Shang Shang Typhoon blowing back in to devastate main islands

by Paul Fisher

At the start of the 1990s, when “world music” became a generally accepted term, some Japanese started to look at themselves and wonder what their own country had to offer — not only in Japan but to the rest of the world.

The answer was very little. There was Okinawan music, but to many Japanese, Okinawa can seem quite distant, and even foreign. There was traditional music, but this had mostly been preserved like a museum exhibit and had become a classical music, with little connection to most Japanese people. Pop music, on the other hand, had lost virtually any trace of anything inherently Japanese.

Shang Shang Typhoon are back after a three-year hiatus with a new album on their own label.

Then there was Shang Shang Typhoon.

Shang Shang Typhoon didn’t just update traditional music, or add Japanese instruments to pop music. Instead, they created their own sound, probably closest in style and attitude to postwar kayokyoku, the Japanese version of pop music, mixing elements of Western, Hawaiian or Latin music with Japanese traditions and humorous words.

In their music were fragments of ondo (festival music), min’yo (folk) and rokyoku (Osaka-style narrative ballads). These were combined in varying degrees with an eclectic array of music from Okinawa, Korea, China and Latin America, and with pop, rock and reggae. Later, Hawaiian, Irish, African and Indian music were added to an already blazingly vivid palette of sounds.

For the group’s founder, Koryu (literally “Red Dragon”), the path that eventually led him to this offbeat destination was surprisingly direct and clearly laid out. Born in Yokohama, he grew up in an industrial area.

“The whole of Asia was half-hidden among the factories,” he says. “There were Chinese immigrants, and the world of Korean people could be seen in the junk dealers’ places. I assumed that there might be some common musical elements in those Asian communities in Japan and I thought that if I could mix the elements with American and Japanese music, the result would be formidable.”

Nevertheless he started out as another ordinary Dylan-inspired singer-songwriter in the ’70s, before a meeting with Shokichi Kina not only inspired him musically, but showed him a way to realize his ideas. He took up the banjo, but had it restrung to the tuning of the Okinawan sanshin. If people of all ages in Okinawa can like their own traditional music, why not in Japan? he thought.

“What we want to do is take those things that the Japanese have forgotten in their culture and bring them out in a new way,” he says.

After an initial burst of success and excitement, by the mid-’90s they even had albums released and had toured in America, Europe and Southeast Asia. Fronted by two female singers, Emi and Satoko, in an effort to get closer to ordinary Japanese Shang Shang Typhoon would often perform at shrines, on specially constructed open-air stages, or at traditional theaters, shunning the usual live-house circuit.

Despite consistently high-quality releases, media interest and their popularity slightly waned in the latter half of the ’90s, leading them to eventually part ways with their major record company. It’s therefore a relief to see them return with a new album after a three-year hiatus, on their own independent label. In their usual fashion the album mixes up the genres. Standout tracks include the opener, “Shibire Mambo,” and a cover of the Earth, Wind and Fire song “Fantasy.” Like their first three albums, this one has a serial number instead of a title: “8.”

Or perhaps it’s a message, that Shang Shang Typhoon has returned to the fresh promise of those early days. It is ironic that Morning Musume, with its hayashi vocals and Asian styling, is now so successful (and this is not an endorsement) with what is essentially a substandard version of Shang Shang Typhoon’s original vision.

Shang Shang Typhoon, 5 p.m. Sept. 2 (with Shomyo) on the grounds of Yugyo-ji, Fujisawa-shi, Kanagawa-ken, a 15-minute walk from Fujisawa Station. Admission 5,800 yen. For information, call M&I Co. at (03) 5453-8899.

In Osaka, 7 p.m. Sept. 21 at Shinsaibashi Club Quattro. Admission 4,500 yen. For information, call Kyodo Osaka at (06) 6233-8888.

In Nagoya, 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at Club Quattro. Admission 4,500 yen. For information, call Jail House at (052) 936-6041.

In Kita-Kyushu, 7 p.m. Oct. 5 (with Puri) at Prince Hotel Arena. Admission 2,000 yen, children 1,000 yen. For information, call Yahata-Nishi Ward Office at (093) 642-1441, ext. 260.

Shokichi Kina was kept out of the limelight during the Okinawa summit.

With the Kyushu-Okinawa Summit now behind us, it will be interesting to see if the extra coverage of Okinawan culture and music has any lasting effects. During the summit, Teruya Rinken of Rinken Band seemed to pop up regularly on NHK, Begin and Yasukatsu Ohshima were guests on Okinawan music fan Tetsuya Chikushi’s “News 23,” and Nenes mentor Sadao China could be seen at the sidelines playing sanshin with Namie Amuro and Tetsuya Komuro on the aptly titled “Never End” in front of the world’s leaders.

Conspicuous by his absence at any official event was Shokichi Kina, arguably the island’s most influential musician of the last 30 years (although I did catch a glimpse of him on CNN, singing a protest song).

While this might not have been surprising in itself, on the summit’s official Web site, which painstakingly listed in Japanese and English even minor events in the music history of Okinawa, Kina’s name was entirely omitted. Even Kina’s open objection to the American bases and his environmental concerns surely did not warrant this.

Kina has also been noticeably absent from the annual Ryukyu Festival. Probably this has been due more to personal differences among the musicians than to politics. This year, however, the festival is making a refreshing change from the excellent, but rather worn out Sadao China, Nenes and Rinken Band bias. Kina and Champloose will be topping the bill, together with Kina’s father Shoei Kina.

While perhaps musically not up to some other Okinawan singers, Kina is still the island’s most charismatic figure. His obvious passion and pure emotion usually triumph even over those who might not agree with his lengthy diatribes between songs. Seeing Shokichi Kina live is almost a “Japan Experience,” the kind any foreign resident should have at least once.

Also performing, all from the Yaeyama Islands and presumably neutral, will be Begin (a pop/folk duo) and, in Tokyo, the excellent Yasukatsu Ohshima, probably the best of the current younger Okinawa musicians.

Yukito Ara’s group Parsha Club once threatened to take over Kina’s mantle as Okinawa’s most exciting live act. Although Parsha Club went off the boil, Ara is still a formidable performer and will be joined by his Osaka-born regular collaborator Sunday.

Completing the bill is Diamantes, featuring Peruvian-born Alberto Shiroma. Unfortunately Diamantes has never recovered from being overmarketed as a pop act, instead of seizing the obvious Latin/Okinawan connection its first album hinted at.