Anarchic, anything-goes garage-punk band Afrirampo is defined first and foremost by feelings: The feelings that drive the duo as artists and the feelings they evoke in audiences. As the band returns to the live circuit after a six-year absence, guitarist Mayumi “Oni” Saeki is acutely aware of how the feeling of the band has both changed and remained constant since before her and drummer Mineko “Pika” Azuma’s extended hiatus.
Formed when the still-teenage Oni joined up with fresh-out-of-high school Pika, Afrirampo began making music together using just a pair of cheap Casiotone synthesizers before settling into the scorching red psychedelic garage-punk fireball we know them as today.
It was in this form that the duo became leading lights of an early-2000s Kansai scene dubbed by the domestic music press as the “Zero Generation.”
“At first I didn’t notice there was anything special happening,” Oni recalls, “but gradually the situation was just there. People around us started mentioning the ‘Zero Generation’ and saying, ‘Osaka is haunted by demons.’ Before we knew it, we realized we were absolutely in a scene, and found ourselves surrounded by so many stupid and amazing friends!”
The demonic inferno of early 2000s Osaka may have been the environment that forged Afrirampo in its early years, but Oni is acutely conscious of the way different environments can generate different feelings and different sounds.
“It definitely changes from place to place,” Oni explains. “It varies depending on what you could call the ‘vibration’ of each place: The intense sounds that come to me in cities or the calm sounds I get when I’m surrounded by nature. The same thing can be said not just of places, but also people. When I’m with my child, sounds become intense and untidy … all sounds have good points!”
It’s people perhaps more than anything else that define the way an environment changes, and in the six years since Afrirampo’s 2010 breakup, Oni has made a well-received solo album, “Sunwave Heart,” while Pika has made her own solo recordings as well as doing a long stint as drummer with psychedelic rock band Acid Mothers Temple. Despite exploring a range of different sounds and styles in their various individual activities, the moment the pair step back on stage as Afrirampo, there’s a glorious sense of familiarity that only gradually begins to show the different shades these intervening years have brought.
“The difference between playing solo and as Afrirampo is the same as the difference between reading a book in a cafe and chatting there with your friends,” Oni says. “The instruments and your voice are the same, but the situation changes depending on who you work with … just as the way the contents of a conversation change with each person you talk with. There might be more serious elements in our solo projects, but once we’re Afrirampo we can act stupid again, like hanging out together at a theme park.”
Another thing that’s changed is that Afrirampo is no longer the fizzing electrical storm of insurgent youth it was 12 years ago. Oni and Pika are now legends of the Japanese rock underground and inspirations to many. Oni notes that the duo seems to be attracting a larger female audience to its shows than in the past, and their influence is clearly visible in a lot of young female musicians scattered across the country.
Watching Afrirampo at its Fukuoka show in March, the pair seem to have embraced their growing role as godparents to a new generation.
One of the most warming aspects of that show was the way Oni watched young local band Tokotokotonntoko’s’ demented opening set from the audience with a massive, delighted grin on her face. She then followed it up during Afrirampo’s set by crouching at the side of the stage, yelling an entire song into Tokotokotonntoko’s drummer Ann Murasato’s face, before dragging her on the stage to enter a furious drum duel with Pika.
Growing up is something that Oni feels has had an influence on the feeling and character of her music, and that’s reflected in subtle changes to the aggressive explosion of color that characterized the group’s early days.
“I’m in my 30s now and I became a mother,” she explains, “so it’s not the same as it was 10 years ago. It’s not all bright red and orange now: there’s also a bit of salmon pink mixed in! Things go more smoothly with the band now, too. When we were young, we couldn’t always decide things quickly because of our weird prides and jealousies. Now, I feel we’ve grown up a lot more and communication has become so much easier.”
Nevertheless, the mixture of childish abandon and goofy theatrics that has always characterized Afrirampo remains a deeply rooted part of its identity. The two women take the stage in Fukuoka singing an a cappella wedding march and perform a symbolic marriage ritual to seal their reunion, sing whole songs with their mouths sealed up with duct tape, and then finally dive headlong into the audience — drum kit and all — and corral everyone into an enormous conga line. At the same time, however, there are moments when both members break through the raw barrage of fuzz-drenched riffs and dazzle with a technical virtuosity honed through their years apart.
The rush of energy that catapulted Afrirampo and its “Zero Generation” comrades into the spotlight might have become more colored by nuance over time, but based on the performances Oni and Pika have put in so far, these extra shades have added to, rather than subtracted from, the duo’s many charms. The band we first fell in love with is still there — and burning as hot as ever.
“Just like me, everyone around us got married and had children,” Oni explains. “More and more people drifted away from music and started to become good moms and dads, aunties and uncles. But at the same time, just like me, maybe they haven’t changed that much either: We’re all still like children.”
Afrirampo plays Koriyama 4D in Koriyama, Fukushima, on July 2 (¥3,500 in advance, www.koriyama4d.wix.com/koriyama4d); U.F.O. Club in Tokyo on July 3 (¥2,500 in adv.; 7 p.m. start; 03-5306-0240); and Pinebrooklyn in Osaka on July 10 (¥2,000 in adv.; 2 p.m. open; 06-6225-7097). For more information, visit www.afrirampo.net.