While most of Tokyo is frantically trying to cool down, Japan’s prime dub outfit Little Tempo will be heating things up this summer with a series of live gigs.
In the early 1990s, founding members of fledgling group Silent Poets split away to form the dub-tropical outfit Little Tempo, led by the charismatic Tico, complete with eye-patch — pirate style. While the Poets went on to achieve a solid reputation in Britain for their introspective, abstract hip-hop musings, their offspring, Little Tempo, cemented their standing in today’s Japanese reggae scene, vying with Dry and Heavy for the dub crown. But the all-important seal of approval from the United Kingdom still eluded them.
That is about to be rectified, if the positive reactions at recent U.K. shows are any barometer. Keeping up the momentum of 1999’s “Ron Riddim” and 2001’s “Kedaco Sounds,” the year that saw their breakthrough in Japan with appearances at Fuji Rock and Rising Sun, their recently released fifth album, “Brain Food,” should take them to the next level in Japan.
I talked to the group’s leader, Tico, at one of his favorite cafes in his neighborhood of Kunitachi, a mellow suburb of West Tokyo. Shunning the sleek, modern interiors of the fashionable cafes nearby, he seems quite at home in the down-to-earth tea room, the kind that grows more comfortable with age. With the gentle sun streaming through the windows, it was a perfect setting for us to discuss the tropical sounds of Little Tempo.
“We’re basically a reggae band,” explains Tico, “but a reggae band without a singer, so the instruments carry the melody instead.” Many Japanese reggae/dub bands struggle to replicate the original ’70s Jamaican sound, but Little Tempo aren’t aspiring to mere authenticity. Even with dub maestro Uchida, the engineer from Dry and Heavy who is now an established member, Little Tempo’s take on the genre is more subtle; not only borrowing the obvious aspects (the lilting rhythms, the space-enhancing echoes and delays), but the essence: its spirit of openness and experimentation.
“Most of the musicians in Little Tempo also play in other bands, be they Latin, salsa or Hawaiian, or whatever,” he explains, “and all these influences come out naturally in our music. . . . It’s the reggae beat that keeps it all together.” Perhaps more than on previous works, this eclectic approach is typified on tracks from “Brain Food.” Steel drums are Tico’s instrument of choice, so echoes of Calypso are never far away, joining Latin-inspired percussion patterns, fragments of displaced ethnic melodies and bizarre organ sounds. Even flashes of spaghetti-western soundtracks make an appearance, in a wonderfully curious but cohesive whole.
Little Tempo are fresh back in Japan after some demanding shows in Britain, most notably at this year’s Meltdown festival, which have a new curator each year. Last year’s host was David Bowie; this year it was the eccentric Lee “Scratch” Perry, dub producer extraordinaire. He introduced London’s Royal Festival Hall to the delights of Public Enemy, Sly and Robby, and a collaboration between himself, Mad Professor and Tortoise, as well as to Little Tempo’s first live show outside Japan.
“In Japan there is too much information, so our Japanese audiences come with certain expectations.” says Tico, “In England, no one, except for a small core of fans, really knew anything about us so the audience reaction was different — more pure and direct. So we felt free to play very naturally.”
In addition to Meltdown, they played three other gigs: at a reggae club filled and fumigated by Rastas; for a mix of rockabilly and ska fans in a central London club; and to a completely open crowd at a street carnival. The diversity made an impression on the band, Tico says. “Working under drastically different conditions each time, we also learned — the hard way — what flexibility means. The tiny stage at one venue could not even accommodate our drum kit, so we simply went ahead and played without it. These experiences toughened us up,” Tico says with a grin.
So a reinvigorated and more confident Little Tempo, complete with drummer, should be on stage at the Liquid Room this week, followed by several summer festival appearances. Despite recent exposure to European-style live shows and festivals, Tico feels Japanese audiences are still a little unimaginative. He says in Britain, the crowds were aware of being active participants in the fun of the live shows, and he would like to see some of that energy rubbing off on Japanese music-lovers. “I’d like to see people here make more of an effort to bring something of themselves to the experience of enjoying live music.”
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