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From the Archive: Japanese Innovators with Japan Blues (June 2018)

Nothing Concrete text
25 Mar 2020
30 min listen

The first episode in a series showcasing the love and obsession with Japanese music, Howard Williams, aka Japan Blues digs through his crates to share some of his favourite underground music from the 1970s.

There is always something that comes along, you think, wow, that's incredible.

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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From the Archive: Japanese Innovators with Japan Blues

The first episode in a series showcasing the love and obsession with Japanese music, Howard Williams, aka Japan Blues digs through his crates to share some of his favourite underground music from the 1970s.


BE: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we're delving into an archive. Looking back to June 2018, and a series of podcasts where we speak to a DJ, a writer and a record label, all three showcasing their love and obsession with Japanese music. This podcast was originally made to coincide with a series of gigs, featuring artists from the Japanese underground scene responsible for genre defining music from the groundbreaking electronics of Yellow Magic Orchestra to the sonic arts of Ryoji Ikeda and quirky Pop of Mariah

HW: There is always something that comes along, you think, wow, that's incredible.

BE: So let's explore the influences of Japanese underground music from the club music of Kyoto to the record stores of Osaka, discovering and exploring the sounds that have emerged over the past 40 years.

HW: In a way, what these Japanese artists have done, they've taken those American and Western influences, but they've produced something individual

BE: In this first edition of this podcast trilogy, Howard Williams aka Japan Blues, starts off with a unique journey through some of his favourite underground music from the 1970s. Over to Japan Blues.

HW: Yeah, I'm Howard Williams, I run the show Japan Blues, which I've been doing for NTS Live for over four years now. I also occasionally play bars and clubs around the world, and it's all about Japanese music. It became my obsession a few years ago and has remained ever increasing ever since. Initially, you know, the story that I tell most people, when I was a kid, I went to see a Japanese percussionist called Stomu Yamashta. And he was one of the few Japanese musicians who made it over to the west in the sort of earlier days, because he had a kind of jazz rock angle to his playing. And he brought Japanese sounding percussion like taiko drums and things like that. And the shows that I saw involved, you know, cultural touches that were unusual to the Western ear or eye. You know, it was a theatre, music, mime show. And you know, I was just a kid so I was only just starting to buy records and of course, I bought the soundtrack straightaway.

Other than that it took until I was on my first business trip to Japan because my business is distributing records. I went to Japan in '94, on my sort of ways around the record shops there, I started seeing a few reissues of Japanese 60s rock guitar music, which all look kind of curious, so I snapped those up. One of them was an artist called Takeshi Terauchi who had done kind of 60s electric guitar reworks of traditional Japanese. And I really liked that sound, it did really appeal to me is that a Japanese scale in played on a guitar in a kind of beat environment. It really excited me. This kind of drew me in. And of course, the soundtrack that you hear when you're in Japan, you know, walking past or into bars, and shops, you know, I became attuned to this scale. And I really started seeking it out in the music. I started collecting, you know, in my trips back to Japan. When I assembled these records, I was looking, you know, which ones are 70s you know, some things that are actually from the 80s look like from the 70s. A lot of Japanese record companies in the past didn't put dates on the sleeves or the labels. I had to dig deeper in my research to make sure that these were actually from the 70s. So that meant that really, in a way, there's not a consistent theme throughout. I think there's a feel, with a few wild cards, and the feel is that there's generally a bit of a groove to these tracks.

HW: Okay, the first track is by Minako Yoshida and it's a track from 1973, her first album, the title roughly means writing in vain. It's from her first album, which is kind of very much in a sort of singer songwriter style along the sort of lines of Carol King, mature, emotive feel to the record. It has this very wonderful grainy sleeve photograph close up of her in a kind of sepia picture. It's one of these obscure, difficult to translate things, it literally translates as 'door to winter', like the door to winter. [Haruomi] Hosono features very heavily on this one. The arrangements are by Caramel Mama, the band, one of his earlier bands, this wonderful sound of -it's a bit like West Coast rock. There's a kind of mellow feel to it, but there's also, I always feel, an edge
This kind of area this, which has sometimes been lumped into this genre, which is strictly a Japanese genre called city pop, which I think is an unfair category to put this in, I think it has much more substance. A lot of city pop can be this, what I described before, this sort of mellow you know, easygoing, you know, unchallenging kind of music, whereas, you know, Minako's first album and a lot of Hosono's collaborations are not, not not strictly easy listening. Yeah, so this would not have been heard anywhere outside Japan. 

The second track is Takahisa Kosugi, and the track is Mano-Dharma from his LP Catch Wave, which was released in 1974. I think Kosugi, is much more of a kind of hardcore experimentalist. You know, he was working from the early 60s with the Fluxus movement, and he is a violinist. On this record, he takes the violin, takes it to another universe, using a lot of effects and distortion, double tracking and all sorts of reverb echo chambers. Half the time, I can't hear his violin at all. I think really, he's more in the kind of universe of say, you know, John Cage and Harry Partch, you know and another much more experimental souls.

This is an interesting one, Akiko Tagawa, and the song, I didn't get down the Japanese title, but it's actually a cover version of an Italian song called l'importante è finire, which in English means the important thing is to finish.

A very interesting character. She was a chanson singer, you know, in French chanson, popular style, which has a huge following in Japan. And it's one of those foreign styles which they really took to. In her case, she was actually she actually ran a hangout, a club, where people might perform this music. And certainly she must have got up and sang a few songs herself. Like a lot of singers, she was also an actress, also a very staunch, feminist and gay rights activist as well. Very significant figure because, in my humble opinion, I think, you know, Japan has historically been completely intolerant of homosexuality and feminism. It's a very patriarchal society, even now. Things are changing, but I mean, certainly homosexuality is very much on the ground, the fact that she was a sort of reasonably high profile an actress and singer championing these rights is something really special. And this song, I played it once in a bar in Hackney and this Italian guy came up to me saying, 'Ah, I can't believe it you're playing it! This is Mina!' Mina being the  Italian singer who made this song famous. And it's actually a very sexual song which you can sort of hear maybe from the tempo and the way she's singing it. But he translated lyrics for me and it very much tied in with the concept of 'the little death', the orgasm, illustrating this kind of erotic scene. Yeah, quite a piece.

The fourth selection is Masabumi Kikuchi and the track is Sunday Lunch and it's from his album, 'But Not For Me'
Kikuchi was a jazz pianist who played with many leading lights of American jazz, including Lionel Hampton, Sonny Rollins, Woody Herman, Mel Waldron, Joe Anderson, McCoy Tyner, it is endless. He really got around. And it kind of shows in his playing. He's got a very interesting, you wouldn't say free because it's not free jazz, but he has a kind of free way of playing and composing. When I heard his music first, it made me immediately think of Miles Davis' electronic period or just pre electronic. He actually ended up living in New York for many years. Playing in New York clubs. It must have been nice to go into some small bars and see him playing.

I think the important thing, you know, when I hear Japanese music is I kind of equate it a little bit with Jamaica where, you know, reggae music is really, it comes from rhythm and blues. Now that its root obviously there was mento which was the kind of Jamaican rhythm very early on, but really reggae itself is from rhythm and blues and they twisted it made it their own. In a way what these Japanese artists have done is they've taken those American and Western influences and they've produced something, something individual.

So track six is a Ayumi Ishida and Tin Pan Alley Family and the song is Watashi Jisin. It's from her album, Our Connection, which was the only album she did with Tin Pan Alley Family. Tin Pan Alley was another band that Hosono was a major figure. Basically, she was really a kayōkyoku singer. She was a Japanese pop singer, you know, and she started in the 60s. But it wasn't until the 70s when she collaborated with these guys who brought this kind of, city pop or West Coast kind of feel her music. It's a very groovy record. 

Yuki Saori, again was a very popular pop singer. She debuted in the early 60s, mid 60s. But then this song came out in 1970. Ikigai was actually sort of forgotten but it's been quite a trendy word in the West recently, somebody writes a book about the concept of Ikigai. It's basically means a reason for being, a reason for living. But the angle this book seems to be that well, we all know that Japanese people live much longer lives than we do. What's the secret? The supposedly the answer is a reason for living. Which is kind of fair enough! This song really hit me between the eyes because I felt you know, going back to I mentioned a reggae before which is really love as well, there's a kind of element of lovers rock to this song. I felt lovers rock is a particular strand of reggae that sort of started in the 70s. Most popularly high pitched female singers, singing love songs, very, very sweet songs. Actually, that style is very popular in Japan, because of the high register I think. And because of the kind of romantic, it's a very easy thing for people to get attached to. I feel this song is almost like Japanese artists, predicting lovers rock. There's a kind of groove to it. I think it's a lovely song.

Fuji Keiko is much more of a kind of character and music. What drew me to her first of all was that I heard this Japanese female singer with a kind of gutsy kind of gravelly edge to her voice. You know, I was used to hearing these kind of quite smooth, you know, pretty voices but Fuji had much more of a bluesy kind of voice. Her father was actually a rōkyoku singer, a peculiar kind of bluesy street music. It's an ancient music form, and our mother was a goze, which is a blind shamisen, which is also a very traditional type of musician. So she had this very deep, gutsy, raw kind of musical background. And of course, as a kid, she accompanied them sometimes on tour. So she had this scene a very deep, gutsy raw kind of musical background, and I guess she developed her style from that but it evolved into you know, a popular singing style, which was connected with what they call enka, the bar room sound I referred to before. Because it is kind of enka, it's always very bluesy stuff. It's always very heartbroken, quite some sort of final sounding music, which is doubly, I'm sorry to say doubly ironic because she actually ended her own life a few years ago. Considering how successful she was and probably how wealthy she was I mean, it remains a mystery why she did it.

This next track is by Happy End, Hosono's group. And it's called Natsu Nandesu. It's a live track off their album, which is Live in 1973. Natsu Nandesu means 'it's summer'. I think you get that sort of feel. I just got a very lazy rougrooze to it.

They pioneered the sound which had an American feel to it, you know in terms of that kind of West Coast feel. His character was strictly Japanese. And the lyrics they somehow worked the rhythms of the music around the rhythms of Japanese language. When you listen to the record, they make it just sound so easy. Like anyone can do it, but nobody can do it. It's incredible music 

So the next one is Yumi Arai - Anata Dake No Mono which roughly translates as 'Just for You' And it's from her second LP called Misslim.

Yumi Arai is probably more famous in Japan has Yumi Matsutoya, that's her husband's surname. Matsutoya was in Caramel Mama, the band that you heard earlier, backing Minako Yoshida again, Yumi Arai, I would say was compared to Carole King. you know, singer songwriter, she sessioned on many other people's records before she started embarking on a solo career. You know, she had 21 number one albums, apparently. But this was one of her earlier works, which I think has a lot more substance than maybe some of our latest stuff. If I may be so bold!

Track 10 is Hideko Fujiwara, a song from 1970, which is, again difficult to translate properly but it's expressing something about 'pissed off with her partner'. She's basically railing against him that she's had enough and it's from her album, which translates to basically 'my blues'. She was more famous really for the group that she sang in, calle, Itsutsu No Akai Fusen - 5 Red Balloons, which was a very popular funk group. This record as well as the Itsutsi records were on the very famous underground record label called The Underground Record Club. Or URC, which championed a huge amount of singer songwriters and folk musicians in the 70s in Japan, but this is more of a bluesy funk number.

I think that people have often commented when I've shown them Japanese record sleeves anything from 50s onwards, people always comment on the wonderful composition or the photography from the sleeves and I think it's true, there is a, like with the music like with the professionalism on often hears in the with the backing musicians there's there's also a kind of elegance in the presentation of the visual presentation.

The thing you find with these island nations is it's a completely bottomless well, you know, you'll never reach the bottom. It's just incredible to think how much music has been produced. Yeah. So I think the mania maybe has cooled off a little bit. I mean, obviously, the scenery has changed. The scenery has changed quite a bit in the four years I've been doing my show. And the years before playing in clubs, often to not very many people at all. I, you know, the scenery has changed in that the internet has opened up a lot and a lot more issues coming out, some of which I've been involved with, but there's a lot of others that are entering the market these days. So in some ways, it's satiated a degree. But of course, there's always something that comes along I think, well, that's incredible.

BE: Thanks to Howard aka Japan Blues for speaking to us. In our next edition we move to the 80s as we speak to Yosuke Kitazawa from Light in the Attic Records for another journey in sound from their latest releases.

YK: We try to excavate the story behind each recording. A lot of times that story is just as fascinating as the music itself.

BE: I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of the Nothing Concrete podcast, here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly podcasts of archive finds and theme series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcast. And if you can leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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