In June of 1963, Kyu Sakamoto’s “Ue wo Muite Aruko” — better known as “Sukiyaki” overseas — became Japan’s first, and only, No. 1 hit single in the United States.
Fifty years later, the song is still cherished at home (anyone using Tomobe Station in Kasama, Ibaraki Prefecture, will know it as the departure melody on Platform 1), and its influence can be seen in the name of Japan’s premier world music festival, Sukiyaki Meets the World.
Just as Sakamoto’s song introduced Japanese popular music to the rest of the globe, Sukiyaki Meets the World aims to bring the world’s music to Japan.
The festival has taken place every summer since 1991 in Nanto, a small city of about 55,000 people in Toyama Prefecture. It was launched by local civil servant Satoshi Yoneda, who served as its producer until 2004. This year’s edition, which will be held from Aug. 22 to 24, includes musical acts Jupiter & Okwess International from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mayra Andrade from Cape Verde and Japanese act OOIOO.
Sukiyaki Meets the World aims to go beyond music and create a deeper exchange of culture, however, through a combination of workshops, artist residencies and home stays — all with the help of volunteers.
“Gathering the energy of the volunteers and transmitting their essential know-how is a key point in the organization of the festival,” says Nicolas Ribalet, who has worked with Sukiyaki Meets the World since 2006. “Having many generations and people from different social environments gathering for the event is an essential part of the concept of the festival. The volunteers are not limited to one basic job. They are completely in charge of a stage or program, and lead it from the beginning to the end.”
Ribalet is both the producer and artistic director of the festival, working with artists here and abroad to help foster an environment that will maximize the free exchange of ideas.
“The initial concept of cultural exchange is still important, even if we now place more importance on the creative process,” he says. “The artists-in-residence program lets us welcome world-famous artists for a long period, staying in traditional houses in town, sharing time and experience with the locals, making workshops for our groups and creating completely original performances that will be diffused all around the world as we also organize tours for those groups, in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Ribalet says there are more than 70 workshops before the festival that give the community a chance to learn from its guests.
“It is very important to let the music take root here, to be understood and shared.”
Keeping a full-scale world music festival going year after year is challenging on its own, even without the kinds of obstacles that are typical of an event of this size. Attendance usually hits around 10,000 people, though that number can go down when the weather is bad. Rain aside, the main problem Sukiyaki Meets the World faces is that the fan base of the genre it promotes, while dedicated, is still rather small.
“World music remains a rather narrow niche market in Japan,” says DJ and broadcaster Peter Barakan, who counts himself as a world music fan.
He notes that the globe’s pre-eminent world music festival, WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance), held two events in Japan in the early 1990s but they “failed miserably. They were poorly promoted and, as a result, chose not to continue in Japan.” This despite holding yearly editions in Australia among other places.
Harada Takashi, owner of El Sur Records, Tokyo’s most well-known world music retailer agrees.
“There are few hard-core world music fans in Japan,” he says. “There are dedicated fans of specific types of music, but it’s not enough to sustain the kind of audience needed to support a festival as large as WOMAD.”
This may seem odd, given that fandom — for both music and foreign culture — in Japan is frequently knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Ribalet believes that it’s “the concept of world music” that’s still unclear in this country.
“We can find many ‘cores’ and networks (the belly-dance core, the salsa core, the West African percussion core, the Brazilian music core, etc.),” he says. “All these cores are strongly separated, with their own specialists and circles. Working for world music means trying to gather these cores, showing the connections (between them) and creating interest — but it’s surprising to see that some reactions (to this) can be hostile. It takes time and a lot of diplomacy to bring them together, but that’s important as I think these energies (united) could build something very original in Japan — a type of event adapted to the communities here.”
This year’s headlining act at Sukiyaki Meets the World, Jupiter & Okwess International, precisely captures what the festival is aiming for. Leader Jupiter Bokondji spent part of his childhood growing up in East Germany as the son of a diplomat. After playing with local German musicians in his youth, he returned to the Congo in the 1980s and spent time traveling, listening to local music and interacting with musicians.
Jupiter & Okwess International’s 2013 album “Hotel Univers” was the act’s first to see an international release. The LP has reached an audience far beyond the Congo with its propulsive mixture of rock, funk and Congolese rhythms. And while many prominent African musicians often sing about returning to their roots and respecting the wisdom of the elders, Bokondji takes a refreshingly contrarian position by railing against elder generations for their mismanagement of his homeland. He encourages young Congolese to reject their parents’ ways and forge a new path. Audiences in Japan won’t hear a watered-down account of life in his country. This approach plays into what Sukiyaki Meets the World really wants to achieve — a true education on culture and not commonly held stereotypes.
“It’s a unique event, not just in Japan but in the world. An example of a local, rural area just opening itself up and embracing vastly different cultures,” says Meta Company music distributor and world music expert Masahiko Ebihara.
Among those representing Japan at the festival are alternative act OOIOO, multi-instrumentalist Sakaki Mango and percussionist Tact Hirose. But the country’s best representation may end up being the people of Toyama Prefecture who make Sukiyaki Meets the World work, especially as it continues to grow.
Sukiyaki Meets the World takes place in Nanto, Toyama Prefecture, on Aug. 22, 23 and 24. Tickets for the Club and Floral stages are ¥3,000 at the door, tickets for Sunday’s Helios Stage are ¥4,000 at the door. For more information, visit www.sukiyaki.cc.
Sukiyaki comes to Tokyo for three-night event
If you can’t make it out to Nanto, Toyama Prefecture, for Sukiyaki Meets the World, have no fear. Many of the bands will also play in Tokyo next week.
Sukiyaki Tokyo will be held at the WWW venue in the capital’s Shibuya district from Aug. 26 to 28, and each day will follow a different theme.
The first day, titled “Roots of Korea, Shadows of Bali, Asia in Fusion,” features South Korean folk band Tori Ensemble. The group has brought its brand of spontaneity-riddled traditional music to various world music festivals for years. Folk singer Shigeri Kitsu will also perform that night with shadow-puppet group Tikuh Jikang, who uses Indonesian instruments in its performances.
As the title “Atlantic to Pacific, Warm Voices of the Coast” suggests, the second day will focus on voices from three different countries. South African artist Bongeziwe Mabandla will open with an unplugged set that is likely to channel Tracy Chapman, but should incorporate other genres such as hip-hop, soul and his own country’s Xhosa music. Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade will perform funky tracks that draw influence from Cuban and Brazilian sounds, while a special unit formed by Japanese singer-songwriter Miyuki Hatakeyama and the acoustic Choro Club is set to make a rare appearance.
The final Sukiyaki Tokyo event is titled “Kinshasa — Joburg: Rumble in the Urban Jungle” and will feature Jupiter & Okwess International from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mabandla will return to the stage for a second night to perform with a band.
For more details, visit www-shibuya.jp.