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The best of the year that was

by Paul Fisher

The concert scene in Japan tends to slow down a bit in the winter months, so this week I’ll present my pick of this year’s Japanese releases, and in my next column, releases from around the world.

Japan has many gifted and innovative musicians, mostly operating in nonmainstream subgenres, from age-old traditions to cutting-edge club culture. Finding out about them is the problem, though, with the major record companies tightening their purse strings and concentrating on the mainstream.

Since the demise of the so-called Okinawan music “boom,” just about all the majors have dumped their former stalwarts of the genre. Misako Koja had already left Nenes before the other original singers quit. “Ama Kakeru Hashi (Bridges Over Heaven)” (Disc Milk) is Koja’s first solo album since leaving Nenes five years ago, but it was worth the wait. In contrast to the usual high, falsetto voice of Okinawan female singers, Koja’s has developed a more earthy, bluesy quality.

The songs, mostly ballads, have inspired arrangements featuring a string section and traditional Chinese instruments.

“Singapore Gwa”, by Tsuwa Kotoku

Tsuwa Kotoku is a veteran of the Okinawan music scene, but has remained little known outside it. On the double CD “Singapore Gwa” (B/C Records) he is joined by the Roochoo Magic Band to record another of the Okinawan albums of the year. Kotoku’s rasping vocals and sanshin are accompanied by electric guitar, drums, bass and sax for infectious renditions of traditional songs, many with themes of emigration, including the wonderful title track.

“Kiburu Dattchya Music” by Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman

Takashi Hirayasu went to California to record his second album with American National steel and Hawaiian guitar player Bob Brozman. Their first album, the acclaimed “Warabi Uta,” was just the two of them, recorded on Taketomi Island. This time they enlisted the help of other American musicians including David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and the Latin Playboys, who brought a selection of Mexican guitars and his accordion to the sessions. While remaining distinctly Okinawan, the resulting “Kiburu Dattchya Music” (Respect Records) includes traces not only of Mexican music, but also ska, swing and a unison of world 6/8 rhythms on the song “Nankuru Naisa.”

Another song on “Kiburu Dattchya Music” is a funked-up version of “Jidai no Nagare” with new lyrics by Hirayasu, paying tribute to the song’s composer, Rinsho Kadekaru, the “Godfather” of shimauta who died last year aged 79. There was a rash of retrospective Kadekaru releases this year, including a “best of’ and a box set, but the most impressive is “Jiru — Rare Tracks” (Victor). “Jiru” is a treasure trove of previously unavailable recordings from the ’50s to the ’70s, many originally released as 78s and locally produced singles.

“Move” by the Yoshida Kyodai

Back on the mainland, the best-selling album of Japanese traditional music was by the young shamisen-playing brothers Yoshida Kyodai. Their success has probably as much to do with style as substance, as they are cast as punks in kimono on the front of their second CD, “Move” (Victor). The album nevertheless shows them to be more than just pretty faces. Technically brilliant, the Yoshida brothers don’t simply rework but reinvent their Tsugaru shamisen tradition, blending their intricate shamisen playing with jazzy percussion and elements of noh theater.

Shang Shang Typhoon started updating a variety of Japanese traditions such as ondo (festival music), min’yo (folk) and rokyoku (storytelling) over 10 years ago. They combined these with Okinawan music, Latin, reggae, pop and rock to create their own distinctive style. This year’s “Shang Shang Typhoon 8” (Yoo-whoo) was the band’s first album in three years, and their first on an independent label. “8” sticks close to their original formula, mixing up the genres to great effect.

Haruomi Hosono and Makoto Kubota were pioneers of an original Japanese/Asian pop music back in the ’70s, through their solo and group works. Both released albums this year that partly explored another of their ’70s obsessions, the music of New Orleans. Kubota’s “On the Border” (Beams Records) was recorded in Louisiana with a Cajun band, in New Orleans with a brass and funk band and in Woodstock with Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of The Band, among others.

As expected, the musicianship is of the highest caliber. Kubota, singing in English, tackles some cover versions of Cajun and country songs, but it’s his own compositions, where the genre is less defined, which are the album’s highlights.

Hosono got back together this year with Shigeru Suzuki and Tatsuo Hayashi, two members from one of his original bands, Tin Pan Alley. They dropped “Alley” from the name and released “Tin Pan” (Daisyworld). Even more eclectic than Kubota’s effort, previous influences in Hosono’s illustrious career, such as electronic, African and gamelan music, all feature in addition to the sounds of Cajun, blues and New Orleans.

One of the guest musicians on “Tin Pan” was Kazuyoshi Nakamura, who released his own stunning album “Era” (Toshiba EMI), on which Hosono made a reciprocal appearance. The album is packed with great songs, each quite different, but it all fits together like a work of art. Pop, rock, folk, hip hop and funk are just some of the influences swimming around in the mix.

Kazufumi Miyazawa of the Boom is another musician known for combining world mixtures with pop and rock. The group’s ninth album, “Lovibe” (Toshiba EMI), is one of their simpler albums, yet still reveals a variety of styles and sounds. Brazilian bossa nova is given a club treatment on “Bossa Nova Swing.” A light sitar groove and rap adorn other tracks, while the Boom revert to their melodious folk style elsewhere.

To hear what’s happening in cutting-edge global ambient and dance culture, two compilation albums stood out. “The Returning Sun” (Lastrum Corporation) features Kaoru Inoue, a k a Chari Chari, who has developed his own funky style, an innovative mixture reflecting either or both of his main passions, Afrobeat and Indonesian music. Other musicians and DJs include Bayaka, Baku Tsunoda and Calm.

Calm also appears on “Kyogen” (Victor), together with Boss the MC on “Creator’s Delight,” a track that combines a sampled shakuhachi flute with rap. “Kyogen” is altogether harder and darker than the rich, ambient “The Returning Sun,” with hip-hop break beats and heavy-duty dub from Shing02, Menathol DJ Hide and others.