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Thursday, Aug. 28, 2008


Soundtracking Japan — again

The new edition of 'The Rough Guide to the Music of Japan' offers a reworked introduction to the sounds of a nation

Staff writer

So, you've got 73 minutes of play time to sum up the entire music culture of Japan. How would you do it? What would you include?

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Paul Fisher, an expert in the music of East and Southeast Asia, compiled "The Rough Guide to the Music of Japan."

A poll around The Japan Times office shows that our guide would include music by garage greasers Guitar Wolf, Oscar-winner Ryuichi Sakamoto, alternative-pop diva Shiina Ringo, jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara, sensitive rockers Quruli, pop duo Puffy, jazz-ska freak-out troupe Shibusashirazu Orchestra, silken-voiced singer-songwriter Natccu and "Queen of Showa" (postwar pop) Hibari Misora. But a new CD compiled by British journalist/broadcaster/ music-industry all-rounder Paul Fisher is a wholly different offering.

"The Rough Guide to the Music of Japan" is a sequel to the 1999 CD of the same name, part of the 180-strong "Rough Guide" series of country-by- country compilations produced by the guidebook company in association with the British label World Music Network. Fisher, who has extensive knowledge of the music of East and Southeast Asia and lived in Okinawa and Japan from 1990 till 2001, running an online CD shop and helping Asian musicians reach the West, curated both the original compilation in 1999 and this new sequel. He explains to The Japan Times how he tackled the mammoth task.

"I don't think I have a concept of 'This is Japan.' " he says as we chat in the lobby of The JT's Tokyo building. "If I did that, I think the CD would be all over the place. The first thing is that it's got to be an enjoyable listen. So you put on track one and listen till track 19 and it all somehow fits together.

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Takeharu Kunimoto

"World Music Network is a world-music label. In other countries, world music is a living thing, a growing thing, so I tried to find what I think is representative of that in Japan. And I think the main type of music is minyo, folk music, in the sense of Irish folk as opposed to Bob Dylan folk. So a lot of the instruments have that minyo feel to them. The main instrument is the shamisen, and the first four tracks on the CD are all based on minyo."

Fisher was conscious to present as diverse a glimpse as possible into Japanese music. The album features artists from all over the country, from the southern islands of Okinawa to the snowy climes of Hokkaido, taking in gagaku (ancient court music), shomyo (Buddhist chants), enka (ballads) and postwar boogie-woogie played on shamisen (Japanese banjo), koto (zither), tonkori (Ainu guitar) and more.

"There are hundreds of tracks I could've chosen," says Fisher. And among the artists included are Seijin Noborikawa, one of Okinawa's most respected elder musicians, famed for his antiwar songs and lightning-fast sanshin skills (the sanshin is a precursor to the shamisen); Takahashi Hirayasu, who has collaborated with such world-music aficionados as Ry Cooder and Bob Brozman; Takeharu Kunimoto & the Last Frontier, who take the shamisen's comparison to the banjo literally to play their take on American bluegrass; and Shizuko Kasagi, a jazz and boogie-woogie singer during Japan's golden postwar pop era who also acted in movies by directors such as Akira Kurosawa.

Like many of us, Fisher ended up a long-term resident of Japan by accident. While working in various jobs in the U.K.'s music industry, and focusing in particular on world music, he moved to Okinawa for a year in 1990, where the realization hit him that despite accounting for so many of the world's inhabitants, East and Southeast Asia was badly underrepresented abroad by its music. He set about finding ways to expose these gems to music lovers in the West.

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Seijin Noborikawa

"Each thing snowballed from one to another," he recalls. "You know, as a journalist I would interview some artists for a magazine (in Britain), and the magazine gets published and then people want to buy the CD, but there's nowhere to buy it, so I'll sell it to them, and then some festival guy hears this band and asks, 'Can they play at my festival?' so I'll find out — oh, yes, they can, but they've never been abroad before, so I'll go with them, and now I'm a tour manager as well. Everything grew in a very organic kind of way."

Fisher relocated to Tokyo in 1993, and although he's sketchy on the details today, he somehow found himself compiling the Japan and Okinawa entries in the "Rough Guide" CD series toward the end of the decade. At this point, he was running his own online mail-order CD and cassette shop, Far Side Music, and a constant throughput of Asian music made him an expert in the field.

"I was also writing a column for The Japan Times, and doing quite a lot of consultancy work for records labels and touring with artists," he says. "One artist who ended up on both these CDs is the Okinawan musician Takashi Hirayasu. I went around the world with him, to Canada, Africa, Europe. And when festivals have some particular theme of Japan, I might program the whole festival."

The first "Rough Guide to the Music of Japan" was released in 1999, and Fisher also worked on the series' China, Hawaii, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam compilations (he's working on a Cambodia CD at the moment). So why the new Japan guide now?

"It's simple," he says. "When you license the songs from the record companies, there's a term involved. When it finishes, you can either license the tracks again or do a new one. So that's what we did. It's like the 'Rough Guide' travel books in a way — you can keep updating them, but eventually they'll become out of date, so you have to do a new one."

You might think that traditional music is immune from going out of date, since it comes predated anyway. But Fisher explains: "The music is not traditional in the strict sense. Traditional (Japanese) music is quite preserved. It's taught from a master to a disciple, whereas a lot of the musicians on this CD and the last CD are kind of outsiders. They might be technically pretty good, and some of them have studied, but they have a strong personality and try to do something creative on their own. They've updated the tradition; in their minds, they're keeping it alive."

One example is the Oki Dub Ainu Band (interviewed below), who take the traditional tonkori sound of the Ainu, the much-maligned race indigenous to Hokkaido, and apply it to Jamaican dub.

"That's another side of Japan people don't know much about, the Ainu," says Fisher. "Actually, Oki was on the first CD too. Back then, even in Japan, people didn't know much about the Ainu. But in the intervening years, Oki himself has become better known, especially in this circle. That's something people in Europe or wherever really like, because when they see him play live, he's dressed in these Ainu clothes with his tonkori and there's drums and this dub thing going on, and it's a really exciting thing.

"Also, for the first time there's an enka track on here, by Harumi Miyako," adds Fisher. "I've started to like enka since moving back to England."

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Fisher returned to London in 2001. "In some ways it was quite easy to live in Japan," he says. "Generally you're treated really well; I could work; I could have holidays pretty much as I wanted, and there's great traveling in other parts of Asia; I had a lot of friends; I was quite immersed in a Japanese world. But nevertheless, I felt that no matter how many years I'd have been here, I would always be a gaijin (foreigner). Eventually for me it gets a bit tiring. It's easy to live here, but it some ways, it's not total reality. It was much more of a challenge for me to go back to London and transfer my business there."

The transplant worked just fine, and Fisher continues to promote Asian music abroad. In 2006 he returned to Japan and Okinawa to make programs for the BBC radio series "World Routes." The programs, which feature interviews and live sessions with local musicians, are still available on the BBC Web site.

The updated "Rough Guide to the Music of Japan" was produced this year in the U.K. and is thus primarily aimed at Westerners as a colorful education in the music of a far-off land. But Fisher insists its release in Japan is far from redundant.

"In Japan, they're coming from a different angle," he explains. "Another country's music always seems more appealing, especially when you're young, especially when you're looking for traditional or folk music; it's quite common to reject your own traditional music, but maybe get into it when you're a little bit older. Young people don't usually get to listen to it because it's not in the mainstream.So one of the things I was quite pleased about with the first ('Rough Guide to the Music of Japan' CD) and also the 'Rough Guide to Okinawa' is that young people found that their own local roots music isn't quite as uncool as they'd thought."

But doesn't it feel weird to be a foreigner presenting to the Japanese market a guide to Japanese music?

"Actually it doesn't feel weird, to be honest," says Fisher. "I've been doing this for a long time, and I'm used to the reaction of people not knowing. And because I am, or was, a foreigner living in Japan, I'm treated slightly differently. At the time of the first one, it was very unusual (in Japan) to put tracks by different record companies on the same CD. People were quite reticent to do that; they think the next company is their rival. It's sad, but I think it's true. So I can cut through the formalities, the distances and relationships that might exist between Japanese people by being a foreigner. I can do it because I suppose they think I don't know any better."

While these compilations provide a fascinating overview of Asian music past and present, they are not without their detractors. Just as The Japan Times' features desk mourns the omission of any of Japan's unique punk or pop music on the Japan disc, ethnomusicology zealots have criticized Fisher's choice to include such styles on some of the other compilations.

"The only people who get really upset are the academics," he says. "The China CD got a pretty violent reaction from them, because it opened with Cui Jian (the godfather of Chinese rock 'n' roll) and had a punk song on it (by bratty girl-band Hang on the Box). And on the Thai one there was a real pop track by China Dolls, and that just upsets the purists. But (purism's) not what I'm about, and it's not what 'Rough Guides' is about, and it's not what music's about. I just want people to enjoy it."

"The Rough Guide to the Music of Japan" is out now.

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