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Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012

MDG takes a Brazilian sound to Japan's streets

Special to The Japan Times

NAGOYA — As I walk up to Nagoya hip-hop group MDG, it seems that lead vocalist Shin is in the middle of scolding fellow member DJ Rafa in Portuguese. Shin doesn't hold back, and also doesn't seem to care that there's a reporter present. Nearby, rapper Khalil languidly puffs on a cigarette. The slight smile on his face suggests that this kind of thing might happen regularly.

News photo
Welcome to Nagoya: MDG members (from left) Khalil, Shin and DJ Rafa incorporate their Brazilian musical roots into a brand of hip-hop that focuses on life in Japan. TREVOR DAVID

It's the kind of artistic squabble typical of independent acts with a lot of ideas. After connecting with each other in Nagoya six years ago, Shinosuke Eder Sugai, Rafael Abe and Khalil Osawa (the band members usually go by just their first names) almost immediately started doing shows together, "on icy roads and in front of roadside motels" according to Khalil. The Brazilian-Japanese trio named themselves MDG, which comes from "mundrungo," a Portuguese term for street people.

Later that evening when MDG takes the stage at Lea Lea Hale, a Hawaiian restaurant and live-music space in Nagoya's Nakamura Ward, there's no trace of hard feelings. The group launches into its first tune, "Welcome To Nagoya," and collectively give thanks to Rastafarianism. Shin's dreadlocks, almost at floor-length, toss and fly behind him as he performs. In one moment he gestures wildly to the sky, and in the next he has jumped into the audience mingling and smiling, alternately singing and rapping in Portuguese, English and Japanese.

While a good part of the performance is reggae, it is dominated by hip-hop in the vein of U.S. rap collective Wu-Tang Clan. That ethos plays a major part in how MDG sees itself — as a collective rather than a band. The audience even breaks out into a chant of "Wu Brazil" during a break between two of the songs.

Wearing shades and a fitted cap tilted to the side during the show, Khalil is anything but the mellow dude he was earlier. Menacingly spitting rapid-fire rhymes and singing hooks in unison with Rafa and Shin, onstage Khalil looks like he could have either come straight out of a Brooklyn club, or off the streets of Sao Paulo.

With almost 55,000 Brazilians living in and around the Chukyo region that includes Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture ranks as the top destination for Japan's Brazilian population. Brazilians in Aichi hold their own events, have their own press and support their own culture. They're a tight-knit community that adds some flavor to Nagoya's somewhat conservative scenery.

However, living in such a community is a bit of a mixed blessing. While the group has access to a wide array of cultural influences, it has had trouble keeping its numbers up. The Brazilian community can be transient, and some previous MDG members have had to go back to Brazil due to visa problems and even homesickness. This is likely why the trio prefer to call themselves a collective.

"The band members can change," Khalil says, "but we are all still mundrungos so the message never changes."

MDG met each other about six years ago while skateboarding in a park. One day, the members say Shin spat a freestyle rhyme and impressed his friends. They formed a crew and started linking up with producers and beatmakers in the city, writing songs about their lives as Brazilians in Japan.

Brazil's own popular — and still growing — hip-hop scene has been attracting some international attention recently. Brazilian MCs such as Criolo and Emicada have legions of fans there partly due to their lyrical focus on political issues such as injustice, poverty and race.

MDG members, however, don't consider themselves to be a political band.

"We are not party rap, but we are not political rap either," Khalil says. "We vary our themes and focus on the rhythm while trying to produce something good in our lyrics. We focus on what life is like for Brazilians living in Japan today, and are about union, humility, respect, love and friendship. That's MDG."

The members don't just emphasize their Brazilian roots through their lyrics. they use typical Brazilian instruments on stage, such as the berimbau, which is a bow instrument that has a connection to the Brazilian martial-art of capoeira. They also use pandeiro and cuica drums. All this instrumentation helps to bring in the mellifluous tones of Brazilian samba, and when combined with the lyrical style of hip-hop, reggae influences, and a life-in-Japan context, it produces a unique sound.

Tracks such as "Click Clack" and "Simples Momentos" are where the fusion is most evident, but as MDG winds down its show at Lea Lea Hale, hip-hop tradition comes to the fore with some call-and-response exchanges. As the members exit the stage, the crowd continues to chant the group's name. It's this hip-hop element that seems to really inspire Khalil.

"Hip-hop ... is dialogue. It's learning to respect and have a positive strong attitude, not violent," he says. "Hip-hop is Africa and all the continents. Mundrungos are everywhere."

MDG play the World Collabo Festa in Nagoya on Oct. 27 (5:40 p.m. start; admission is free). For more information, visit www.world-collabo.jp or www.reverbnation.com/MDGNagoya.

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