Sonar festival sounds out Japanese hopefuls

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

For two decades, it’s entertained, educated and — on more than a few occasions — polarized electronic music fans. As Barcelona’s Sonar festival enters its 20th year, it’s still as contrary as when it first started: an event with equal space in its heart for abstract electronica and the Pet Shop Boys, and whose lofty subtitle — International Festival of Advanced Music and New Media Art — doesn’t preclude it from booking Deadmau5 and Skrillex.

In its teenage years, Sonar has branched out beyond its Catalonian base, organizing sister festivals in São Paulo and Reykjavik, and a tour of cities in the United States and Canada last autumn. Its most regular stop-off, however, has been Japan: the first SonarSound Tokyo was held here in 2004, and since 2011 it’s been an annual affair, split between a late-night Saturday session and a more leisurely daytime gig on Sunday.

While it shares some of the international acts that will appear at the mother festival in Barcelona in June — including Underworld’s Karl Hyde, narcotic dance polymath Nicolas Jaar and dub/dubstep tag team Sherwood & Pinch — this weekend’s SonarSound Tokyo also showcases some of Japan’s more cutting-edge talents.

“When we travel to one of our events outside Spain, we like to involve the local artistic scene and get to know more about them,” says Sonar codirector Enric Palau. “We pay a lot of attention to what works in each country, and for this, Japan is very specific.”

Sonar Barcelona has hosted a range of Japanese artists in the past, be it electropop progenitors Yellow Magic Orchestra, techno star Ken Ishii or experimental VJ and sound artist Daito Manabe. In curating the lineup for SonarSound Tokyo, Palau works in collaboration with the event’s local promoter, Beatink — the Japan distributor for well-known electronica labels such as Warp Records, Ninja Tune and Hyperdub.

“Artistic merit is the only constant value that we consider when choosing Japanese artists for the event,” says Beatink owner Ray Hearn, a veteran of the electronic-music scene here. “However, as Sonar Barcelona has such a long history of presenting Japanese artists … we always try to make choices that could appeal to audiences outside of Japan as well.”

This year’s selection is certainly an eclectic bunch, running from postrock quartet Toe — a band big enough to play the main stage at Fuji Rock Festival — to niche, blog-approved acts such as Tofubeats and Sapphire Slows. In an age of Twitter, Soundcloud and Bandcamp, some probably command larger followings overseas than they do at home.

Hearn sees this as part of a wider trend: “There is a growing gap in the Japanese music scene, where interesting acts get taken more seriously outside of Japan, while most of the commercial opportunities here tend to favor more mainstream acts and J-pop — which we tend to avoid.”

Sure enough, Palau’s top pick from among this year’s Japanese acts isn’t exactly a household name (here or anywhere, for that matter). “I’m very happy to have Shiro Takatani performing at SonarSound Tokyo,” he says, referring to the veteran video installation artist best known for his work with avant-garde theater group Dumb Type. “Shiro is a good example of an artist that I found unique in Japan: he has a different way to approach creativity and technology in visual and sound art.”

While Takatani has been active for three decades now, other domestic artists at SonarSound are just getting started. When Sapporo producer Jealousguy appeared at the festival last year, it was only the third show that she had played in Tokyo (she’s since gone on tour to Europe). This year, Hearn singles out electronica wunderkind Madegg, who at the tender age of 20 has already released more music than many far more established artists. It was on the strength of his forthcoming album, “Kiko”, that the Kyoto-based producer landed a spot at SonarSound — though, in what he calls “a stroke of luck”, he’s also the only Japanese artist playing at both the Tokyo event and the ancillary A Taste of Sonar in Osaka.

Madegg, real name Kazumichi Komatsu, describes the original Sonar as a festival of “historic” significance. “It’s not just about music,” he says. “It’s about creating a fusion between music and the modern art and technology that surround it, and showing new, alternative directions.”

Nobu Suzuki, who makes masterfully edited hip-hop, broken beats and deep house under the moniker Sauce81, agrees: “I think people that go to SonarSound are more curious about hearing and seeing new music and art, instead of just going out to dance or chill.”

Suzuki’s own ticket to the festival came via Red Bull Music Academy, the enlightened corporate sugar-daddies of the beat scene, whose independently programmed stages have become a fixture at Sonar events in both Barcelona and Tokyo. Entry to the RBMA SonarDome stage is restricted to alumni of the eponymous Academy — an annual summit, held in a different city each year, which acts as a hothouse for emerging talent. This year, that includes both homegrown producers such as Suzuki, Yosi Horikawa and Akiko Kiyama, and a mouth-watering selection of international acts, Space Dimension Controller, Addison Groove and Nguzunguzu among them.

Having seen fellow RBMA alumni Horikawa go to play at the Barcelona festival last year, Suzuki is aware that this particular gig is about more than just Tokyo. “Sonar is an international project, so if you (play well) I guess there’s a chance of foreign people spreading the word around the globe,” he says. Still, the gig itself is probably more than enough: “I’d say it is important regardless of whether the artists can connect with the world or not.”

SonarSound takes place at Ageha in Koto-ku, Tokyo, on April 6 and 7 (9 p.m. start Saturday, 2 p.m. start Sunday; ¥7,750 for one day, ¥14,500 for two days; 03-5768-1277). A Taste of Sonar takes place at Universe in Chuo-ku, Osaka, on April 5 (6 p.m.; ¥5,000 in advance; 06-6641-8733); and Club Quattro in Kita-ku, Osaka, on April 8 (6 p.m. start; ¥5,800 in advance; 06-6311-8111). The lineup for A Taste of Sonar differs on each day. For more information, visit www.sonarsound.jp.