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Take time to stop and hear the music

by Paul Fisher

As your Music Nomad is wandering back to the U.K., this will be my last column. Thanks for taking the trouble to read it over the years; hopefully some of you have enjoyed seeing the concerts recommended.

Taraf de Haidouks (top), Esma (middle) and Kocani Orkestar are coming to Japan for the Gypsy Summer series.

For those, like me, with an interest in what’s termed “world music,” Japan is a fairly happy hunting ground. But what it lacks is a good festival dedicated to a wide variety of world music.

Local politics between self-appointed “experts” put paid to the groundwork done by the WOMAD organization, which cut its losses a few years back. The few world music promoters Japan does have do a truly fine job (respect due in particular to Plankton and Conversation) in developing the careers of artists here. However, the constraints of the market have limited the opportunities for some equally deserving musicians who have yet to visit Japan; record companies, too, are increasingly unlikely to take a risk on an artist without a track record.

This is a malaise affecting the world music scene everywhere. The same few big names (Buena Vista Social Club isn’t going to happen again in a hurry) dominate what little coverage there is in the mainstream media, making the scene appear as though stagnating. Yet the reality is very different: With a plethora of great artists and albums, it’s thriving.

A simple definition of “world music” is “local music, not from here.” Perhaps because I’m not from here, it’s the local music that has interested me as much as anything in Japan. It’s just a shame it doesn’t interest the locals as much.

Traditions are being forgotten by young Japanese — and who can blame them, when traditions are mostly preserved like museum pieces and granted little relevance to the current day? Every once in a while, a tradition resurfaces (currently it’s tsugaru shamisen courtesy of Yoshida Kyodai), but experience teaches that such fads don’t last.

It’s the same story in most developed countries — and in a way more disturbingly in underdeveloped countries. With the march of globalization and American cultural imperialism, pop music sounds pretty much the same wherever you are in the world. Sadly, even Japanese is now sometimes sung in an American accent.

There is an up side to this, though. Musicians who do explore their own roots are combining them with all kinds of Western and extraneous influences to create some of the world’s most vibrant music. Clubbing masses anywhere in the world revel in rhythms from Africa, Latin America and Asia, as dance producers have been keen to embrace world music. It’s not just “ethnic decoration” anymore — as with Deep Forest or Enigma’s use of sampling. As technology has advanced, Africans, Brazilians or Indians are themselves producing the cutting-edge sounds.

Japanese artists have always been adept at musical mixtures, but too often this was limited to jazz favorites played on shakuhachi or something else equally well-intentioned but of little consequence.

What’s happening now is something more radical. Japanese DJs such as Chari Chari or Calm have extended the soundscape to Japan and Southeast Asia, taking the region’s music to the world stage.

Beyond dance music, some bands are mixing up their Japanese roots with everything the world throws at them. Some of these artists are beginning to make waves overseas; in Japan, they remain not so much part of the underground as buried. In London, I witnessed 5,000 Blur fans going wild over the support band, the punk-chindon-jazz of Cicala Mvta. In Tokyo, An-Chang Project play their psychedelic Okinawan brew to 20 people or so, whereas in London they had 200 people in the palms of their hands, enchanted and beguiled.

Okinawa is the only surviving enclave in Japan where the local traditions are truly alive. From the end of the ’80s, when the world first started seriously listening to African and Latin music, it was to Okinawa that the Japanese looked for their own “world music.” Subsequently, Shokichi Kina, Nenes and Takashi Hirayasu have all released CDs internationally and toured abroad.

Still, compared to other parts of the world, Okinawa, Japan and eastern Asia in general have been rather left behind. The reasons are multiple.

Unlike Africans or Latinos, Asian expatriate communities have not been that interested in getting their adoptive nations to listen to their roots-based music. Traveling in Asia, you are also unlikely to encounter much beyond mainstream pop, which can be off-putting, to the say the least. In contrast to smaller nations who rely on musical exports, Japanese record companies concentrate on the domestic market and view each other as rivals rather than allies working together for the greater good. Government-funded cultural organizations tend to support purely traditional music at the expense of anything more contemporary or experimental. Perhaps, for the overseas listener, the rhythms and melodies are a little alien to “Western” tastes, while stereotypical images mean people can’t always approach Asian music with open ears.

There is a wind of change in the air, though. Artists from the roots, indie and dance worlds are helping to create a positive image and movement of Japanese music. As pop music has become homogenized, the backlash has begun to celebrate diversity.

While some of Japan’s best “roots” musicians have to put up with resistance at home, it pales in comparison to what Romania’s Taraf de Haidouks have had to endure. Despite being Romania’s major cultural export — touring the world, collaborating with some major names, not to mention movie roles and fashion modeling — Taraf de Haidouks had never played in their nation’s capital, Bucharest, until the end of last year.

For some Romanians, including the Culture Ministry, Taraf de Haidouks are a group of Gypsies who don’t represent Romanian culture, and their success abroad has been resented in some quarters.

Without local support, organizing a concert became a bureaucratic nightmare for the band’s Belgian managers. Instead of the packed concert halls they have come to expect abroad, the three Bucharest gigs took place in a shabby theater. The recordings of these concerts form the basis of the band’s latest album, “Band of Gypsies.”

Last year, Taraf de Haidouks performed in Japan as part of the Altan Festival and they were such a hit that they’re back to headline this year’s Gypsy Summer series of concerts. Also performing is Kocani Orkestar, a Gypsy brass band from Macedonia, who provided a perfect complement to the string instrumentation of Taraf at those concerts in Bucharest. The two bands will be getting together again at one concert in Tokyo.

Balkan singer Esma will be performing later in September. She should be a fitting finale to the Gypsy Summer, as hopefully the Taraf de Haidouks concert will be for me.