In Japan, the words music and politics don’t exactly sit well together. On the face of it, a group who seem to have bucked the system is Osaka’s Soul Flower Union, who have released a new best of album.
At least with songs such as “All Songs Go Forward to Freedom”, “Swing Guerrilla Declaration”, “The Right to Live in Peace” and tackling issues such as Palestine and East Timor, you would think so. But not necessarily so, according to the group’s Hideko Itami “Many say Soul Flower Union is political but we’re just singing about issues in our daily lives. We just want to have fun with everyone and play good music. Plus do you know of any US musician that speaks out about the unbelievable events that have been happening in the world? I can name one…Patti Smith….who else?”
Well, The Dixie Chicks, Bruce Springsteen and REM for starters but Itami has a point. She thinks a lack of any political comment or ideology is ingrained in the Japanese music business. “Those who developed the music scene based it on absolutely childish principles. Plus being political won’t make money.”
Soul Flower Union was formed in 1993 out of two groups, the glam rock influenced Mescaline Drive, featuring Hideko Itami and Newest Model, a punk band fronted by Takashi Nakagawa. Soul Flower Union’s music became a somewhat wacky blend of rock and psychedelic music, yet from their first album they included extraneous elements that would set them apart.
They signed to Sony but for the last six years or so have recorded for an independent or their own label. Their latest album, the third of their “Ghost Hits” (this one 00-06) is the first to be culled entirely from independent tracks.
“Our music has become more open and free after we stopped working with the so-called big name record labels” explains Itami. “Soul Flower Union is based on various genres of music, from traditional to funk, jazz and punk. Through Soul Flower Union, this new “Soul Flower Music” has been produced that you can’t hear anywhere else in the world. Our audience has grown with us and supported us for all these years. We’ve always focused on progressing plus providing a good performance”.
And what are their most recent influences? “The members individually have been playing with various musicians from various genres and through these sessions have obtained more power which they bring back to Soul Flower Union. Our influences are not from just one particular genre but from various. Always fresh and live”.
The band’s acoustic version is called Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, formed in the wake of the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 when the group took to the streets of Kobe to play for the victims. The recent “Deracine Ching-Dong” is their first album for nine years and is their usual blend of Okinawan sanshin, the characteristic chindon drum (also the name of the music, a kind of early form of street advertising) plus accordion, clarinet (the wonderful Wataru Ohkuma) guitars, hayashi backing vocals and Takashi Nakagawa’s rasping vocals.
Mononoke Summit plays mostly Japanese soshi enka (political street songs) dating back up to 100 years, but there’s a definite Okinawan leaning to this album, both in the songs and the addition of young sanshin player and singer Natsuki Nakamura.
I wondered if this was a result of Itami recently relocating to Okinawa. “Natsuki was born in Taisho, Osaka, an area where a lot of Okinawans live” says Itami. “Six years ago she returned to Okinawa to be Seijin Noborikawa’s pupil. She’s been a fan of Soul Flower Union since she lived in Osaka and sings and plays not only Okinawa traditional songs but collaborates with other music genres. Taking advantage of my migration to Okinawa, Natsuki and I are thinking of blowing a new wind in the minyoukai , the traditional Okinawa music world, full of many rules and customs. ”
For me though, the album’s highlights are two buraku (former outcast) songs their versions taken from a buraku community in Kyoto. “We were raised in the Kansai area. In this region, there were many Korean-Japanese. The buraku was a strong issue and many people from Okinawa and Amami migrated here before World War II. They were my neighbours and these two songs are from where I was raised. As a neighbour, the history of discrimination will always be a lifetime issue.”
A lifetime issue maybe, but sounds like politics to me.
Originally published in The Japan Times in October 2006
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TAKASHI NAKAGAWA Interview in fRoots
The visits of Donal Lunny and band to Japan, have been as much memorable for his own wonderful band, as for some collaborations with Japanese musicians. In 1996, with his group that was originally assembled for the Japan concerts, he played with Kodo, the spectacular drummers group on Sado island. Last year, as well as Kodo again, the Donal Lunny Band was also joined by a few members of Japan’s hottest rock roots band, Soul Flower Union. ( the acoustic version of which, Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, were featured in Folk Roots No. 160.
While in Japan, Donal took his band into a Tokyo studio to record with Soul Flower’s leader, Takashi Nakagawa, a session I was fortunate enough to witness. These sessions would be used for Nakagawa’s solo project, later to be titled Soul-cialist Escape. However, as the tapes rolled on, so did the time, and they ended up recording only 3 of the 4 songs intended. Thus Nakagawa, and two other Union members went to Real World Studios in England where Lunny was making his new album, to record one more song, and mix all four.
Back in Tokyo, a jet-lagged Nakagawa (he had only just got back to Japan that morning) spoke of the trip, and the forthcoming album. “We recorded Mangetsu no Yube, and Donal was just great,he had a real feeling for the song.” enthused Nakagawa. Mangetsu no Yube is one of the best songs to emerge from Japan in the last 20 years or so. It was co-written with Hiroshi Yamaguchi of Heat Wave (who played live with Donal and band in Tokyo) for the victims of the Kobe earthquake. This tragedy also led to the formation of Mononoke Summit, as his until then electric band, were forced to go unplugged to perform in Kobe at that time. Mangetsu no Yube, and other songs manage to maintain a strong Japanese flavour, while at the same time containing Irish elements in an uncontrived way. The fruits of the Nakagawa /Lunny recordings have just been released in Japan, the full title: “Original Notion (sic) Picture Soundtrack: Soul-cialist Escape in Lost Homeland.”
“I felt like I wanted to do something by myself, without Soul Flower, and go away from Japan and record with other musicians ” explained Nakagawa “I’ve always liked Irish music, but more like the Pogues or Van Morrison, not really traditional music. I didn’t even know who Donal Lunny was, but when I met him I got a good feeling, we seemed to like the same things.It was also great going to Real World studio. I never met Peter Gabriel, though I saw him playing table tennis quite often!”
Meanwhile, Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, have recently released their second CD “Levelers Ching Dong”. Like the first one, it’s a live recording released on their own label. Their usual record company, Sony had refused to release the first one, due to a controversial lyrical content. Was it the same with this one? “Probably, but I think they would also have objected to the music” said Nakagawa. Most of the songs on Levelers Ching Dong date back 70 or 80 years. “They were mostly hits at the time, and some of them are still well known now.” said Nakagawa. He again raises controversial issues such as discrimination against Japan’s so-called ‘Untouchables’. “The song Kakumeika is one of Japan’s oldest revolutionary songs, people think that this kind of discrimination doesn’t exist anymore in Japan, but it still does.” Also included is Arirang one of Korea’s best known traditional songs. Nakagawa is particularly interested in Korean culture and last year undertook a trip to North Korea.”We went on the Peace Boat, from Nigata to Wonsan and then to Pyongyang. It was quite an experience, we weren’t really allowed to see ordinary life in the countryside, but we went to a department store and everyone was surprised at how we looked. The North Koreans were really nice people.The music also shares similarities, and people danced the same way as they did in Kobe.”
Nakagawa is almost alone in being essentially a rock musician, but also interested in Japanese old and traditional music. “Young people aren’t generally interested in traditional music, but gradually hopefully they will be. Everyone has that tradition inside them, just like they do in Okinawa or in Ireland. But tradition conveys the image of the emperor, also because America won the war, we all looked to America and thought how fantastic democracy was, and rejected our own tradition. The method for teaching traditional music is so boring, there’s no room for creativity. I don’t like the really decorated voices of traditional music, I just sing from the heart”. Nakagawa doesn’t want to follow any trends, and would like to compare himself in the future to Billy Bragg, Tom Waits or Lou Reed. He also wants to take Soul Flower Mononoke Summit to play concerts in Europe sometime, to introduce Japanese traditional music, and meet different people. “We went to Ireland as well, when we told people we played traditional music they were so interested, they just didn’t think of Japan as having any traditional music”.
Originally published in fRoots 1998