At the start of the 1990s, when ‘world music’ became a generally accepted term, some Japanese started to look at themselves and wonder what their own country had to offer. Not only in Japan but the rest of the world. The answer was very little. There was Okinawan music, but to many Japanese, Okinawa can seem quite distant and even, foreign. There was traditional music, but this had mostly been preserved like a museum exhibit and had become a classical music, with little connection to most Japanese people. Pop music on the other hand, had lost virtually any trace of anything inherently Japanese. Then, there was Shang Shang Typhoon.
SST didn’t just update traditional music, or add Japanese instruments to pop music. Instead, they created their own sound, probably closest in style and attitude to post-war kayokyoku, the Japanese version of pop music, that mixed elements of Western, Hawaiian or Latin music with Japanese traditions and humorous words. In their music was fragments of ondo ( festival music), min’yo (folk) and rokyoku (storytelling). These were combined in varying degrees with an eclectic array of music from Okinawa, Korea, China and Latin America, to pop, rock and reggae. Later Hawaiian, Irish, African and Indian music were added to an already blazingly vivid palette of sounds.
For the group’s founder, Koryu (literally Red Dragon) the path that eventually led him to this offbeat destination was surprisingly direct and clearly laid out. Born in Yokohama he grew up in an industrial area. “The whole of Asia was half hidden among the factories; there were Chinese immigrants and the world of Korean people could be seen in the junk dealers places” he says. “I assumed that there might be some common musical elements in those Asian communities in Japan and I thought that if I could mix the elements with American and Japanese music, the result would be formidable. ”
Nevertheless he started out as another ordinary Dylan inspired singer/songwriter in the 70s, before a meeting with Shokichi Kina inspired him not only musically, but showed him a way to realize his ideas. He took up the banjo, but had it restrung to the tuning of the Okinawan sanshin. If people of all ages in Okinawa can like their own traditional music, why not in Japan, he thought. “What we want to do is take those things that the Japanese have forgotten in the culture and bring it out in a new way” he says.
After an initial burst of success and excitement, by the mid 90s they even had albums released and had toured in America, Europe and south east Asia. Fronted by two female singers, Emi and Satoko, in their effort to get closer to ordinary Japanese, SST would often perform at shrines, on specially constructed open air stages, or at traditional theaters, shunning the usual live house circuit. Despite consistently high quality releases, media interest and their popularity slightly waned in the latter half of the 90s, leading them to eventually part ways with their major record company.
It’s therefore a relief to see them return with a new album after a three year hiatus, on their own independent label. In their usual fashion the album mixes up the genres, standout tracks include the opener Shibire Mambo and a cover of the Earth Wind & Fire song, Fantasy. Rather boringly the album, as were their first three, is just titled after it’s order of release, this being “8”. Or perhaps it’s a message, that SST are back to the fresh promise of those early days. It is somewhat ironic that presently Morning Musume with their ‘hayashi’ vocals and Asian stylings are so successful (and this is not an endorsement) with what is essentially a sub-standard version of SST’s original vision.
Originally published in August 2000
Shang Shang Typhoon are currently not performing due to the ill health of Koryu