With a new live album just out, it seems timely to publish this article that originally appeared in the The Japan Times. Cicala Mvta are an underground, unclassifiable Japanese band. I’ve toured with them in Europe and seen them play on numerous occasions. The most surreal of these, was when they supported Blur, at the height of their popularity, in London at the Royal Festival Hall.
The night before they left for Europe, Japanese group Cicala Mvta (pronounced Chicala Muta) played for about 50 people in Tokyo. About par for the course for them. When they arrived in London the next day, theirs was the hottest ticket in town. Well, sort of.
Cicala Mvta were supporting Blur on the final night of the Meltdown Festival, at the Royal Festival Hall. Now established as one of London’s most esoteric and formidably exciting festivals, this year the artistic director was Scott Walker. Each year, a celebrated muso is given the chance to put together his dream line-up, mixing up arts and art forms, the obscure with the exalted, giving the downright weird and unsung a chance to share a stage with more notable yet creative counterparts.
Following in the footsteps of among others, Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson and Nick Cave, 60s pop icon, Scott Walker, who later as a cult hero, influenced everything from psychedelia to ambient to Brit pop, had put together a suitable program.
Thus Asian Dub Foundation, American avant garde composer Jim O’Rourke, jazz saxophonist Evan Parker, Jarvis Cocker and Radiohead were all on his fantasy festival list.
Blur were so honoured to have been chosen by their hero, they had decided Meltdown would be their only live appearance anywhere this year. Thus the unprecedented demand for tickets.
As the person who, unwittingly and indirectly, had introduced Cicala Mvta to Scott Walker, I found myself in London with not only a surplus of tickets, but watching the final of Euro 2000 with Damon Albarn and the boys from Blur. Cicala Mvta had had to receive the Blur seal of approval as well, but with the game still going on and destined for extra time, I don’t think any of them actually saw their honoured Japanese guests.
Indeed, at least half of the audience were probably still in the pub watching France eventually beat Italy, as Cicala Mvta made their overseas debut, with at least for me, a feeling of half anticipation and trepidation. Exactly what a Blur audience would make of a Japanese instrumental band, mixing elements of chindon, a Japanese street music, with Balkan, Turkish, Nepalese and other brass and wind instrument music from around the world was unclear.
Cicala Mvta was formed by Wataru Ohkuma, who had taken the unlikely switch from playing guitar in a punk and noise band to clarinet in a chindon group. Colorful chindon groups used to be a common sight in Japan, marching in the streets noisily banging a chindon drum, while saxophones or clarinets would pick out the melody to the hits of thoe day. Another person, usually a chindon ‘undergraduate’ would carry a large banner announcing the opening of a new store or pachinko parlor. That is, until the advent of TV almost took away their livelihood as an advertising medium.
The music is a strange brew of Japanese traditions, mainly from the original pre-classical version of kabuki, when it was still a street music and western military band music that marched it’s way into Japan in the Meiji period.
Ohkuma tramped the streets of Tokyo for 7 years playing clarinet as part of a spluttering tradition, until the late 80s when together with the group Compostella he started to revive chindon music by mixing it with other elements.
Cicala Mvta has taken the music a step further. Only occasionally featuring the chindon drum, Ohkuma’s perky clarinet is ably abetted by an unusual line-up of musicians, each bringing with them a sense of individuality to form an unlikely but cohesive unit.
Hiromichi Sakamoto is anything but an average cello player. Instead he carts around his own box of tricks containing a variety of electronics and gadgets to produce screeching, sawing, searing and squiggling sounds. Favourites are his electric massager and an electric drill with a metal grinder attached that lets sparks fly around the stage, much like his own personal fireworks display. Unfortunately, his ‘piece de resistance’ was deemed too dangerous for the RFH, without prior permission. Nevertheless his other antics, made him probably the visible focal point of the group.
Guitarist Yoshiki Sakurai, is a picture of calm serenity that belies the dexterity of his playing, whether it be racing Frank Zappaesque rock solos, (more than once, people drew a musical similarity between Zappa and Cicala Mvta), or African hi-life style. Tuba player Takero Sekijima takes on the role of the bass player, steadily puffing out a meaty tone, occasionally letting fly with a rip-roaring solo. Drummer Masahiro Uemura is constantly striving for a ‘cheap sound’ from his drum kit. The antithesis of the stereotypical drummer, his small frame and hands blaze around the drum kit, not wasting a joule of energy, hardly breaking sweat.
At the Royal Festival Hall, the Blur fans gradually warmed to Cicala Mvta. Garnering a rousing response was “Suki Ni Natte, Gomenasai”. Based loosely on a Turkish tune, it launches into a frantic rock workout, with the oddest middle break complete with cello electronic effects and Mongolian throat singing by Sakamoto and Ohkuma. The final number “Shi Chome” was a chindon standard tune that starts off very fast, and gets implausibly faster over each repeated refrain. With the musicians close to out of control by the end, and the melody now barely decipherable, Sakamoto usually screeches things to a halt with his cello saw routine. With this option vetoed, instead he chased a balloon around the stage, determined to spike it with his cello, his perseverance triumphing much to the delight of everyone as coloured pieces of paper flitted in the air.
Blur’s set steered mainly clear of their big hits, instead showcasing new songs. All had well thought out arrangements and great hook lines, the most surrealistic moment being the arrival of new London mayor Ken Livingstone as Blur’s rapper.
At the aftershow party, the pioneers of Britpop and the chindon revival finally got to meet. Scott Walker, a reclusive character, had left, but his manager passed on his enthusiastic best wishes. Blur’s manager too had seen Cicala Mvta. “Next time, we’re in Japan you’re playing with us, right!” he exclaimed as we went out the door. Now, that might be an even stranger experience.
Cicala Mvta Live at Nagoya Tokuzo April 2014. Buy the Live Album here.