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Friday, Dec. 9, 2005
AFRIRAMPO / EN
Drumming up an apocalypse
By SIMON BARTZ
Afrirampo are a whacked-out crackpot girl duo just out of their teens from Osaka, which is famous for its out-there noise-rock scene.
At live shows they paint their faces crimson, don colorful outfits and deliver a crescendo of chaotic percussion, gut-wrenching metal guitars and stroke-inducing screechy vocals.
Most of their "songs" are demented nursery rhymes -- the sound of a hungry kindergarten orchestra let loose in a field of exotic mushrooms.
Yes, Afrirampo are gimmicky, different, young, reasonably cute and, crucially -- based on all of this -- easily marketable. So it's no wonder that, while barely out of their musical nappies, they've been snapped up by Sony imprint Ki/oon and shipped off on foreign tours to support Sonic Youth in Britain and Sweden, and Lightning Bolt in the United States.
And while the time has never been better to push another bunch of fried noise freaks on a foreign market that can't get enough of mental Japanese bands like Guitar Wolf (also on Ki/oon) or Melt-Banana, Afrirampo don't yet have the back catalog to rival those two veteran bands. Then again, like I said, they don't really rely on songs as such, so maybe that's irrelevent -- "It's all improvised," is what they tell me.
One thing's for sure: They will certainly succeed in confirming the stereotypical image of the Japanese abroad as being a bunch of quirky nutters who are good for a laugh but can't really be taken that seriously. Their responses in interviews, at least, certainly back up that view.
I ask them a simple question via e-mail: "When did you start the band? Tell me a little of the history." OK readers, take a deep breath . . .
Drummer/vocalist Pika: "We smell something that time! Stink! Stink! Naked soul! When Pika 18-years-old, Oni is 19. Flash! Sparkling!!! When we made sound together that is passion and soul! Afrigod down to the Earth with burning red and then we start the journey of our heart! From our heated eyeballs! Japan, America, Africa, Korea, Holland, England, Italy, Norway, Turkey, Germany, France, Croatia, Slovenia, Sweden! We did conquest of the world into save us red moon. We are tumbling down into the space. Goooooood!!!"
Got that, folks?
I did a little research: Afrirampo formed in the spring of 2002 when Pika, then 18, hooked up with 19-year-old guitarist/vocalist Oni. Osaka madcaps Acid Mothers Temple released some of their early recordings, and the duo would also terrify the citizens of their hometown and wipe out all woodland mammals within a mile radius by holding ear-bleeding all-night raves at Osaka Castle Park with their friends.
They released their first full-length album, "Urusa in Japan," in Japan last April on Ki/oon, then the album "Koregamayakuda (This is the Drug)" in the States on experimental guru John Zorn's Tzadik label (as have Melt-Banana). Their latest claim to fame was playing the White Stage at this summer's Fuji Rock Festival, where they drew a big crowd despite being on at 11 a.m. on the final day -- a time when you'd think everyone was suffering the mother of all hangovers and would flee to the Field of Heaven to escape the discordant noise.
How come their star has risen so fast?
"No idea. Just fate," says Pika.
And tell me why you lived in Cameroon, reportedly with a tribe of pygmies, for three months in 2003?
"Because women are always strong," she says.
So tell me a secret, please.
"All I will say is we are related," she confides, but adds nothing more.
Sisters of no musical mercy, perhaps.
That's about as much sense as you are going to get out of these girls. And if you roll up to one of their upcoming shows, I'm sure you will be even more confused. That, undoubtedly, is exactly what Pika and Oni are aiming for.
Afrirampo play with excellent Osaka garage-punk band Watusi Zombie at Daikanyama Unit, Dec. 19. Nagoya Quattro, Dec. 20; Osaka Quattro, Dec. 21. Check Afrirampo's Web site at www.afrirampo.com for next year's schedule.
The rumble of heavy drumming and rolling percussion is getting louder as I carefully ascend the spiral metal staircase at Ebisu Milk, which has begun to violently vibrate. I enter a room packed with bodies, all moving to the beat and grinning like they've won the lottery. There's no stage and in the middle of them is a tall crew-cutted rapper, a taiko drummer and a drummer on a standard kit. I stand there mesmerized by the power of this trio, totally blown away by what seems a unique Japanese take on hip-hop.
"I never think of it as hip-hop even. Well, I guess it is, and I suppose the taiko obviously gives it a Japanese feel," says rapper Raita of his band En at an izakaya a few weeks later.
Raita started like most rappers do -- firing out his rhymes over backing tracks at clubs. "The first time I did it was 10 years back in a Yokohama club and it was a nightmare when the music suddenly stopped and I was, like, 'Oh shit!' "
No chance of that happening now. You can't easily pull the plug on taiko drums. Raita says his major influences have been Japanese rap group Kaminari and New York-raised rapper Jeru the Damaja. So where did the taiko come in? Was he trying to move hip-hop forward by using no other instruments, turntables or backing tracks?
"It never entered my head. If a guy played some cool sounds I would have asked him to join. He wouldn't have to be a taiko drummer. And we got another drummer because the balance felt good. It was not about, 'Oh, we are only going to have drums.' "
Raita met taiko drummer Kan Hayashi at The Room club in Shibuya where they hold all-day freestyle jam sessions and they started En in 2004. The other drummer, Kenji-frog, joined this spring.
Have you heard of any other rap-taiko outfits?
"I've never heard or seen it so there's no influence there, but they might be somewhere. I became interested in wadaiko [a type of taiko drum] five years ago, and that's when I got the first idea. But nothing happened until I met Kan."
En shows really take off when Raita seems to go into a trancelike state. No more smiling, but just rapidfire freestyle rhyming.
"In a song there's always room for freestyle. That's the most exciting thing about rapping -- when you get into a groove and just let go. The adrenaline is going, it's pure inspiration, and that's when my talent shows the most."
That said, Raita's ambitions remain modest. Despite En's increasing popularity -- including shows in far-off Kyushu this week -- they have no label and he says, "I just want to make an all-star CD with a different friend rapping on each track and me rapping on one track and then all rapping together at the end. That's my dream."
A lot of Japanese rappers throw finger shapes like they're crack-dealing gang members straight outta Compton . . . when really they're a bunch of pussycats. However, Raita's always got a smile on his face, even when he's rapping.
"I'm a natural-born smiler and don't pretend to be a natural-born killer. I can't do it any other way, but I do write about serious subjects as well."
What kind of stuff do you write?
"Everything. It comes from my heart at the time," he says, clutching his chest.
What's your favorite rap?
Raita writes down five kanji representing "blood," "love," "human," "town" and "heart" -- the one which is the most important, he says.
I'm not sure exactly what he means, but the natural-born smiler has got heart, soul -- and a machine-gun larynx -- and despite the blistering percussion, Raita is always the star of the spectacular show.
En plays the Millennium Hall at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, Dec. 9 (info:  78-1111); Milk in Ebisu, Tokyo, Dec. 14 (info:  5458-2826). Kan Hayashi plays solo at Tsukimiru Kimiomou in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo, Dec. 16 (info:  5474-8115). Raita plays solo at The Room in Shibuya, Dec. 13 (info: www.theroom.jp) For more info check www.en-music.com Simon Bartz edits a bilingual Web site on Japanese music at www.badbee.net