Street spirits plug in and out

Meet Soul Flower Union: political without trying

by Paul Fisher

In Japan these days, music and politics don’t generally sit well together. On the face of it, a group who seem to have bucked the system is Osaka’s Soul Flower Union, who released a new best of album on Sept. 20 and are now on a nationwide tour.

With tracks such as “All Songs Go Forward to Freedom” and “Swing Guerrilla Declaration,” and with lyrics about East Timor and Palestine, both places the band has visited, at least they would appear to be bucking the system.

But not so, according to the group’s guitarist and covocalist Hideko Itami, who, unlike the rest of the band, has lived in Okinawa for the last two years. “Lots of people have said that Soul Flower Union is political, but all we’re doing is singing about issues that touch our daily lives. We just want to have fun with everyone. . . . In any case, do you know of any American musician who speaks out about all the unbelievable events that have been happening in the world? I can name one: Patti Smith. Who else?”

Well, The Dixie Chicks, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. for starters — but Itami has a point. Rather, she thinks a lack of any political comment is ingrained in the Japanese music business. “Those who developed the music scene based it on absolutely childish principles. Being political won’t make money.”

SFU was formed in 1993 out of two groups: glam-rock-influenced Mescaline Drive, featuring Itami, and punk band Newest Model, fronted by Takashi Nakagawa. SFU’s music became a quirky blend of rock and psychedelia, yet from their first album they included unusual elements that would set them apart.

They signed to Sony in the early ’90s, but for the last six years have recorded for an independent or their own label, BM Tunes. Their latest album, the third of their “Ghost Hits” (this one covering the years 2000-06), is the first to be culled entirely from independent-era tracks.

“Our music has become more open and free after we stopped working with the so-called ‘big-name record labels,’ ” explains Itami. “SFU’s music is based on various genres, from traditional to funk, jazz and punk. Through our work in the band, we’ve produced this new ‘Soul Flower Music.’ And you can’t hear it anywhere else in the world.”

So, what are their most recent influences? “Individually, the members have been playing with various musicians from different genres, and through recording with these artists, they can bring back something else to SFU. It keeps things fresh and alive.”

SFU members also perform acoustically as Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, formed after 1995’s Great Hanshin Earthquake, when the group took to the streets of Kobe to play for survivors.

This summer’s “Deracine Ching-Dong,” their first album for nine years, is their usual blend of Okinawan sanshin, the chindon drum (“chindon” is also a type of late-Edo Period street entertainers’ music), accordion, clarinet, guitars, and Takashi Nakagawa’s rasping vocals.

Mononoke Summit play mostly Japanese soshi enka (political songs dating back up to 100 years), but there’s a definite Okinawan leaning to this album, both in the songs and the addition of young sanshin player and singer Natsuki Nakamura.

Was this Okinawan flavor a result of Itami recently relocating to Okinawa? “Natsuki was born in Taisho, Osaka, an area where a lot of Okinawans live,” says Itami. “Six years ago, she returned to Okinawa to be Seijin Noborikawa’s [one of Okinawa’s greatest living traditional musicians] pupil. She’s been a fan of SFU since she lived in Osaka and sings and plays not only Okinawan traditional songs, but collaborates with musicians from other genres. Because I’ve moved to Okinawa, Natsuki and I want to blow a fresh wind into the minyokai (traditional music world) that’s full of rules and customs.”

The highlights on “Deracine Ching-Dong” are two buraku (outcast) songs adapted from ones originating in the buraku community in Kyoto. “We were raised in the Kansai region, where there were many Korean-Japanese. The buraku was an important issue. Also, many people from Okinawa and Amami (part of Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu) migrated there before World War II. They were my neighbors, and these two songs are from where I was raised. As these people were my neighbors, the history of discrimination will always be a lifetime issue.”

A lifetime issue maybe, but sounds like politics nonetheless.

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