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Going Ga Ga Ga for Ozawa

by Steve McClure

Ozawa is doing well on the charts these days. Not Kenji Ozawa, the nasally singer whose popularity I cannot fathom, but his uncle, classical conductor Seiji Ozawa. The elder Ozawa’s “New Year’s Concert 2002″ album entered the music-industry trade paper Oricon’s Jan. 28 album chart at No. 9, marking the first time a classical album has made it to the top 10 of the Japanese album charts.

The concert was recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Austrian capital on Jan. 1 and broadcast live on NHK. It hit the shelves Jan. 23 — in an amazingly short turnaround period between recording and release — and has sold some 200,000 copies since.

This year, Ozawa will be leaving his post as principal conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to become music director of the Vienna State Opera, and what better way to begin his tenure in that city on the Blue Danube than with this record on the charts? (It includes, of course, “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.”)

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Ayumi Hamasaki has been added to the list of artists who will be performing at the first-ever MTV Asia Awards show in Singapore on Saturday. So far, Ayu is the only Japanese artist scheduled to perform at the show, which is being hosted by Irish heartthrob Ronan Keating and former MTV VJ Mandy Moore. Other performers on the bill include Hong Kong singer/actress Karen Mok, Indonesian vocalist Anggun and Singaporean singer/songwriter Tanya Chua.

Closer to home, MTV Japan will be holding its own inaugural awards show in May, here in Tokyo.

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Ska-core band Ga Ga Ga SP (the “SP” bit is pronounced “special,” by the way) has made it to the musical major league with the Jan. 17 release of their first single since signing with Sony. The song, appropriately titled “Sotsugyo (Graduation),” entered Oricon’s Jan. 28 singles chart at No. 30. Further proof, following the success of bands such as Kemuri and Mongol 800, that ska-core really has come into its own in Japan.

“Punk is folk” is Ga Ga Ga SP’s motto, and that makes a whole lot of sense when you listen to their music. Vocalist Kozak Maeda’s rough, almost sloganeering singing style is strongly influenced by Takuro Yoshida, king of the Japanese folk music scene in the 1970s. The band also cites classic Japanese rock band RC Succession as a key influence, which shows they’ve got good taste.

Ga Ga Ga SP were previously signed to Run Run Run Records, one of the labels operated by Shibuya-based indie label/management company LD&K Records, home of great bands such as Nash (whose new album, “Super Carroty,” is well worth checking out), Skad Missile and The Cymbals (now signed to Victor Entertainment but still managed by LD&K).

Last summer, Ga Ga Ga SP released an over-the-top cover version of folk singer Wataru Takada’s anti-militarist song “Jietai ni Hairo (Let’s Join the Self-Defense Forces).” At first, I took the song at face value before realizing — duhhh! — that the song’s apparently nationalist lyrics are very much tongue-in-cheek. Sample lyrics: “We have guns and rockets to safeguard the peace of Japan/With the help of America, let’s defeat those bad Soviets and Chinese.” Yes, there is room for irony and political satire in J-pop.

I felt better about my initial misunderstanding of the song’s satirical intent when I found out that the SDF had asked Takada for permission to use the song in its recruitment ads when he released his original version. Oddly enough, he refused.

Ga Ga Ga SP’s second album, “Sotsugyo Album,” is due out March 6. It’ll be interesting to see whether the band records anything else overtly political like “Jietai ni Hairo” now that they’re signed to Sony, which, like other Japanese major labels, is rather sensitive about such matters.