Innovation, individuality in the mix

by David Hickey

One place where language and cultural differences are barely an issue for Japanese artists is at the annual Barcelona electronica and multimedia event Sonar, which is part music industry showcase, part festival for ordinary music fans.

Sonar 2006 took place last weekend in the Catalan capital, and featured among the 300 performances planned over its three days and nights were 20 Japanese acts (the most ever), including world-renowned musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, minimalist electronic composer Ryoji Ikeda and hip-hop/lounge artist Tucker.

There is no language barrier for foreign audiences with these acts, because, for the most part, they don’t use vocals. And since most of them are one- or two-man units operating from laptops, it costs less to fly them out, so much so that this year the Japan Foundation helped pay the way for four of the acts that played at Sonar. The festival itself sometimes foots the bill for Japanese artists.

Unlike the industry showcases South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, or North By Northeast in Toronto, the relationship between Sonar and Japan is both long-running, having started in 1995 when Sonar invited what it considered some of the most important artists from the Japanese experimental and dance scenes, and mutually beneficial.

The relationship blossomed to such an extent that in 2002 the first SonarSound Tokyo took place in Roppongi Hills, giving Sonar the opportunity “to get in touch directly with the local scene,” Sonar 2006 co-director Enric Palau said from Barcelona.

Before he started planning this year’s festival, the Tokyo Performing Arts Market invited Palau to Japan. Five artists at Sonar this year played as a result of that networking trip.

Palau recognizes that the novelty factor has been key to these acts attracting the attention of international music fans and the respect of the press, but says that quality and diversity are equally important.

For many of the Japanese artists that performed at Sonar 2006, the cultural differences between themselves and their international audience are less marked than for many Japanese rock acts singing in Japanese.

“Lots of Japanese artists at Sonar 2006 are well-connected to the international scene and live or have lived half their lives in the West, like Tujiko Noriko or Sakamoto,” Palau said.

More important than the internationalization of Japanese artists, however, are the less tangible factors of individuality and innovation.

“Above all, there is the ‘creative personality’ of the artist, and I think that each of these artists have it, and somehow their Japanese background carries the imprint of their art, either in aesthetics or their attitude to performing. [The other factor is that] Sonar is a festival related to art and technology, and the way Japanese use technology has its own poetry and it’s very peculiar.”

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