Be." It's as if The Incredible String Band and the ghost of Bob Marley had teamed up in Kyoto. There are also a few traditional sounding songs for drums and koto, but the rest of the album is inspired by rock and roll and pure pop. As a secondary bonus, the CD is in one of the most artful, finely detailed packages I have ever seen a recording come in.

    If Shoukichi Kina is Bob Dylan or David Byrne, then Shang Shang Typhoon are Okinawa's B-52's. Their nutty reggae/koto/kazoo version of "Let It Be" off their second album is still one of my radio show's most requested songs, even after two years of over-kill. Shang Shang Typhoon 3 (Epic/Sony-Japan) is no less effusive, no less insane. They take the cliches of western rock and roll, cram them into the cliches of Asian pop, stir in a bits of Aaron Copeland, Django Reinhardt and Cab Calloway, and somehow it still comes out so... so Okinawan! This is show-biz! They mambo, they swing, then fly into something so stunningly beautiful and local you'll wipe a tear from your eye. But watch out, just as you start to weep, they sneak up and bite you with their wit. The three women who front the vocals have the same charm as your favorite 60s "girl group." (Excuse the lapse of p.c. please.) There's no lack of the sanshin driven punk rock that Kina made famous, either, and they can be furious in their own curious way.

    There was a reissue of Shang Shang Typhoon II on Sony/Trisatr in the US, but be forewarned, the version of "Let It Be" in this reissue is a pale imitation, sticky sweet pop instead of insane roots rock. The rest of the album was left untouched, a strange and incxomprehesible marketing decision that only a major label could make.

    Rinkenband has always been the weakest link in my Okinawan collection, with a tendency towards over-produced silliness instead of a local groove. But two recent releases are showing a development that is promising. Their album Karahai (Wave/Sony-Japan) is notable for its subdued moments, where the drama of the lead female voice and the some powerful percussion sets a marvelous mood. This album finds them exploring new and more creative ideas in both song writing and innovative instrumental production. They never achieve the fever of Kina or the Typhoons, but they may have found their niche in the slower tempos and sweeter melodies of these songs. (Unfortunately, not a word in English in the liner notes!) If you appreciate this direction, this is the recommended release of the set. if you need that lunatic touch, then their EP Rikka may supply that edge, with a little help from the omni-present 3 Mustaphas 3, who contribute a rollicking "Okinwastaphabilly Mix" that will have you rolling on the floor. (I think there is a whole album of Mustapha-mixes drifting through records from all over the world. Maybe Globestyle can do The Mustaphas' World Wide Insinuation Guide?)

    Moving north to Japan one can discover the extent that global communication has affected our lives in the music of jazz composer Masami Shinoda and his band Compostela. (Vivid Sounds-Japan) The name means "field of stars" and there is something cosmic about a blend of Japanese percussion and melody with the earthy ethic of klezmer music. Yes, klezmer. This dominantly brass and woodwinds band manages to take these disparate moods and make something remarkably exuberant and sincere. Old eastern European songs, a piece by Chilean writer Victor Jara and two stunning original compositions by Shinoda make for unique world music, and here the term has meaning.

    An utterly charming album is P.O.S.H. by Everything Play aka Ruam Plaeng Orchestra. They call it 21st century international pops, and it has the ambiance of one of Van Dyke Parks' more playful recordings, but set in a southeast Asian mode, using Thai and Javanese instruments and modes in unexpected and sometimes simply silly ways. Fiddles, marimbas, kaen (the Thai mouth accordion), gongs, saws and chimes are blended with synths, drums and voices in child-like fantasias. "Rush Hour In Bangkok" is Pee-Wee's big adventure in Siam made musical. If you've got young kids, they will love this one. If you still remember yourself as a kid, so will you.

    Bad News

    Bad News combines gamelan and synthesizers with guitars and kotos to make something akin to the music of Kate Bush fronting the Pogues. There are still plenty of traditional instruments (or what sound like them) from Japan and the Pacific, but the approach is far more alternative, and a bow to They Might be Giants might be appropriate if it weren't for all the Philip Glass touches. They doodle and noodle with all manner of discordant ideas to add to that base. What exactly their connections to Indonesia are, I can't discern, but the balafons and Bali references are distinct.

    First and foremost, this is a rock and roll record, heavy on the electric guitars and bass in 4/4 time. But they never cease to skew that time. One second they are rocking along (albeit, with a koto for lead) and suddenly they are doing a merengue that sounds suspiciously like "Tequila." There are many similarities to the Kina records, and if those appeal to you then Suck 'Em Up (EVA4001 / Wave Records, 6-2-27 Rappongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106, Japan) may be your meat. Intentionally nutty and obviously having a good time, Bad News is anything but.

    A Japanese detective walks into a bar. Seated at the table are Nick Danger and Sidney Greenstreet, drinking gin. He walks up to the stage. It's occupied by a big band: Hammond organ, a horn section, guitars, accordion, bass, a drum kit. The guy with the baton is some crazy American loud-jazzer. Suddenly the detective tosses his fedora, grabs the mike and screams, "Ladies and gentleman! Buenos tardes! Buenos noches! I'm number one fuckin' butterfly boy! Get outta here!" The band hits the downbeat and Kohichi Makigauri starts wailing "Saisanzu Mambo." It's all uphill from here on Koroshi No Blues (Murder Blues) (Toshiba/EMI Japan) as the John Zorn produced album by rock singer Japanese pop Makigauri takes flight through the outer limits of Tokyo pop. Didgeridoo meets synth, scratching turntables do the mambo, and the romance of fifties and sixties Japanese cinema is given the ultimate bebop re-invention. Remember the hit song "Sukiyaki?" Here it appears under the influence of Guy Klucevsek's accordion and new lyrics: "Sukiyaki etoufée, sashimi sauté, Yakitori filé gumbo jambalaya yaya, crawfish ramen, tofu-boudin, these foolish things remind me of you." The only Japanese Cajun tune I've ever heard, both beautiful and bizarre. In addition to Zorn's production and saxophone, the cast includes Marc Ribot, Matthew Sweet, Bobby Previte, Nana Vasconcelos, and Bill Laswell with a talented crew of Japanese, American and Latin musicians from all persuasions of the music scene from the most obscure to the most mainstream. Cosmic strings play vaguely Asian melodies, Brazilian grooves buckle under screeching guitar experiments while the back up singers do a classic J-pop chorus that turns to Mickey Mouse. Sweet charm and electronic terror all live on this disk, a record, in all probability, as challenging to a Japanese audience (and as obscure) as an American one. But for all out, total insanity and musical revelation, this record is incomparable in any language.

    Takio Itoh is a famed minyo singer from the folk scene of Hokkaido, one of the northern islands of Japan. After years of fame in that circle (national championship three years running), he did the equivalent of Dylan plugging in at Newport; he got some electricity, a second shamsien player, electric bass, some shakuhachis and punchy percussion and short-circuited the music with new energy. With the band Tryin' Times now formed, he has proceeded in new directions, holding on to the power and beauty of the folk music, but giving it back the life the revivalists drained from it. Takio Spirit (available through Farside, Japan) is the triumph of that experiment, an album rich in both traditional aspects and new ideas. Far more sublime and jazzy than Kina's work, Takio also seems far more imbued with the original spirit of the music. In one piece he sings an old song punctuated by interplay between the samshien and a bass clarinet. He has a soaring voice that has the power to experiment and the control to succeed. The music is always sparse, taking unexpected turns. For a listener who loves the melodies and spirit of the tradition, but wants it to breathe fire, this is the album.

    Another recording comes from Okinawa via the Knitting Factory, in a way. Downtown stalwarts Tom Cora and Samm Bennett, as part of their ongoing trio projects with other artists, were invited by Japanese "Third Person" Kappo Umezu to record with Okinwa folksinger and samshien player Tetsuhiro Daiku. Joined by other Japanese and Okinwa musicians and singers, they have produced an album that explores the roots but also explodes the myths on Junta and Jiraba (Meta Music, Japan). While some of the material borders on pop/inane, at its best it is a wonderful mix of attitude and creativity. Fans of Shoukichi Kina will find this to be totally absorbing, fans of the harder edged downtown scene will find this transposition to Asian mode fascinating.

    Musashi (Teichiku Records, Japan) is an eight piece rock band with guitars, synths, bass and drums at its root. They add shamsien, shakuhachi, shinobue and nohkan flutes and other Japanese instruments to create what they call daiko rock. At the core of the band are the taiko of Takara Otsuka and Hiroshi Motofuji, two young artists who are mastering these drums. It is their elemental beat that carves a unique sound for this band. What Musashi does as a unit is far from the confines of tradition. Theypass through over-blown rock, jazz pop, new-age, white metal, rap and funk, merrily tossing their traditions into the mix and creating, in their words, "a music made in Japan... that aims to define the essence of Japaneseness." Not every track is a winner, as they try to force some of their ideas into a framework too thin to support it. But many tracks make a noble attempt to forge the old with the new.

    Synagetic Voice Orchestra
    Voice Records

    Comparisons abound: Eno, Shelia Chandra, Hector Zazou, The Beach Boys in their Smiley Smile phase, or any of a dozen of Indo-hippie psychedelic bands. Yet this Japanese group manages to be very distinctive, spawning a moody, dense brood of songs based on eastern philosophy and international electro-acoustic sensiblities. Composer Yumiko Morioka and his keyboards are only a small part of this 12 piece ensemble of kotos, sitars, bass, and percussions from all over the world. But where these kinds of projects are usually moody, dark, ponderous displays, S.V.O. is energetic, lively, almost happy-go-lucky in their approach, spicing things up with Caribbean grooves, romantic Satie pianos, and the now-standard J-pop girl group vocals. Mios has a few moments of techno-schmaltz mar what is an otherwise pure pop experience, with a worldly bent and a uniquly Japanese flavor. (Voice Records, via Pile-Up, 4-17-1-201 Hugashiikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo 170, Japan)

    Music Of Japanese People (King Records, Japan) is another series from the seemingly bottomless well that is the King Record catalog that continues to find its way to America via Koch International. This series features the music of King's own country, Japan. Music Of Okinawa includes the omni-present Sadao China, master singer and sanshin player along with less well known but equally great performers like Masao Shimabukuro. These performers are also represented on Music Of Amami, which traces the roots of these small Japanese islands. particularly wonderful on this set are the vocal duets and solos by Shunzo Tsukiji and Rika Kamimura. Soundscapes Of Japan is unusual. It is a recording of "the seasonal sounds of downtown Tokyo" that includes the natural and man-made ambiance of birds, water, street carts and cars, as well as the singers, musicians and story-tellers who populate the streets of the city.

    You can get a certain feel for the ambiance of Japan in the acoustic-electronic fusions of Haroumi Hosano, long acknowledged as one of the country's shining lights of new music. Medicine Compilation From The Quiet Lodge (Tristar/Sony) features collaborations with a number of internationally known artists including Laraaji, Rinken Teruya and Akiko Yano (although you'll be hard pressed to tell who did what on this completely un-annotated album). "Mabui Dance" is a melding of Okinawan sanshien and voice with slow, intense electronics. The whole collection travels through funk, jazz, new age and ambient. Haroumi Hosono's minimal, terse compositions were made for this kind of cross pollination, and each one stands out as singular.

    Violinist Kaneko Aska has been cropping up in the background of numerous pop and jazz recordings from Japan over the last few years, and with her own group Adi she took the slick pop of Jean Luc Ponty and made it a more Japanese genre. Twelve Myths (BMG) starts out on that same track, full of clever electronic reinventions and trivial world percussion pursuits (and some of the most cliched electric guitar vamping I've heard in years). But wonder of wonders, as it progresses, it gets more and more unique, melding the same high-tech attitude with Japanese melodies, Indian instruments and here and there some assertive percussion. Kaneko has an interesting ear for unusual mixes of sound, and her compositions and arrangements have unique vision. Add to this his exceptional approach to the violin and you have something special. She gives her playing a human vocal quality that is both playful and sad (when she avoids the cliches). It's a mixed recording, so take the time to explore its depths, and don't be deterred by its weaknesses.

    Ki/oon, Sony (Japan import)

    Nenes are four women from Okinawa, under the musical tutelage of one of Okinawa's most respected elder musician, Sadao China, and they have the voices of the heavens. They come from traditional roots, but have found a new mix of pop roots from around the world that come out genuine Okinawan. Backed by a contemporary band, they are tilling the same soil that Kina has for two decades. Okinawa, while under the political control of Japan, is about as Japanese as Puerto Rico is American. They have language, culture, and music that is distinctly their own. Nenes are bringing that music to the world as a popular form, mixing traditional drums, strings and melodies with electric guitars, synthesizers, and bass.

    They are also incorporating other popular forms from Indonesia, the Caribbean and Africa into their Okinawan folk music base. I'll be the first to warn you that some of this music has a tendency towards the syrupy. But much is sublime. I have been listening to a lot of traditional sanshien (roughly a banjo/lute) and singers, and the heart of that music is still here. Sadao China and Nenes takes it further than most of the current groups from the region, mixing up traces of funk, 60's girl-group-pop and some tongue-in-cheek Caribbean touches with the daiko drum and sanshein. They even pull out a beautiful cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry." Ashiba means joy or play, and they deliver both a joyous roots music and a playful pop hybrid of it. - CF

    Many of these albums are available in the U.S. as imports, but the price is a little steep ($25.00 to $30.00). If you want them from the source, The Far Side is your place. (The Far Side, Marukin Biru. 501, Yoyasu-Machi 380, Kumamoto-shi, Kumamoto-ken, T 860 JAPAN)

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