Micabox – Spiritual Hi-Tech Orientalism

The Japanese may be well known for making the machines music is listened to, but little for making the music itself. In the west, some of the best known Japanese music is either the ancient traditional (taiko drums) or the hi-tech computer generated (Yellow Magic Orchestra) Micabox bring together these two diverse styles like nothing before, truly combining ancient and modern Japan. On Hinemosu kagura (music for the gods) minyo (local folk) and other Oriental sounds are mixed with the cutting edge electronics of Toshimi Mikami, together with help from his mentor, the legendary Haruomi Hosono (ex-YMO) and superb female vocalist Ayako Takato. This album was originally released in Japan by Daisyworld, the much respected label run by Haruomi Hosono.

Toshimi Mikami who has long been fascinated by the possibilities of electronic music, cites Haruomi Hosono among his main influences. He is not alone. Hosono who mixed and adds additional sounds to this CD has been a pioneering musician in Japan for several decades, at the forefront of creating Japanese rock music with the group Happy End, technopop with his group Yellow Magic Orchestra (along with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi) world music and electronic dance music. Still today Hosono is an inspiration for many of the new generation of innovative Japanese dance and experimental music creators.
When the term world music first came into wider usage in the mid 1980s, like other Japanese, Toshimi Mikami wondered what his own country had to offer. It took him a while to find it, but he discovered two types of homegrown music; kagura and minyo. Kagura “god music” is music and dance played at shrines, and is probably Japan’s most ancient surviving music. It has its roots in acts of magic in worship of the gods inhabiting the forest and sea. It has incorporated elements of noh and kabuki theatre, including the use of elaborate masks. Some of the instruments include the simple bamboo flute, the takebue an the large odaiko and smaller taiko drums.

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Minyo meanwhile are local Japanese folk songs of which literally thousands exist, from the far north of Hokkaido to the deep south of Okinawa. Themes include fishermen pulling in nets, farmers planting crops, lullabies and weddings. Performers of minyo and other traditional styles belong mostly to quite conservative associations and updated versions are not always welcomed. It wasn’t until Mikami met female singer Ayako Takato in the Pan-Pacific Mongoloid Unit, a group run by Haruomi Hosono of which Mikami is also a member that Mikami had found a singer with the versatility to sing the tunes he had composed over a number of years. Thus Micabox was born. Hosono discovered Takato after she had sent him a recording of her extraordinary voice. She had classical training, had tried singing pop music, but it wasn’t until she joined the Pan-Pacific Mongoloid Unit and heard Mikami’s compositions that she found the music most suited to her voice. She too became fascinated with the worlds of kagura and minyo. Aside to performing together in the Pan-Pacific Mongoloid Unit, Toshimi Mikami is also a member’s latest group, Tokyo Shyness.

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The album Hinemosu combines these ancient Japanese traditions and from other Asian countries especially China and Thailand with Mikami’s innovative electronic accompaniment. It sounds a bit like a snapshot of today’s Japan; where the grounds of an ancient, peaceful temple stands adjacent to the blazing neon of an advertising hoard. A curious mixture of the old and new, spiritual and hi-tech, serenity and chaos.

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Takeharu Kunimoto- Roukyoku Rock ‘n’ Roll

Takeharu Kunimoto started his music career playing flat mandolin in a bluegrass group, but when he was 19, switched to roukyoku and the shamisen. ‘Roukyoku at the beginning of the century was the popular music of the day, it wasn’t traditional music as such. The songs though hadn’t changed, so I thought I had better bring roukyoku up to date, and play music that is for now.” he says. Although his parents were roukyoku performers, he wanted to teach himself and learnt from listening to tapes. “I then bought a rhythm machine and got an idea to start playing shamisen with rock music, I wanted to break the old image of shamisen (this he demonstrates by playing me on his shamisen a version of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’! ). I first played at a venue for roukyoku, but young people wouldn’t come, and even the older people got fewer and fewer. I didn’t know what to do, so I tried playing in usual live houses, and thought if I mixed in rock music perhaps young people would come.’

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In the mid 90s, Kunimoto’s voice and shamisen was championed in some quarters as ‘Japan’s world music’ and he went to France to record an album, with African musicians including Ray Lema and Brice Wassy, and a few years later recorded another album in New York. He had already forged connections in New York by taking part there in a John Zorn production called ‘Wakamono’. “I’ve always liked the comedy aspect of roukyoku, it’s not just singing but a performance, a bit like acting. In New York, people couldn’t understand what I said, but their reaction was somehow very natural, whereas a Japanese audience seems to have forgotten how to express their feelings naturally. There are certain call and response patterns that audiences in Japan are unsure about, so now I teach the responses. Everybody then feels they can join in, and that helps to bridge the gap between me and the audience.”

Kunimoto’s voice has been much in demand for television commercials, while his acting talents have earned him a part in the NHK period drama ‘Genroku Ryoran’. An effervescent and charismatic character, inevitably his shows are punctuated by his own unique brand of humor. Though mixing in rock and other music such as blues and boogie into his music, Kunimoto is still keen to perform the older roukyoku repertoire and has earned two awards from the National Theater of Japan. “Those songs have funny stories and news from the time, so I want young people to know about that too. I just don’t want them to have an image of roukyoku as an old classical tradition.”

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Sandii

Sandii (Suzuki) is one of the most successful Japanese artists overseas, and certainly one of the most accessible. Her music has been championed over the years by a succession of musicians from David Bowie and the Eurythmics to David Sylvian and Sly & Robbie. She has evolved from an effervescent rock singer, a graceful singer of Asian and ‘world’ styles to in the last twenty years or so, a performer of Hawaiian music and hula master and teacher.

Her first solo album “Eating Pleasure”, produced by Haruomi Hosono of YMO fame, was released in 1980 to critical acclaim and quickly gained attention overseas. After touring Europe, she formed the group Sandii and the Sunsetz with top producer Makoto Kubota. During the 80s, Sandii & the Sunsetz toured throughout the United Kingdom, Holland and Australia as support act for groups such as Japan, INXS, Eurythmics, Talking Heads and The Pretenders. They headlined a tour of Australia and reached number 2 in the Australian national charts with the song “Sticky Music”. Britain’s Melody Maker wrote that Sandii combined the striking looks of Debbie Harry with a voice to rival Kate Bush.

In the latter half of the 1980s, Sandii and the Sunsetz toured in the United States and Canada and took part in the tenth annual “Reggae Sunsplash” with Maxi Priest and Ziggy Marley.

The beginning of the 1990s saw Sandii and Makoto Kubota turn their attention towards the rest of Asia, to create a pan-Asian music scene. Now recording as a solo artist, with Kubota’s presence enhanced as producer, Mercy was released in 1990. Also featuring Singaporean Dick Lee, the album’s songs included Japanese favourites such as Sakura and Sukiyaki but mixed with Indonesian and Malaysian flavours. This theme was further explored on the 1992 release Pacifica, the borders stretching further to include Polynesia and Hawaii.

1993’s Airmata was devoted entirely to Indonesian dangdut and Melayu classic songs sung in the native languages, inspired by Sandii’s and Kubota’s idols such as Malaysian songstress Saloma and the king of dangdut Rhoma Irama. The following year saw Sandii going more global than ever with Dream Catcher. Sung in English, French, Japanese and Indonesian, recorded and mixed in Malaysia, London, Singapore, Indonesia and New York and encompassing musical styles as diverse as dangdut, rap, ragamuffin, Brazilian pop and West African guitar. The title track was written by one of Japan’s foremost composers, Kazufumi Miyazawa of the Boom. Songs from Dream Catcher were later remixed by top producers including Ray Hayden, Sly Dunbar and Bally Sagoo on World Remix.

It was this global outlook that contributed to Sandii being chosen in 1995 to sing the theme tune to the Universiade Games in Fukuoka. She wrote the lyrics to “There is Nothing Higher in Your Life” a song composed by Haruomi Hososno.

On Watashi released in January 1996, Sandii and Kubota delved deeper into the music of Brazil, producing an album with a late-night feel together with the now trademark Indonesian, Malaysian and even Turkish elements.

In the same year, Sandii released her first album of Hawaiian album, titled ‘Sandii’s Hawaii’, where she explored the music of her birthplace. Some of the songs she learnt while dancing hula in Hawaii with Bella Richards of Kailua Oahu.

Since this time she has concentrated on the music of Hawaii, in a series of superb albums. In addition to her graceful voice she is a Hula teacher and has graduated as a dancer and chanter. She currently runs a successful hula school in Tokyo.

She has released seven albums in Sandii’s Hawaii series. Others, such as ‘Sandii’s Lemurian Heart’ combine Hawaiian with elements of Asian music from Okinawa, Indonesia and Malaysia, plus Jamaica and traces of Madagascar, the Indian Ocean and other Pacific Ocean music. She has two released albums of Ukulele music, two of Tahitian music and two, as Sandiibunbun, with kalimba player, Bun. In addition she has compiled nine volumes of ‘Hula Hula’ of Hawaiian music for Tipness fitness clubs in Japan.

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