Music

Raving from the past into the future with WaqWaq Kingdom

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

“Those people are crazy, they don’t sleep!” exclaims Shigeru Ishihara, recalling the two months he spent collaborating with local musicians in Uganda last summer. “Most of the time, people in the West … think African music is made in a traditional style, but we were trying to make something that’s not like that. So I was working with grindcore people from Africa — it’s crazy!”

Hooking up with African musicians playing grindcore — a feral mix of heavy metal and hardcore punk — is the kind of atypical move in which the Japan-born, Berlin-based producer specializes. Under the moniker DJ Scotch Egg, Ishihara gained notoriety on the fringes of the U.K. music scene during the 2000s for his frenzied mash-ups of Gameboy sounds and whiplash-inducing gabber beats.

More recently, he has been crafting a slightly less hectic brand of transnational club music with fellow Germany-dwelling expat Kiki Hitomi in WaqWaq Kingdom. Sophomore album “Essaka Hoisa,” released last November, is a multicolored patchwork of styles, from dub and chiptune to African polyrhythms and the music of Japanese matsuri (festivals).

The duo’s label dubs it “minyō footwork” — traditional Japanese folk song spliced with the frenetic Chicago dance genre. But it’s just as easy to spot commonalities with the smash-and-grab global bass music of early M.I.A., the club-savvy J-pop of Wednesday Campanella or the rhythmic mutations of Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Tapes crew, which hosted Ishihara on his summer sabbatical.

Speaking to Hitomi and Ishihara, the pair have an easy rapport, giving each other space to talk while adding the odd sarcastic quip in response to a particularly long-winded answer.

They originally met over a decade ago at a party in Brighton, England, where Hitomi was performing with Dokkebi Q, her warped dancehall duo with Goh “Gorgonn” Nakada.

“I never thought I’d work with DJ Scotch Egg at that time,” she recalls. “Shige’s a bit more calm now, but at that time he was a bit too crazy for me. I liked the music, but it was too fast for me to think, and to put vocals on.”

WaqWaq Kingdom — whose name is a play on the Japanese word for excitement, wakuwaku — came to fruition much later, after both members had moved from the U.K. to Germany. Tired of terrorizing dance-floors, Ishihara began working with percussionist Andrea Belfi on music that he could play while doing his other job: selling okonomiyaki (savory pancakes) at food markets in Berlin.

“I couldn’t play DJ Scotch Egg in the market with families, with everyone eating food,” he says. “I wanted something that works in this kind of environment, you know? Like a family environment, but still interesting music.”

Hitomi had been performing with producer Kevin Martin and poet Roger Robinson as King Midas Sound, whose music inhabited the bleak outer limits of the dub universe. But after moving to Leipzig and having a daughter with her partner, musician Jan Gleichmar, she found the group’s music “quite depressing … it’s too heavy.”

When Ishihara sent her a new track he’d been working on, with a more languid tempo and a shimmering liquid core, she liked what she heard and immediately recorded a vocal on top.

The song, “I Would Like to Let You Go,” also featuring Belfi’s percussion, became the opening track on the first WaqWaq Kingdom album. Released in 2017 on Gleichmar’s Jahtari label, “Shinsekai” (“New World”) sat within a continuum tracing back to the dubstep scene that originated in early-2000s London. However, the genealogy of follow-up “Essaka Hoisa” is harder to trace.

Now pared down to a duo, after Belfi decided to focus on his solo career, Hitomi and Ishihara have fostered a close collaboration.

“I think the process of making ‘Essaka Hoisa’ was really finding what our sound is — what WaqWaq Kingdom is about,” Hitomi says.

Ishihara describes how he would present multiple sketches to Hitomi and see what she responded to. They would also create tracks on the fly, feeding inspiration they’d found on the dance-floor straight back into their own music. Lead single “Doggy Bag” started with a recording Hitomi made of herself singing along to a DJ’s set after a WaqWaq Kingdom gig in Milan, which Ishihara started working on as soon as they got back to the hotel.

Like quite a few tracks on the album, the lyrics of “Doggy Bag” don’t quite square with the ebullience of the music, as Hitomi rails against the wastefulness of consumer culture. The refrain of “mottainai” (“what a waste”) echoing through the song harks back to a famous public service announcement that aired on Japanese TV in the 1980s. The track also references bonnō, the 108 earthly desires that Buddhists believe humans must overcome in order to reach enlightenment

“I didn’t know how important it was when I was young, but the older you get, you have so much burden on your shoulders to carry through life,” Hitomi says. “Of course, dropping bonnō makes it easier. It’s a bumpy road all the time, whenever you get older.”

This ruefulness is borne from personal experience. The album was recorded after Hitomi lost both of her parents, and her vocals tackle themes more redolent of a Buddhist sermon than a dance party: the transience of life, respecting nature, maintaining traditions, the limits of human knowledge.

While “Mum Tells Me” pays tribute to the good advice passed down by her late mother, “Hototogisu” expresses anxiety about the world that her daughter will inherit. She describes the songs on the album as “something to encourage myself to carry on — and other people, too, that are having similar experiences. Hopefully I can shake off the negativity and bring out the positivity: Carry on, party on.”

This is expressed in the album title. Essaka hoisa is a cry that was traditionally repeated by palanquin bearers to keep their spirits up as they hauled their load over long distances, and can still be heard today from people carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) at matsuri. Hitomi says she picked the title after the album had already been sent off for mastering: “I went through what I thought about each song, and it just made sense.”

Asked if he was surprised to have his upbeat productions saddled with such weighty themes, Ishihara admits that he’s more interested in how the vocals sound than in what they mean.

“Lyrically, actually, sometimes I have no idea what she’s talking about,” he says, drawing a laugh from Hitomi. “It doesn’t matter for me. As long as it’s not racism, or something like that, I’m very open.”

“Oh yeah, he’s very open,” Hitomi adds. “He really just doesn’t give a s—t.”

Though there’s an age gap of nearly 10 years between them, the pair found common roots in retro anime music and the sounds of Japanese festivals and summer Bon odori folk dances.

“Matsuri vibe is WaqWaq vibe!” says Ishihara, with a laugh.

“You can kind of get hypnotized by the sound,” says Hitomi. “It’s a bit like a rave — a Japanese rave that has been happening since a long time ago. Bon odori is trance!”

WaqWaq Kingdom plays at WWWß in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Jan. 18. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/waqwaqkingdom.