Intercultural influences

by Paul Fisher

East-West fusions are nothing new. Nearly 100 years ago, some Western classical music was influenced by Indian classical or Javanese gamelan music. In the 1950s, violinist Yehudi Menuhin performed with Indian sarod player Ali Akbar Khan and sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. By the 1960s, John Coltrane was exploring Indian music, while Shankar’s star pupil, George Harrison, was bringing Indian music to a global audience through the Beatles.

Asian Dub Foundation

While this opened the floodgates to Indian subcontinent/Western collaborations, Japan too has attracted its fair share of interest. Two of the best recent Japan-meets-West projects will soon be on tour here, as well as another where East meets West, united by global club culture.

Asian Dub Foundation is not really a fusion group, but a reflection of the different communities of modern Britain, the real sound of Britpop. Of Asian background, ADF emerged from the community workshops of east London, and the so-called “Asian underground” scene of the late ’90s that went overground once Talvin Singh and others tasted mainstream success. Playing down the obvious tablas and sitars, instead they embrace jungle break-beats, dub, rap, trip hop, guitar distortion and other cutting-edge influences. ADF does, however, pay a healthy respect to the past, especially Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose song “Taa Deem” it covers on its latest album, the aptly titled “Community Music.”

The group’s lyrics are often politically confrontational, none more so than on the CD’s opening track “New Great Britain,” with its Blair-bashing comments: “Not enough schools, not enough homes, just phony care in his Millennium Dome, more prime cuts than beef on the bone, and there’s too many questions you’re not answering, Tone.” On another song, “Free Saptal Ram,” ADF called for the release of a victim of alleged judicial injustice in Britain.

Audio Active

However, ADF is not about creating divisions, but about uniting cultures and communities. ADF considers Japan’s Audio Active to be kindred spirits and the two groups will be jointly headlining the tour.

Since their early efforts produced by Adrian Sherwood/On-U Sound, Audio Active has progressed well beyond ambient dub to a truly eclectic mixture of soundscapes. ADF and Audio Active have previously collaborated on record and have toured together in Europe and America. When the two groups get together, as they are sure to at some point in the evening, expect something toward the outer limits of collaboration possibilities.

Asian Dub Foundation and Audio Active Japan tour: Oct. 3 at Tokyo Akasaka Blitz, information from Beatnik (03) 5766-6571, or Smash (03) 3444-6751; Oct. 5 at Zepp Sapporo, call “Mix 2000” ticket center at (011) 612-2000; Oct. 8 at Osaka Bayside Jenny, call Smash West at (06) 6361-0313; Oct. 9 at Nagoya Club Quattro, call Club Quattro at (052) 264-8211; Oct.10 at Fukuoka Drum Logos, call Kusu Music at (092) 791-0999. All shows start at 7 p.m. (except Sapporo at 6:30 p.m.) Tickets are 6,000 yen.

On paper, the pairing of Kansai-based rock band Soul Flower Union with Irish bouzouki player and producer Donal Lunny might not work. Sometimes, however, human connection can be as important as musical association.

“I’ve always liked Irish music, but more like the Pogues or Van Morrison, not really traditional music,” explained the group’s leader and singer Takashi Nakagawa. “I didn’t even know who Donal Lunny was, but when I met him I got a good feeling.”

In attitude, Lunny and Nakagawa share common ground. In the ’70s, Lunny’s band Planxty was one of the first groups to blend rock and traditional Irish music and inspired many of the Celtic groups of the last two decades. (Planxty mandolin player Andy Irvine will accompany Lunny to Japan.)

Soul Flower Union first started to mix traditional Asian elements into its music via its acoustic unit, Soul Flower Mononoke Summit. On the streets of Kobe, while entertaining the victims of the earthquake, they swapped their electric instruments for the Okinawan sanshin, the Japanese chindon and Korean changgo drum and brought in accordion and clarinet. They played songs that were popular in Japan about 70 or 80 years ago. They didn’t try to update them; they just played in their own distinctive style. This style also crept more into the music of Soul Flower Union and in the process they have perhaps come closest to creating Japan’s own rock music, or even modern folk, in its literal sense — music for the ordinary people.

For the upcoming tour, Lunny and Irvine will be playing separately as well as with Soul Flower Mononoke Summit. Despite the earnestness and seriousness of both, it’s the sense of fun, enjoyment and abandonment that make this a winning formula.

Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine and Soul Flower Mononoke Summit Japan tour. All shows start at 7 p.m. and cost 4,000 yen in advance or 4,500 yen at the door. Sept. 23 at Osaka Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, information (06) 6281-8181; Sept. 24 at Kyoto Taku Taku, information (075) 351 1321; Sept. 26 Nagoya Tokuzo, information (052) 733-3709; Sept. 27, Tokyo Aoyama Cay (B1 of Spiral Bldg), information (03) 3498-5790.

The most successful East/West collaboration of recent years both musically and commercially has to be that of Okinawa’s Takashi Hirayasu and American slide and steel guitar player Bob Brozman. Their first album, “Warabi Uta,” released as “Jin Jin” internationally, has become Okinawa’s best-selling album overseas. The two have already toured together in Europe, and will be playing in South Africa and touring the U.S. in October.

In Japan, they will be showcasing songs from their new album, “Kiburu Datchya Music,” recorded in California earlier this year. In contrast to the simplicity of their first album, it features bass, drums and the Mexican guitar of David Hidalgo of Los Lobos.

Wherever they perform, the fun, spontaneity and pure joy they clearly derive from each other communicates to the audience. They both exude an aura of sensitivity, dynamism and charisma, mixed with a refreshing humbleness.