‘I’m going off track again. Wait a minute.” Midway through a lengthy digression about an “amazing” New Orleans band named Boukou Groove, Peter Barakan pauses, ever so briefly, to check the conversational signposts.
The bilingual British broadcaster, a fixture on Japanese radio for more than three decades now, has seldom been short on gab. In conversation, he’s fond of anecdotes and perambulatory detours, delivered in a gentle lilt that still carries faint traces of his London upbringing. Whatever the topic, he often steers it back to his greatest passion: music.
On “Barakan Beat” — the show that he’s hosted on and off for InterFM since the Tokyo radio station first started in 1996 — his selections range from 1970s roots rock to Afrobeat and contemporary jazz. Recently, regular listeners may have noticed a few unfamiliar artists creeping into the mix: Indigenous Australian singer Gurrumul; steel-pan fusion band Jonathan Scales Fourchestra; blues guitarist Yuji Hamaguchi; a cappella folk trio I’m With Her.
All are appearing at Live Magic!, a two-day festival that Barakan is curating at Tokyo’s Yebisu Garden Hall on Oct. 24 and 25.
“It’s probably the only roots music-oriented festival that there is in Japan now,” he says.
The mere existence of Live Magic! is the latest bit of serendipity in a career that has been full of happy coincidences. Since coming to Japan in 1974 to work in the international department of a music publishing company, Barakan has grown accustomed to such breaks.
In 1980, a friend of his at a Kichijoji record store asked if he could help translate lyrics for a Japanese musician pal who was recording a solo album in London. The musician in question was Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Barakan soon found himself working at Yellow Magic Orchestra’s management company.
A few years later, a TV executive who had heard the late-night radio show Barakan co-presented with singer Akiko Yano got in touch to ask if he’d be interested in hosting a music video show on TBS. Despite eschewing the more obvious hits of the day (“I tried not to play the dross that was around,” he recalls), “The Popper’s MTV” ended up running for three years, and provided him with the impetus to go freelance.
“Everything kind of blossomed out of that,” he says. “The reason that I do a lot of work now is probably down to doing that show.”
Three decades on, “The Popper’s MTV” opened another door for him, when a pair of executives from Tower Records and promoters Creativeman approached Barakan about putting together a festival.
“They used to watch (the show) when they were in their teens, and apparently it had an influence on their taste of music,” he says. “They’re both in their late 40s, they’re kind of drinking buddies, and one day they had this idea: ‘We’d like to do a small-scale, urban, indoor festival aimed at adults, and who do we get to curate it?’ And they both said me.”
The first edition of Live Magic!, held last October, featured overseas visitors including New Orleans keyboardist Jon Cleary and lap steel virtuoso Jerry Douglas, as well as appearances by Yellow Magic Orchestra veterans Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi.
For the follow-up, Barakan had originally booked Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett, guitarists from influential ’70s rockers Little Feat, but the duo had to cancel after Barrere was diagnosed with liver cancer. He’s still confident about the rest of the lineup — which also features the aforementioned Boukou Groove, Cuban singer Dayme Arocena, and a rare live outing by Hosono’s mid-’70s group, Tin Pan — but admits that “the name value … is probably less than last year.”
In a tribute to the event’s would-be headliners and the late Lowell George, the Little Feat songwriter, who would have celebrated his 70th birthday this year, Barakan asked Tin Pan to cover the group’s most famous song.
“I wanna get the whole hall to sing ‘Dixie Chicken,’ or at least the chorus of it,” he says. “I put up a YouTube link (on Facebook) and said: ‘Everybody start practicing now. You’ve got a month.’ ”
And does he think they will? “I think we’ll get enough people doing it that it’ll be fun.”
He’s more concerned, understandably, with selling tickets in the first place. He estimates that the majority of the crowd at last year’s festival was comprised of listeners to his radio shows (which also include regular programs on NHK-FM and FM Yokohama).
“I think that people tend to overestimate the audience that I’m able to pull in,” he says. “I don’t have that much confidence in my drawing power.”
Barakan’s promotional clout was stymied by the cancellation of his regular morning show on InterFM in September last year, only a few weeks before Live Magic! was due to take place. It was the second knock he’d taken from the station that year, after being relieved of his position as executive director in the spring.
Barakan had been appointed to the post in late 2012, which theoretically gave him sway over the station’s entire programming. Speaking to Steve McClure in The Japan Times in April 2013, he sounded ready for a wholesale revamp, promising, “It will be a real music station.”
Does he think he was naive? “In retrospect, yes,” he says. “I expected to be able to come in there and bring in my own team to revamp the whole schedule. Didn’t work out.”
But while he got his nose bloodied that time, he hasn’t lost his ambition to do something big in Japanese radio.
“I would really, really like to have a second stab at that somewhere,” he says. “To set up … maybe even an Internet radio station on a shoestring budget would be fine. I don’t expect to make any money out of it, either. I would just like to do it as an experiment, to see if we could get something going that would present good quality music all through the day, and attract an Internet audience. I think it can be done.”
Peter Barakan’s Live Magic! takes place at Ebisu Garden Hall in Tokyo on Oct. 24 and 25. Two-day passes cost ¥21,000 and a one-day pass costs ¥12,000. There are discounts for students. Performances begin at 1 p.m. For more information, visit livemagic.jp.
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