In his classic polemic against modern Japan, “Dogs and Demons,” Alex Kerr described how a system of government loans and subsidies in the 1980s spurred a nationwide outbreak of grandiose construction projects. Today, the Japanese countryside is littered with oversized, underused cultural centers, many of which are managed by private firms because local authorities couldn’t afford to pay for their upkeep.
One blessed exception is in Nanto, a thinly spread municipality of 60,000 people in Toyama Prefecture, about half an hour’s drive from Kanazawa. When the city’s Fukuno Creative Cultural Center Helios opened in 1991, it inaugurated a music festival that has endured to the present day. Sukiyaki Meets the World now ranks as Japan’s premier world music event, drawing more than 15,000 people each year to watch musicians from nations as diverse as India, Argentina and Senegal.
“After 26 years, the local people really understand what we’re doing,” says Nicolas Ribalet, the cultural center’s artistic director, and producer of Sukiyaki Meets the World since 2006.
The festival has attracted some big names in the past, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Buena Vista Social Club, but its longevity owes more to how thoroughly it has established itself with the local community. It’s organized entirely by volunteers, and visiting musicians are encouraged to participate in workshops and classes with the locals, both before and during the main event in late August.
These workshops have spawned a host of Nanto-based groups that practice and play year-round, including the Sukiyaki Steel Orchestra and Salaam Aleikum!, an African and Korean percussion ensemble.
The festival receives 30 percent of its budget from the city of Nanto, and while Ribalet says the amount has been gradually getting smaller, he doesn’t think their long-term funding is under threat.
“In terms of priority, we are really high,” he says. “If they touch us, it’s going to be really unpopular. The cost-performance ratio of the festival is very good.”
Ribalet came onboard just as Sukiyaki Meets the World was beginning to shift its focus, after years of relying on Tokyo-based concert promoters to book its international acts. Though the likes of Buena Vista Social Club, who headlined in 2000, brought a significant amount of kudos, it was hard to reconcile the needs of such high-profile stars with the event’s open-door ethos.
“The backstage access was very limited,” recalls Ribalet, who attended the festival for the first time in 2000. When people weren’t even able to say hello to the participating artists, he says, the organizers decided: ” ‘No, that’s not what we want to do. Let’s have more accessible guys.’ “
Since then, Sukiyaki Meets the World has created its own network, booking overseas artists directly, with less regard for prevailing trends on the European world music circuit. Under Ribalet’s tenure, the festival has also introduced a residence program, inviting visiting musicians to stay in traditional houses around Nanto for extended periods and practice, record or work on collaborations with other artists.
One beneficiary of this change was Peter Solo, a Togolese musician based in Lyons, France, where he fronts the ebullient Afro-funk outfit Vaudou Game. Solo was first booked to play at Sukiyaki Meets the World in 2009, when he appeared with his former band, Kakarako.
The following year, he returned to take part in an international super-group, Sukiafrica, featuring musicians from Zimbabwe, Cameroon, South Korea and Japan. The members of the band spent three weeks living together and preparing for their debut performance at the festival, and subsequently went on tour in South Korea and southern Africa.
“There are some experiences you live once in your life, they make you different, they change you,” says Solo, speaking over the phone from his home in France. “That one changed something inside me forever. Japan is my country, man.”
The nephew of Roger Damawuzan, a famous Togolese singer from the 1970s, Solo had found fame in his native country in the early 2000s before moving to England, and later France. He describes his first visit to Japan as a pivotal moment in his career: It was the first booking he’d had outside Europe, and made him review his commitment to music making. (“That put me to work,” he says.)
He subsequently disbanded Kakarako and embraced the analog funk sound that his uncle has championed since the ’70s. Vaudou Game, which released its debut album in 2014, also gives him a platform to espouse the music and philosophies of Togo’s indigenous religion, Voodoo. Though Hollywood has traditionally depicted it as a cult of zombies and black magic, Solo describes an animist tradition that sounds far closer in spirit to Shinto.
“Voodoo says we need to be in harmony with nature,” he explains. “That’s why I feel at home in Japan, people care about the environment and try to respect nature.”
Expressing these ideas through Vaudou Game required him to teach the music of Voodoo rituals to his French and Chilean bandmates, none of whom were raised in the tradition. However, with breezy confidence that sounds in keeping with the Sukiyaki Meets the World philosophy, he insists this was less of a challenge than it might sound.
“It was not difficult, because they are musicians,” he says. “If you are a musician, you don’t need to grow up in Japan to play Japanese music. Give me one week or give me two weeks with Japanese musicians, I will play Japanese music, man. Because I’m a musician.”
Sukiyaki Meets the World is held in Nanto, Toyama Prefecture from Aug. 26 to 28. Tickets for the main concerts are ¥3,000 at the door on Aug. 26 and 27, and ¥4,000 on Aug. 28. For more details, visit www.sukiyakifes.jp. Vaudou Game also plays at WWW in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo on Aug. 30, at the first of two Sukiyaki Tokyo shows (7:30 p.m. start; ¥5,000 in advance; 03-5458-7685). For more details, visit www.sukiyakitokyo.com.