While 2016 kicked off for most of the music world with David Bowie tricking hundreds of thousands of people into buying a jazz-prog concept album about death, the message from the heart of J-pop was loud and clear: “DO NOT WORRY, NOTHING WILL EVER CHANGE.”
Everyone’s favorite evil empire, Johnny & Associates, underlined this by staging a sort of hostage-video production where a confused and frightened looking SMAP promised not to split up, much to the relief of all of us on The Japan Times music page.
Thankfully reassured that broadcasts of “Bistro SMAP” will not be interrupted, the big news out of Japan that should be getting everyone excited right now is that avant-garde garage-punk duo Afrirampo is reforming for a March tour, with dates taking in its hometown of Osaka and shows in Nagoya, Tokyo and Fukuoka.
In my roundup last month of Japanese music’s 2015 indie highlights, I remarked on how many special moments had come courtesy of veterans of what became known as the “Kansai Zero Sedai” (“Kansai Zero Generation”), with Afrirampo drummer Pika providing a number of them herself. With Afrirampo’s sole major-label release, “Urusa in Japan,” recently turning 10 years old, the time has never been better for a reminder about this extraordinary band.
In the early 2000s, the music scene in Tokyo was dominated by the looming influence of Number Girl. In stark contrast to the chic, sophisticated sounds and imagery that had characterized the Shibuya-kei scene in the 1990s, Number Girl left in its wake thousands of yowling, emotionally wrought young distortional addicts who dressed like something out of early-’90s Seattle. It was an important and necessary shake-up for a scene that was losing its direction, but it made gig-going an often bleak, emotionally exhausting experience.
Against this backdrop, the sort of unrestrained explosion of sound and vision happening in Osaka felt like a revolution. The musicians were larger-than-life characters, wrapped in Technicolor splatters of vibrant fabric, clambering through the rafters of venues, screaming incomprehensibly in your face, eyes wide with the ineffable intensity of the moment.
But these artists were also doing something musically exciting. Oshiripenpenz was as notorious for the rhythmically complex guitar patterns its members sprayed at the audience as it was for their more visceral emissions of blood and vomit, while Zuinosin’s mathy collision of metal, hardcore and fizzy new wave was enhanced rather than overshadowed by the elaborate costumes and drummer Nani’s hyperactive performances.
Osaka has always had a reputation for producing comedians and performers, and any underground music tradition that can count the likes of noise pioneers Hijokaidan, Hanatarash, Boredoms and Masonna among its luminaries has already set a very high bar for the combination of extreme sounds and visceral performances (sometimes literally, as when Hanatarash hacked up a dead cat onstage with a machete.)
What set the Zero Sedai apart from many of their noise and proto-noise forbears was how they magnified the sense of fun. In that sense, there was an element at work of those other Kansai indie stars of the 1980s and ’90s, Shonen Knife.
Afrirampo combined that sense of ferocious energy and innocent, wide-eyed fun most thoroughly, their raw, loose garage-punk sound and nonsensical vocal interplay was both musically intelligent and utterly instinctive. They showed that you can be arty and still party.
Ten years on from the Zero Sedai’s high water mark, the value and meaning of a band like Afrirampo is different. Far from the grungy, emotional gloom that Number Girl’s followers propagated, the underground scene today is awash with happy, trashy, comical party music, albeit of a rather more self-consciously goofy species.
With the broader musical world darkened by a seemingly endless parade of deaths, and J-pop dulled by the layer of grime that clings to it courtesy of organizations like Johnny’s, some of us need a purer kind of fun to lift our spirits. In this environment, it’s Afrirampo’s sincerity and sheer punk rock cool that makes them so important and, far more than the wildness of their performances, it’s the unrestrained creativity of their music that makes their return such an exciting prospect.
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