Music | Sound Off

Amid Japan's multitude of music festivals, Frue is worth celebrating

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

As the opening set started at Festival de Frue last year, it was clear the organizers wouldn’t be making a profit. Quirky J-pop act Wednesday Campanella, who had played to a capacity crowd at Fuji Rock Festival a few months earlier, kicked off its performance in front of an audience of just a few dozen people, spread around a venue that looked more like a glorified school gymnasium.

By the end of the show, there were still only about 100 people watching, but the buoyant atmosphere suggested that the weekend wouldn’t be a total washout. Over the next two days, Frue served up a diverse selection of sounds — spiritual jazz, Turkish psych, indie rock, slow-motion techno — crowned by a trio of performances by the Master Musicians of Joujouka, a Sufi trance band from Morocco who I’d never imagined anyone would be brave enough to bring to Japan.

The setting — an off-season holiday resort in Kakegawa, Shizuoka Prefecture — added to the charm of the offbeat lineup. While the main venue may not have been much to look at, its crisp acoustics were evidence of its previous incarnation: It was once the home of the Yamaha Popular Song Contest, a biannual music competition held in the 1970s and ’80s that helped launch the careers of artists including Miyuki Nakajima and Motoharu Sano.

The festival also benefitted from one of the best crowds of any event I attended last year — consistently engaged in the music and showing up in force for the least commercial acts on the bill.

The weekend ended with fond memories for those who’d attended, and reason to doubt that such a glorious convergence of minds and musical opportunities would never happen again.

Thankfully, Frue’s organizers (who also promote occasional gigs and parties, including a recent tour by Brazilian jazz veteran Hermeto Pascoal) weren’t about to let financial prudence get in the way of mad ambition. They took to the crowdfunding site Campfire in a bid to pay off some of their debts and raise enough money to hold the festival again — and, against all odds, they succeeded.

The second edition of Festival de Frue will take place Nov. 3 and 4, and the bill looks just as intriguing as last year’s. Polymath songwriter Bruno Pernadas, experimental guitarist Nels Cline, folk singer Lee Lang, heavyweight DJ/producer Theo Parrish and percussionist Billy Martin (of jazz-funk trio Medeski Martin and Wood) are just a few of the names taking part.

The outdoor DJ stage is being programmed by the folks behind Tokyo after-hours venue WWW ß, and features a tasty selection of leftfield Japanese DJs and producers, including Powder, Sugai Ken and 7FO, plus international visitors Acid Pauli and Campbell Irvine.

It’s a weird time for the festival scene in Japan, one in which events with an international focus and adventurous programming seem to need corporate sponsorship to be viable. Festival de Frue, however, is charting a different path, and for that it’s worth applauding.

Festival de Frue takes place Nov. 3 and 4 in Kakegawa, Shizuoka Prefecture. For details, visit frue.jp/festivaldefrue2018-en.