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Orchestrating a ska paradise for the summer

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra bring dynamic live performances to Japan's music festivals

by Shawn Despres

Special To The Japan Times

It’s a standard response for bands to say they are surprised by their longevity and accomplishments, but Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Japan’s best-known ska act, are unlikely to be overly humble.

“When we first came together I knew this band would last for a really long time,” baritone saxophonist Atsushi Yanaka says matter-of-factly. “Every member of our group has a lot of character and is very talented. Our talents complement one another really well. From the beginning I was sure that we would be successful.”

Formed in 1988, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra debuted in 1989 with a 12-inch, six-song eponymous EP. Since then they have done countless domestic tours and have also made many forays overseas. Playing predominantly instrumental music, their entertaining, energetic performances — and snazzy matching stage attire (it never hurts to dress sharp) — have made them festival favorites around the globe.

At the beginning of July, the group spent two weeks performing at festivals in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Spain, Holland, France and Belgium. All served as good primers for their upcoming concerts at local large-scale outings Fuji Rock, Rising Sun Rock Festival, Monster Bash and Arabaki Rock Fest.

“Playing European festivals is always a lot of fun,” Yanaka tells The Japan Times by phone from Zamardi, Hungary prior to taking the stage at the Heineken Balaton Sound Festival. “We had a fantastic time playing at the Rock for People Festival in Prague on this tour. The crowd was very similar to Japanese audiences. They were very polite, but were also really excited and enthusiastic during our set. Some people were even singing along to our instrumental songs.”

As good as the European crowds were, according to Yanaka they’ve got nothing on Mexican fans.

“We went to Mexico for the first time in April to perform at the Viva Latino Festival and Revolution Fest,” he says. “It was a lot of fun. The audience was fantastic. They were so loud that we couldn’t hear ourselves playing.”

Fuji Rock attendees can take that as a challenge. Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra are scheduled to make their seventh appearance at the festival on July 30. Their sixth time appearing on the massive Green Stage (40,000 capacity), this summer they have been billed as second headliners after legendary English rock band the Faces. Will folks in Naeba be able to match the reception Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra received in Mexico?

Having experienced so many international festivals, what is the absolute best event that the band have been a part of?

“That’s easy!” Yanaka says with a huge laugh. “Our Tokyo Ska Jamboree is the top festival in the world because it features only ska music!”

Helmed by Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, the jamboree was founded in 2009. The third edition of the all-day, open-air party takes place on Aug. 6 at Yamanakako Community Plaza Kirara in Yamanashi Prefecture.

“We’ve been to many countries and have heard a lot of excellent ska bands,” Yanaka says. “We wanted to play with all of them again. We thought it would be fun to make a festival in Japan and invite the ska bands we love.”

The inaugural Tokyo Ska Jamboree drew 8,000 people and featured live sets from several Japanese ska practitioners and American acts See Spot and New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble. In 2010, 7,500 bodies skanked along to infectious horn-driven rhythms from Netherlands’ Rude Rich & The High Notes, Venezuela’s Desorden Publico and Barbados’ Dennis Bovell & Open Band.

This summer, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra have invited homegrown talent The Autocratics, The Kingstompers, Moon Inlet Sounds Orchestra, Blue Beat Players, The Miceteeth and Oi-Skall Mates. The influential American ska and rock band Fishbone will also appear. The show will finish with a 30-minute jam session featuring everyone from the day’s bill.

“I think there will be more than 100 musicians on the stage together at the end,” Yanaka says. “It’s going to be wild! I can’t wait.”

Despite the slight drop in attendance numbers last year, the band plans for Tokyo Ska Jamboree to become a festival mainstay. They are thinking of ways to better the outing and are excited about its future growth.

“We are always talking about what bands will work well at Ska Jamboree,” Yanaka says. “The festival program is strictly ska music, but there are lots of types of ska to choose from. We want to try and introduce Japan to as many ska bands from all over the world as possible.

“We like to do things that others can’t. We’d love to eventually make Tokyo Ska Jamboree into a full weekend event. It would be interesting to one day hold the festival overseas, too. Maybe we could team up with a festival in Europe or somewhere else and take Tokyo Ska Jamboree abroad.”

Wanting to enjoy their own shindig, the group are gigging in the early afternoon at Tokyo Ska Jamboree: Fishbone will be the day’s headliner. Fishbone frontman Angelo Moore will make a guest appearance during Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra’s set to sing “All Good Ska is One,” the lead single from their new “Sunny Side of the Street” EP. Set to be released Aug. 3, the EP will include a bonus DVD featuring footage from the group’s spring Mexican dates.

“When Fishbone first came to Japan 22 years ago, we opened for them,” Yanaka says. “We were still a new band and I remember Angelo watching us and cheering. When we played in Los Angeles in 2004, Angelo was there in the first row cheering us on again.”

Moore fondly remembers sharing a stage with the group in Osaka one time.

“They were all dressed in hot pink suits,” Moore says. “That image stuck in my mind for a long time!”

“All Good Ska is One” was written after the Great East Japan Earthquake, which happened on March 11. Originally conceived as an instrumental number, the act contacted Moore and asked him to help create something to lift spirits in Japan. The catchy, jazzy ska song is filled with positive vibes meant to put smiles on the faces of those who hear it.

“After the disaster in northeastern Japan, we were convinced that Angelo’s voice and our playing could give inspiration and encouragement to people,” Yanaka says.

Joining the band on the cut was an easy decision for Moore.

“Tokyo Ska Paradise are a band I’ve admired for years,” Moore says. “They’ve inspired a lot of my own ska musical inventions and arrangements. They are also one of the only bands left in existence that can make me dance.

“I think that the song is short and sweet and is a ray of musical light and hope for the people of Japan and for anyone who needs to be lifted out of the doldrums. I’m glad to represent for the cause.”

Although the band is popular, Yankaka feels that ska music fans are still a minority in Japan. Branching out and working with artists from other genres has helped Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra expose more people to their beloved musical style. It has also boosted the band’s profile in the process.

In the past they’ve recruited chart topping vocalists such as Shiina Ringo, Puffy AmiYumi and Crystal Kay to croon atop their tunes. On October’s “Goldfingers” EP they collaborated with highly touted jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara on the song “Suikinkutsu.” Uehara will join the group on stage in Hokkaido on Aug. 13 at the Rising Sun Rock Festival.

“Making music with other famous musicians and vocalists has been a good experience for us,” Yanaka says. “It’s fun to work with other acts. It helps us continue to develop our own sound and has helped make ska better known in Japan.”

Showing no signs of letting up anytime soon, how does Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra intend to keep expanding the nation’s ska music scene?

“Just continue to play — that’s the most important thing we can do. We need to keep sharing our brand of ska music internationally and throughout Japan. I think we will all continue playing this music until the day we die.”

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra play the Green Stage at the Fuji Rock Festival in Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, at 7:20 p.m. on July 30; at Tokyo Ska Jamboree Vol. 3 in Yamanakako, Yamanashi Prefecture, on Aug. 6; at Rising Sun Rock Festival in Ishikari, Hokkaido, on Aug. 13; at Monster Bash in Manou Park, Kagawa Prefecture, on Aug. 21; at Arabaki Rock Fest. in Eco Camp Michinoku, Miyagi Prefecture, on Aug. 27. Tickets for Tokyo Ska Jamboree Vol. 3 are ¥6,800 in advance. Prices for other festival dates vary. The group will begin their 22-date “Discover Japan” tour at Atsugi Bunka Kaikan in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Oct. 21. For more information, visit www.tokyoska.net.