Minyo Crusaders sing a song from every corner of Japan

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

A muffled bass line is soon matched by Katsumi Tanaka’s staccato electric guitar riff loosely emulating a shamisen. Congas and timbales start grooving in the rhythm of cumbia before the horn section dives in, setting the stage for Fredy Tsukamoto to belt out a high-pitched, vibrato-filled rendition of “Kushimoto Bushi,” a minyō folk song from western Wakayama Prefecture.

The opening track on “Echoes of Japan,” the debut album by Minyo Crusaders, exemplifies how the 10-piece group seamlessly blends Afro-Cuban and Caribbean rhythms with old Japanese minyō to create an exotic and compelling modern interpretation of the time-worn folk genre.

“They naturally work together, since both minyō and Latin music use plenty of minor keys,” says Tanaka, the long-haired, bearded 47-year-old guitarist and leader of the band.

“The point is to avoid making it too complicated and artistic, since minyō is for common, everyday people.”

The band’s sound could be described as having a retro feel influenced by a hefty dose of world music. “Otemoyan,” a well-known folk song from southern Kumamoto Prefecture about a young maiden marrying a man with a pockmarked face, is reshaped into a reggae track with dub sensibilities. “Akita Nikata Bushi” from northern Akita Prefecture takes its cue from Ethiopian funk, while Fukuoka Prefecture’s “Tanko Bushi” swings to the sound of boogaloo. All the while, however, minyō’s distinctly stylized form of singing is maintained, providing a sense of authenticity despite the melange of rhythms.

The history of minyō can be traced back centuries and the artform has been passed down for generations in villages and rural communities, serving as a reminder of the nation’s more traditional past. Commonly accompanied by dancing, minyō often portrays a story or scenery native to the locale, evoking nostalgia for many Japanese who grew up listening and singing along to the songs during neighborhood festivals and other communal gatherings.

Minyo Crusaders’ approach follows the path of predecessors who have experimented with combining minyō with Latin, jazz and other forms of contemporary music.

The late Hibari Misora, Japan’s premier diva of the 20th century, began using Latin rhythms in minyō compositions in the 1950s, while Chiemi Eri, another singer and actress who passed away in 1982, recorded minyō in the ’50s and ’60s backed by Sharps and Flats, an ensemble led by prolific jazz musician Nobuo Hara, as well as the Tokyo Cuban Boys, Japan’s leading Latin big band formed in 1949 by Tadaaki Misago.

“These bands introduced what was then the latest dance music to Japan, whether it was Latin or jazz or foxtrot,” Tanaka says. “And they extended their arrangements to minyō as well. That’s where we’re coming from.”

The band’s reworking of historical songs has already caught the ears of prominent musicians and music critics. American guitarist and roots-music maestro Ry Cooder is reportedly a fan, while the group has been booked for live shows presented by veteran world-music producer Makoto Kubota and British musicologist and radio DJ Peter Barakan (who has booked them again for his Live Magic! festival in October). On Saturday, Minyo Crusaders will be performing its eclectic brand of folk music during the second day of the three-day Tokyo Jazz Festival.

The mixed nature of Minyo Crusaders’ music may be traced back to where the band was conceived: Fussa, a city in western Tokyo that sits next to the U.S. military’s Yokota Air Base.

Visiting the city nearly two decades ago, Tanaka was intrigued by the free-wheeling atmosphere of the area and immediately decided to live in the so-called beigun (U.S. military) housing developments scattered outside the base walls. The multicultural feeling of the city has attracted artists and musicians for decades, including the late songwriter and producer Eiichi Ohtaki, known as a member of pioneering rock band Happy End. In the mid-1970s rock legend Kiyoshiro Imawano shared a beigun house with a friend near Route 16, which runs along the base, while author Ryu Murakami’s 1976 award-winning sex-and-drug-fueled novel, “Almost Transparent Blue,” is based on his experience living in a beigun house.

“It’s a place where musicians would dream of living, at least once in a lifetime,” says Tanaka, who originally hails from Okayama Prefecture in western Japan. True to its roots, the band’s debut album, released in December, was recorded in the living room of a beigun house that Tanaka now rents as an office.

Fussa is also where Tanaka first met Tsukamoto, the minyō singer. As musician friends, the two would occasionally perform together at local parties and events. It was rare, however, for Tsukamoto to showcase his minyō skills at those functions, and it wasn’t until Tanaka began exploring old minyō albums recorded by pop stars of the time that he came to appreciate the genre.

“It was standard for big-name singers of that generation to release minyō albums, and some of the arrangements on them could be rather eccentric, incorporating, for example, Latin rhythms or rockabilly,” he says.

“I gradually found myself drawn to that particular brand of music, and then remembered that Fredy is a minyō singer.”

The band that would eventually be named Minyo Crusaders was thus formed in 2011 and reached its current manifestation after a reshuffle of members two years ago that led to the addition of another singer, Meg, who can be heard on several tracks on their debut album.

The success of the record and word-of-mouth has made Minyo Crusaders a sought-after live act. It played a midnight set at the Palace of Wonder at this year’s Fuji Rock Festival and performed at Sukiyaki Meets the World, a world music festival held in Nanto, Toyama Prefecture, last Saturday.

The band has gradually increased its repertoire, and now counts around 15 to 16 minyō songs. Tanaka searches YouTube and hunts for old records for inspiration, but admits resources are inexhaustible.

“There is an incredible amount of minyō out there, so I suppose we won’t ever be short on ideas,” he says.

“My ambition is for us to be able to perform minyō from every corner of Japan. You should see our audience when we play a number from their hometown. That really gets them swinging.”

Minyo Crusaders play the 17th Tokyo Jazz Festival on Sept. 1 (4:15 p.m. start). The festival runs Aug. 31-Sept. 2 at NHK Hall and in Yoyogi Park. For more information on participating acts, set times and ticket prices, visit www.tokyo-jazz.com. They’ll also play Peter Barakan’s Live Magic! festival on Oct. 20. For more details, visit www.livemagic.jp.

Jazz in the city

Much in the way that music is borderless, so too is this year’s Tokyo Jazz Festival.

In addition to events at music venues WWW and WWWx featuring Kyoto Jazz Massive, Wonk and more, the Tokyo Jazz Parade will hit Shibuya’s Center-gai street on and off from 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 1.

The festival is also sponsoring a slate of free events in Yoyogi Park on Sept. 2 from 11 a.m. that include performances from a mix of professional and amateur acts such as EMP Band (a group from an all-boys high school in Chiyoda Ward), Waseda University’s New Orleans Jazz Club, Good Morning Jazz Orchestra and STP Jazz Funk Orchestra.