Late last year, I visited independent label P-Vine Records’s Tokyo offices while on a trip to Japan. During our conversation, I asked the staff what was happening in Japanese music. They played me a series of remarkable songs that seemed to articulate a perfect balance between traditional Japanese folk music and various Caribbean musical modes like calypso, soca, reggae and dancehall. Those songs were recordings by a Tokyo-based powerhouse of a big band, the ten-piece Minyo Crusaders. At the time, P-Vine was looking for labels to partner with to take the Minyo Crusaders music outside of Japan, but they hadn’t had any bites yet. So, when Minyo Crusaders came up on my radar again via a re-release of their album Echoes of Japan through the excellent Mais Um Discos, and a series of shows across Europe and the UK, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to send some questions to their bandleader Katsumi Tanaka. His translated answers follow below, as do their tour dates, and links to purchase their remarkable debut, the landmark work that is Echoes of Japan.
Test Pressing: Aside from min’yō, your music makes direct references to cumbia, Ethiopian jazz, Thai pop, Afro-funk and reggae. Could you briefly explain your historical understanding of the popularity of Caribbean, African, and South American music in Japan?
Katsumi Tanaka: Historically, along with strong economic development in Japan in the 1940s-50s, world music styles such as Hawaiian, Turkish, Polka, Tango, calypso and Ska were introduced with Mambo and Boogie-woogie had a big boom at that time in Japan. As for Cumbia, Mieko Hirota released a tune called “Cumbia of Love” in the 1960s. I think it was the era that Japan started to look to the world outside and absorb global culture. I think it was sometimes a little unrefined – but positive.
Of course, we must mention reggae – it has been popular since the 1970s as it became popular worldwide. And it has influenced not just underground culture but also mainstream culture and pop music in Japan. As for Thai Pop, it has been championed by the DJ unit “Soi48’ who have helped make it very popular in the Japanese club scene.
I cannot summarize exactly the level of popularity of these genres in Japan, but they are well listened to by hardcore music lovers and DJs. However, the segmentation of each music scene has grown, and so we have lost the dynamism which we used to have in the 1950s, where all the music was in a big melting pot and enjoyed by various people altogether.
Test Pressing: When did you realise that you’d struck on something special by fusing these styles? Was there a moment, song, or performance where it all became crystal clear? Could you describe how you realised this was the right path?
Katsumi Tanaka: Although each music was born under different circumstances and in different places, as music for the people (popular music), they all share the same feeling. The music we are influenced by is the music which is a fusion of native roots music and modern beat. For example, Ska is the fusion of the elements of Jamaican mento and calypso, bringing in Jazz and R&B elements. All the music is a fusion. I think min’yō should be like that as well, but unfortunately, it did not happen that way and fell out of popularity after the golden era of the 40s/50s. The cause of this decline is due to various underlying issues. We love Freddie’s voice. We feel happiest when Freddy’s beautiful and smooth voice comes on the beat we arrange. It moves us when we perform it in front of many people, and we sing and dance all together.
Test Pressing: Are many of the band members record collectors? How important is listening to other music to what you’re doing as Minyo Crusaders? From a record collector/DJ perspective, listening to Echoes of Japan is remarkably interesting.
Katsumi Tanaka: No, not all of us are collectors. In our activity as MC, we believe that the landscape of Minyo is not “closed” and that connecting the music to international styles can give a positive influence on Japanese people and culture. It is very important to absorb various genres into Minyo.
Test Pressing: How close is the sound the band has recorded to the sound you have in your head? Musically and stylistically speaking, where do you want to take all of this?
Katsumi Tanaka: The min’yō played by MC is free-spirited, that is the most important thing. Our current band sound is very exciting, but we don’t want the methodology to become formal.
Test Pressing: What is the Minyo Crusader philosophy towards creativity?
Katsumi Tanaka: Magic is often hidden in the things we overlook.
Test Pressing: Keeping a ten-piece band together is very challenging. What are the common values, concerns, and interests that keep the group united?
Katsumi Tanaka: Each band member has different talents and personality. We don’t make it stigmatized and acknowledging the feeling of everyone is very important for us.
Test Pressing: How should we understand the context Min’yō music sits within inside Japanese culture?
Katsumi Tanaka: Japanese minyo is both the nearest and furthest roots music. The rules about how to sing: with a unique melody and kobushi (a kind of vocal warbling technique, similar to vibrato) and the rhythm of the taiko drum are somehow engraved in our DNA. Yet, minyo is music that is not felt in our daily, urban lives and is quite distant from the current Japanese music scene. Before Minyo Crusaders, apart from Freddie Tsukamoto, the members in the band rarely had experience of playing min’yō.
As a traditional performing art, for some people, min’yō has become rather highbrow. Min’yō, for some people, is something totally from the past, as a kind of traditional art. I wanted to return to the literal meaning as ‘songs of the people’, for the masses, songs for everyone. Many Japanese people today cannot understand the lyrics because they are written in old Japanese script and sung in strong accents. In general, the songs describe the life and nature of the region where the song comes from. These songs can, however, be shared by people from the same regions as they will likely have similar memories and can also be enjoyed by outsiders as the songs act as “guidebooks” giving an insight into local customs and traditions. Min’yō has a unique melody and singing style, and in many ways, vocals sound like an instrument.
Min’yō is the general term in Japan for local folk songs. Originally sung by non-professionals, they developed in sophistication as geisha, professional female singers, would sing them with shamisen (3 stringed lute) accompaniment. Still not respected, however, it wasn’t until the late 1800s, and rapid industrialisation, when people flocked from rural areas to the big cities that people distinguished min’yō from other popular songs. Variety halls presented folk shows to an urban audience, gradually raising its social status.
There are songs for work, dance, drinking, weddings, praying for rain, for spirits, to name just some. Lyrics can be personal, local, sometimes nonsensical. Most are lively dance tunes; the dance moves mimicking the daily working life of, for example, rice farmers or fishermen. Just about every song is associated a particular district, town or community throughout the entire islands of Japan, although northern Japan is particularly prevalent. A popular saying of the postwar era was ‘Folk Song is the hometown of the heart’.
Recordings combining these min’yō folk songs with the latest dance music to enter Japan can be found dating back to the 1920s, be it the foxtrot, blues, tango, or rumba. Following the second world war, these influences increased further as Japan became ever more Americanised with boogie-woogie particularly popular. Latin rhythms, such as mambo and beguine were a part of Japanese popular music as far back as the early 1930s, with a large ethnic Japanese presence in countries including Brazil and Peru.
Listen to ‘Kushimoto Bushi’ by Minyo Crusaders above.
Test Pressing: Could you talk a bit about Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri and the Tokyo Cuban Boys, what they did musically, and how their mixture of styles inspire what you’re doing with Minyo Crusaders?
Katsumi Tanaka: Hibari Misora – who’s considered by many as Japan’s greatest ever singer, combined min’yō with Latin and other rhythms. Also, Chiemi Eri, backed by saxophonist Nobuo Hara’s ensemble Sharps & Flats. Tokyo Cuban Boys, formed by Tadaaki Misagi, performed instrumental versions of min’yō in the 1960s and 70s, with samba, salsa, Afro, cha-cha-cha, bolero, reggae, boogie, soul, rock and dixie all added to the song titles. But also cumbia, Afro-Cuban styles, ska, reggae, Caribbean music, jazz.
Test Pressing: Could you talk a bit about Minyo Crusaders visual look and aesthetic? How did you come up with the imagery and look the band uses to present itself?
Katsumi Tanaka: The artwork conveys the magic we feel is in our music. Respected Japanese designer Yutaka Kimura (from CENTRAL67) did the album design. He has designed sleeves for well-known artists and is a big fan of our music, a DJ, and also a collector of Minyo albums, so we became good friends, and he kindly agreed to create the artwork for us. The masks have various associations. “Tengu” or “Oni” represents mythical, legendary images and “Hyottoko” or “Okame” symbolizes the common person. They have been widely used as props at Japanese village festivals from ancient times, so for Japanese, they are very symbolic, and for non-Japanese, they look interesting.
Minyo Crusaders’s Echoes of Japan album is out now through P-Vine Records and Mais Um Discos in CD, vinyl and digital formats (purchase here). They’re currently on tour around Europe and the UK (purchase tickets here).
Minyo Crusaders Debut European Tour – November/December 2019
01.11 NORWAY/OSLO – OSLO WORLD MUSIC FESTIVAL
02.11 GERMANY/HAMBURG – ÜBERJAZZ
04.11 GERMANY/BERLIN – GRETCHEN
07.11 SPAIN/MADRID – SALA CLAMORES
08.11 DENMARK/COPENHAGEN – ALICE
09.11 NETHERLANDS/UTRECHT – LE GUESS WHO
10.11 GERMANY/FRANKFURT – SCHLACHTHOF
11.11 UK/LONDON – JAZZ CAFE
06.12 FRANCE/RENNES – TRANS MUSICALES