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Friday, Sept. 29, 2006

J-cool factor struggles to woo NYC

Special to The Japan Times

For someone who stands to gain from the hot topic of Japan's "Gross National Cool," Taeko Baba ought to be the last to pop the phenomenon's bubble.

News photo
Tokyo breakbeat act Hifana, whose video "Wamono" is seen here, will take their musical and visual approach to New York-Tokyo Music Festival this weekend, where they will play alongside P'ez and Mighty Crown. (C) WIEDEN + KENNEDY TOKYO LAB

But get the Manhattan-based events organizer behind the New York-Tokyo Music Festival 2006 (Sept. 30 in New York City) on the subject and she starts popping away.

"Japanese media people will go to an animation convention and look at all the Americans there and think: 'Oh, anime and J-pop are so hot.' But that's because they haven't looked beyond the doors of the convention center," says Baba, who's been promoting Japanese film, music, video games and robotics in the United States since the mid-1990s.

"To make Japanese artists heroes in the U.S., we have to get big-name American artists to say good things about them," she says. "When you put together a panel discussion and an American artist says, 'I'm a really big fan of this Japanese creator,' people think, 'Oh, he's really great.' "

Making that happen is Baba's job. She's president of New York-Tokyo, a media production and marketing firm whose mission is "to provide exposure of techno-cool, eye-popping entertainment and production from Japan to the U.S. general public."

Her latest effort to that end is the New York-Tokyo Music Festival 2006, to be held at the 5,000-capacity Rumsey Playfield in Central Park. The free, one-day event features Yokohama-based reggae stars Mighty Crown, Shibuya-spawned "samurai jazz warriors" P'ez and Tokyo breakbeat duo Hifana. Computer games, animation and a Uniqlo exhibition will also feature.

Baba's interest in animation, kindled when she "lost everything" and began to identify with cartoon heroines in a similar predicament, led to a speaking invitation at the NYC-based Japan Society that she fulfilled dressed, cosplay-style, as a cartoon character. She soon graduated to staging 2001's New York-Tokyo Anime Festival. Emboldened, she organized 2002's New York-Tokyo Music Festival, a 3 1/2-day event that featured symposiums and concerts by J-pop stars including Kumi Koda.

Unfortunately, she realized she didn't know how to recruit sponsors. "Eventually, I had about 40 artists from Japan and the U.S. because word got out about this girl who was doing great things in New York," she says. "Normally, two or three are enough for this kind of event, which everyone knew would lose money."

Everyone except Baba, that is. It took her years to recoup the $70,000 she lost. Undaunted, she staged 2003's New York-Tokyo Film Festival and 2004's eNerGy Anime & Game Festival.

After a setback last year, when her second eNerGy fell through due to double-booking, she's back with a music fest whose lineup includes Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli. But as hip as Japanese pop culture is purported to be, Baba again had trouble attracting Japanese performers.

"Most are very busy," she says. "Others have no interest in making it here. Some are just scared -- they know they won't be accepted by Americans. They never say it clearly, but you can tell. But I understand. They're making a good living. They don't need America. Why should they struggle to be accepted by a small number of people?"


Hifana's hybrid forms

No one's got all the bases covered better at this weekend's New York-Tokyo Music Festival than Hifana. Hailing from Kichijoji, Tokyo, the duo of Juicy (Jun Miyata) and KeizoMachine! (Keizo Fukuda) provide the music on 2005's CD/DVD combo album "Channel H," while the creative team at W+K Tokyo Lab, their record label and a participant in the festival's animation section, help realize their vision on screen. The pair are living proof of W+K's faith in the possibilities of "hybridization."

Do Hifana aspire to international stardom?

We want people to see and think, 'Who are these guys? What are they doing?' Our music is basically club music, so there's more need for our music abroad than in Japan. We want to be known in every country that has a club scene.

How important are the visuals?

The club scene has developed with DJs, the evolution of equipment, and the creation of new genres. That evolution has been made alongside lighting and VJs, too. As long as we are doing music in this scene, we will always be interested in visual technologies and equipment. Of course, there are times when you close your eyes and let the body dance to the music. It always starts with the music.

Humor's an important part of Hifana's music. What do you do when the joke doesn't translate?

We love humor, but we're not consciously trying to mix humor in all our music. It comes naturally. During the Sonar festival in Spain [this summer], the first thing we said on stage was, "Donde esta el ban~o? (Where's the toilet?)," but I guess the audience didn't find that funny at all.

How important is the traditional element apparent in your music and visuals?

Club music is about mixing in various kinds of music and sounds to create a new type of music. It's natural to incorporate the music of our own country. The shamisen sounds are of the tsugaru-jamisen , a three-stringed instrument played in Aomori, and of the sanshin , an Okinawan stringed instrument. There's a lot to be shared, and we'll do our best!

The W+K Web site discusses brands as cultural influences. Must Japanese cultural exports be branded as 'Japanese' to be internationally successful?

Branding as 'Japanese' is not a must, but since the artists themselves are Japanese, those cultural elements will come across naturally. If you're an imitation of someone or something without any Japanese elements, you can't even talk about appeal abroad, because you probably won't be successful nor accepted by the domestic music fans to begin with. But I guess if you wanted to brand us, maybe we could be "The Sushi Kids?!"

Hifana perform live at Shibuya O-east on Oct. 14. Advance tickets are 3,800 yen (tel. [03] 5458-4681). For more information, visit www.hifana.com and www.wktokyolab.com

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