The Very Best of the Far East




The Ryukyu Islands are home to Japan’s most thriving music scene. Steeped in tradition, modern day Okinawa is brimming with musical vitality. Ryukyu Underground (American Jon Taylor and Brit Keith Gordon), mix the past and present together with spectacular results. Their self titled first album sampled mainly traditional recordings on local labels, while the follow up Mo-Ashibi was largely a collaboration with some fine young Okinawan musicians. On their third album, Ryukyu Remixed from which this track was taken, those tunes are given new mixes by a dazzling array of like-minded DJs, musicians, producers, remixers, other creative artists and Ryukyu Underground themselves. They include some of the top names in the world dance music scene, alongside equally talented up and coming artists. Kid Loco who remixed this version of Akata Sundunchi is a Paris based musician, producer and remixer, and a leading figure in the trip-hop downtempo scene.


Spanish born electronic music guru José Barinaga went to Bali in March 1997 and became fixated with the local gamelan music he discovered there. On return to his now native Paris he soon started work on an Indonesian music project. The following year, Barinaga teamed up with I Wayan Sadra, a creative art teacher at the renowned STSI (Music and Dance School) in Solo, Central Java, who arranged the recording of the gamelan, voices, and other Indonesian instruments, which were played by teachers from the school. I Wayan Sadra is furthermore uniquely an influential and experimental composer, working with Balinese and other traditional Indonesian traditions within a contemporary perspective. They were joined by percussionist and composer Steve Shehan, known for his worldwide collaborations including with Rokia Traore, Nittin Sawhney and Paul Simon. This track also features the Desak Suarti group from Bali.


Kin Taii whose father is Chinese and mother Japanese went to Japan when he was 15 in 1979. His parents were afraid of the persecution of the Cultural Revolution, especially as his father is related to the imperial family of the Qing Dynasty. Until this time he had only listened to Russian classical composers such as Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and Chinese revolutionary songs. He remembers the shock of listening to rock music for the first time, by the likes of Deep Purple and the Rolling Stones. He bought a synthesizer and started playing rock covers, listened to New Wave groups from the UK and then from Japan Y.M.O, which was his first entry into techno and pop, along with Kraftwerk. These groups have remained a strong influence on his music until today. In 2001 Kin Taii went to Yunnan Province in southern China, home to 26 different ethnic communities, specifically to learn the music of the Naxi tribe living in Highlands 3500 metres above sea level. Their so-called Tompa culture, is reportedly the last language in the world to still use hieroglyphs, and has a rich and ancient musical range of songs. Kin Taii recorded those songs, to which he then added his own modern programmed beats and synthesized backing.


Blue Asia is a project of possibly Japan’s most innovative producer Makoto Kubota, together with his assistant and arranger Yoichi Ikeda, and the Malaysian top producer team of Mac Chew and Jenny Chin. Since the 1970s Kubota has been at the cutting edge of Japanese productions of world music, with groundbreaking albums by among others Indonesian singers Elvy Sukaesih, Detty Kurnia and Malagasy band Njava. Blue Asia travel to work with artists in their own locality, including previously Turkey, Bali and on this track, Vietnam. The music is full of the local atmosphere with the local musicians given a platform to shine. Hotel Vietnam features traditional instruments such as the monochord, the dan bau, and some glorious female singers who Blue Asia discovered while recording in Vietnam, on this track Vanh Khan.

The taiko drummers group Kodo are one of Japan’s major musical exports. Their music evokes the sounds of nature- the roar of thunder, the crash of the surf, and the melodic hum of the breeze. Taiko drumming has its roots in kagura, music offered to the gods. The belief is that within each drum there is a god who is awakened by the beating of the drum. The summoned goodwill then exerts a favourable influence on the crops. Formed in 1981, as a breakaway offshoot of the group Ondekoza who had exiled themselves to Sado island, Kodo have until today remained on the island, where they live in a converted farmhouse. They divide their time between touring overseas, in Japan or preparing new material on Sado, where they also organise the annual Earth Celebration festival with artists from around the world. Kodo have collaborated with a wide range of artists including Zakir Hussein and Airto Moreira. The album Sai-so, from which this track is taken is a remix of Kodo’s Bill Laswell produced album Ibuki. Kevin Yost is an American percussionist who combines electronic music and jazz on his remix of their track, The Hunted.

One of Japan’s leading musicians, Kazufumi Miyazawa has been called the Japanese David Byrne, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel rolled into one. He formed a rock group, the Boom at the end of the 80s who in 1993 released an Okinawan influenced single Shima Uta, (island songs) which went on to sell over a million and a half copies. Over the following years, Miyazawa expanded his horizons, travelling to and absorbing music from Indonesia, Jamaica, Cuba and particularly Brazil. Eventually he decided to divide his creativity between a more orthodox rock group and experimentation with various solo projects. He recorded solo albums in London and Brazil, and for his third self titled album, from which this track is taken, enlisted the help of producer and musician Arto Lindsay, that combined all of Miyazawa’s global influences. On Uchina ni Furu Yuki, he spectacularly mixed the music of Okinawa and Brazil, played by both Brazilian and Japanese musicians.

Oki is a musician of mixed Japanese and Ainu (indigenous Japanese) blood. He didn’t learn of his Ainu ancestry until he was 24. Ever since Oki has made it his mission to revive Ainu culture and increase it’s awareness, which has been in danger of dying out ever since the Japanese government adopted a policy to ignore the Ainu existence over 300 years ago. After his cousin gave him the tonkori, a long skinny five stringed wooden instrument, he discovered that role was to show young Ainu a new perspective, and turn their culture into an exciting and relevant tradition. Oki intends to rediscover the identity of the Ainu, with the creation of a new Ainu music. His music encompasses a wide ranges of influences, including reggae, rock and electronica, although is mostly based on traditional tunes. Matnaw Rera is taken from his latest album, No One’s Land featuring the vocals of female Ainu singer Repko.

Sarabandge was the third project by Osaka native, Kenji Yano who now makes Okinawa his home. Yano went to University in Okinawa and became besotted with the local roots music, becoming a member of the legendary group Rokunin Gumi. Sarabandge features female singer Sachiko Shima along with Yano’s guitar, stringed instruments and keyboards. One of the most inventive musicians in Okinawa, Yano is also known for his Surf Champlers project, that mixed surf and Okinawan music. ‘Iwai Bushi’ is a traditional song, taken from Sarabandge’s only album.


Born in Bandung, Sunda, Western Java in 1960, Detty Kurnia is Indonesia’s finest singer of pop sunda, a genre that mixes traditional Sundanese music with western elements. Detty grew up singing traditional music making her first recording aged 11, before becoming a well known pop sunda singer from the mid 1970s. Duriran is a pop sunda song taken from the album Dari Sunda, produced by Japanese producer Makoto Kubota (see Blue Asia) who brought new recording standards to Indonesian music. It also features former drummer of Japanese legendary group the Sunsetz Hideo Inoura, and the Indonesian drum (kendang) playing of Koko Wahyudin. Dari Sunda became a popular album in Japan and Detty Kurnia performed at the inaugural WOMAD festival in Japan in 1991.


Waldjinah has been a national singing star in Indonesia for over four decades. She is something of a singing chameleon, seamlessly switching from fairly traditional to more pop sounding material, but is probably best known for singing the style called kroncong, played on various stringed instruments with elements of Asian and European music and traces of possibly Arab and African influences too. Born in 1943 in Solo, Central Java, Waldjinah helped to develop a new style of popular music, called langgam jawa, based on Western pop music, accompanied by kroncong instrumentation, yet played in the traditional pentatonic (five note) pelog scale. On the album Ratu Jawa (Queen of Java) from which this track was taken, she was joined a dazzling array of talented Indonesian and Japanese musicians and producers. Kencono Wungu features long time Waldjinah collaborator Mantou’s, a top composer and musician of kroncong and modern Javanese music. This song has an historical theme about Queen Kencono Wungu, of the last Hindu Javanese based kingdom of Majapahit of the 14th century.

Since 1996, Kiyotaka Fukagawa, under the professional alias of Calm (and also Farr) has been carving out a reputation in the global dance and electronic music scene both in Japan and overseas. Aside to his own albums he has been much in demand as a contributor to compilation albums and as a remixer. His worldwide mixing credits include Femi Kuti and Arto Lindsay, and in Japan Port of Notes and Sakura. In Europe he has been championed by the likes of Giles Peterson, Rainer Truby, Ross Allen and Patrick Forge and in the US by the San Francisco record label, Ubiquity. His music, variously described as nu-jazz, or chilled hip hop, usually contains Latin American or East Asian elements.


For pure charisma, no other Okinawan musician, past or present can match Shokichi Kina. Over a thirty year career Kina has proven he’s capable of writing some of Okinawa’s most memorable music. He wrote Haisai Ojisan when he was just 16, which famously became a hit in Japan and Okinawa while he was in prison on a drugs charge. It was one of the first songs to mix Okinawan music and its local ‘katcharsee’ dance rhythm, with the rock music that he encountered around Okinawa’s military bases. In 1980 he recorded the album ‘Bloodline’ with Ry Cooder as a guest guitarist, which featured his other big hit, Hana. His career however is also littered with long periods of musical inactivity, during which time his albums have consisted of mostly re-recordings and re-mixes of older material. Instead he has concentrated his energies onto various causes and politics, culminating in him being elected as politician in 2004. This version of Haisai Ojisan was recorded live at the Mikado club in Koza, Okinawa in 1977 and is a classic of Asian music.


Female singer Huong Thanh and guitarist / producer Nguyen Le mix up Vietnamese traditional music, with all kinds of extraneous influences. Huong Thanh was born in Saigon, where her father was one of the biggest stars of Cai Luong, a kind of Vietnamese theatre. In 1977, two years after the war ended, her family moved to Marseille in France, before moving to Paris. In 1995 she met guitarist Nguyen Le, who was born in Paris to Vietnamese parents, and started out playing rock and then jazz guitar. Eventually he wanted to explore his own identity which opened up the possibility to mix the Vietnamese music he remembers as a young child, with jazz and the other styles that he grew up with in Paris. The multicultural city of Paris has also been influential to their sound, this track featuring the Barbes Deluxe Strings. Most of their songs, including this track, are based on traditional tunes from all over Vietnam.


From the Ordos grasslands of the Southwest of Inner Mongolia, Urna Chahar-Tugchi comes from a family of livestock farmers. She learned traditional Mongolian songs from her grandmother and parents and later studied Yangqin (Chinese dulcimer) at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. She combines these two different experiences in her own compositions, partly tradition and partly innovation. Furthermore, she adds the influences of other musical cultures to create original sounds. The most striking aspect of her music is Urna’s amazing voice, her ability to improvise and her dynamic range. This traditional song is about Sangjidorji, a freedom fighter from her homeland.



One of the most successful East / West collaborations in recent years has been American cello pioneer David Darling’s work with the Wulu Bulu people of Taiwan. In 2000, Darling (best known for his work with ECM and various soundtracks including Heat) visited the village of Wulu in the mountains of Taiwan and listened in astonishment to the harmony singing of the aboriginal Bunun tribe. A couple of years later he returned to the village to make an extraordinary album, whereby Darling’s cello is multi-layered over the villager’s polyphonic choral singing. With Darling’s sensitive accompaniment, the Bunun’s ancient tunes are given a radically different and beautiful interpretation, as on this song, about the relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren. David Darling and 23 members of the Wulu Bunun, subsequently toured in the UK

Ryuichi Sakamoto is fairly unique in the Japanese music world, being almost as well known outside of Japan as at home. For over 25 years he has been one of Asia’s great musical innovators, with an interest in world cultures while pushing technical boundaries. He was one of the founding members of the Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978, who went on to become internationally acclaimed as pioneers of technopop. As a solo artist he has become even better known as one of the world’s leading film soundtrack composers. Beginning in 1983, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, in which he also had an acting role alongside David Bowie, remains probably his best known work. He has since scored soundtracks for including The Last Emperor and Little Buddha. His musical collaborators have included David Byrne, David Sylvian, Youssou N’Dour and recently Jaques and Paula Morelenbaum on an acclaimed album of material by the bossa nova maestro Antonio Carlos Jobim.


fm3 is American punk composer Christiaan Virant and Chinese computer musician Zhang Jian. Both had been pioneering musicians operating in Beijing’s underground music scene for over a decade, before forming fm3 in 1999. Fm3 are China’s first ever avant garde electronica project, combining ancient Chinese traditional instruments (on this track the lute instrument, the pipa) with lo-fi computer software and a variety of original instruments.
Loaded with atmosphere, their original sound has a slightly eerie edge, that seeps its way into the listener’s consciousness. Fm3 embarked on a successful six month European tour introducing their original, and spellbinding sound.


At the beginning of the 1990s, female vocal quartet Nenes championed the cause of Okinawan roots music in Japan with probably more success than anyone else as part of the burgeoning world music scene. Originally intended to make Okinawan min’yo or folk music accessible to young Okinawans, Nenes were brought together by producer Sadao China. The unison voices of Misako Koja, Yasuko Yoshida, Yukino Hiyane and Namiko Miyazato were combined with China’s sanshin, over a backing of guitars, drums, percussion, bass and the layered keyboards of co-producer Kazuya Sahara. They varied the influences to include reggae, Brazilian, Hawaiian and Indonesian music, some staying closer to the tradition than others. In 1994, American guitarist Ry Cooder recorded with them on their wonderful album Koza Dabasa, which also featured David Lindley and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. The much loved local song Shima Jima Kaisha was the album’s most glorious moment.


Rikki is from a place just about as far south in Japan proper as you can get. Amami island is the last drop of Kagoshima, the southernmost prefecture of Kyushu, the southern of the four main islands that comprise Japan. Amami shima uta (island songs) are often considered to be the Japanese blues, and the southernmost of the country’s folk styles. Rikki (full name Ritsuki Nakano) was born to sing Amami shima uta., beginning when she was four years old, eventually becoming the youngest ever winner of the National Folk Award title. On the album Miss You Amami, from which this track was taken, Rikki sings traditional songs and others rooted in the island tradition, with other influences and elements to create a new Amami island music. On Syumichinagahama she is joined by top Malaysian musicians, accordion player S.Atan, and pianist Mac Chew.

Chitotihc is a project of veteran Japanese drummer Chito Kawachi, who has played with variety of musicians, from appearing on Okinawan Shokichi Kina’s album Bloodline with Ry Cooder, to Japan’s the Boom featuring Kazufumi Miyazawa. Chitotihc incorporated Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian music into an eclectic and innovative pan Asian music brew with a talented group of musicians playing Japanese and other world instruments.


The latest one man band project by Kenji Yano, is The Sanshin Cafe Orchestra. Yano plays sanshin (snake skinned banjo) in medleys of some of Okinawa’s most famous traditional tunes. This track Innocent Smile features two lullabies, Nishinjyo Bushi and Ittaanma Makaiga. In addition, Yano plays 6 and 12 stringed acoustic guitars and his custom made shimolele and chrominca.

American guitarist Bob Brozman first met Okinawan sanshin and guitar maestro Takashi Hirayasu on the tiny island of Taketomi, Okinawa in 1999. For the next four days they recorded the beautifully simple and exquisite album Jin Jin, comprised almost entirely of Okinawan traditional children’s songs and lullabies. The album gained unexpected worldwide acclaim, with Bob and Takashi going on to delight audiences around the world with their live versions of these songs. Bob Brozman is one of the world’s leading players of National Steel and Hawaiian guitars, while Takashi Hirayasu grew up with both Okinawan traditional music and western rock and soul, playing guitar with Shokichi Kina’s group Champloose. Bebe Nu Kusakaiga is a well known lullaby, given a new alluring arrangement.


Tokyosphere was a group fronted by American shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) player John Kaizan Neptune. Neptune began studying shakuhachi in 1971 while living in Hawaii, before relocating to Japan determined to master the instrument. He subsequently earned himself the top certificate in shakuhachi playing and the honorary name ‘Kaizan’ literally meaning sea mountain. Technically brilliant, he has pushed the boundaries of shakuhachi music with various projects, from mainstream jazz to various world mixtures. With Tokyosphere he performed with other master musicians from Japan on koto (zither) and Japanese percussion. Yamato Dawn was originally written to accompany a dance performance. The various kotos are plucked with fingers, while Neptune plays a bass shakuhachi.

This amazing project, pits acoustic guitarist and composer Tatsuya Koumazaki with monks from the Shingon buddhist sect in the Hida area of Gifu prefecture. The Shingon (Mantra) sect was founded by Kukai (774-835) in Wakayama prefecture. Koumazaki has played with different musicians from Asia, and is constantly exploring ways to combine his guitar with various roots music from around the world. Searching for the meeting point between Japanese and other world music, he discovered shomyo, or Buddhist chants from Japan, also the connection that links India to China and Japan. Accompanying them is Koumazaki’s regular group Pangaea on wadaiko drums, sho (mouth organ), shinobue and nohkan (flutes) and koto.

Koto Vortex have gained a cult status for their minimalist, hypnotic music played on the Japanese zither, the koto. The koto is probably the most conservative of the Japanese traditional instruments, originating in China and being absorbed into Japanese court music. The four women of Koto Vortex studied under the late and great koto innovator Tadao Sawai and his wife Kazue Sawai, who devised a range of innovative techniques, increasing the tonal possibilities of the koto. Koto Vortex expanded this vision on their groundbreaking first album of compositions of renowned experimental composer Hiroshi Yoshimura who sadly died in 2003. This piece features two koto players, Miki Maruta and Michiyo Yagi.

Takuji is a dj and producer from Okinawa, who first mixed club and Okinawan folk music on his album Mensore of Sound. Since then, he has been a regular on the Japanese dance and club scene, mostly based in Tokyo. In 2003 he remixed the instrumental acoustic album Uto Ashibi by Takashi Hirayasu and Yoshikawa Chuei that featured some of Okinawa’s most loved tunes. Asadoya Yunta, taken from that album, is perhaps Okinawa’s best known song, originating on the small island of Taketomi in Ishigaki.


Buy the Very Best of the Far East CD here


Kazufumi Miyazawa – fRoots April 2003

My first trip to Japan in a year, after ten years of living there, and I’m immediately reminded why I like it. First I’m inquired of by customs, ever so politely, that it hadn’t accidentally slipped my mind to declare those firearms, drugs and pornography I might be carrying. Within a whisker, six people are loading my suitcase onto the 10:30 am ‘Friendly Limousine Bus’ and bowing in unison as we head off to downtown Tokyo. I confidently adjust my watch to 10:30. God, this country is efficient.

After a few days grappling with the urban jungles of Tokyo and Yokohama, I feel ready for a trip to the countryside. I’m also ready to see some music, and hear that the Boom are playing in Toyama, about five hours north west of Tokyo on the Sea of Japan. Two birds, one stone. The singer of the Boom, Kazufumi Miyazawa has recently released his third solo album, just issued in the UK (through Stern’s) titled Deeper Than Oceans. Although somewhat known in Brazil and Argentina, and other parts of Asia, perhaps finally Miyazawa is on his way to receiving recognition in Europe. For over ten years in Japan, he’s been a kind of Paul Simon, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel figure rolled into one, bringing various unknown music from around the world to the Japanese masses.


To get to Toyama, I have to board the shinkansen (bullet train). Even at such high speeds, the metropolis of Tokyo disappears slowly. Passing through an endless succession of tunnels cut through the mountains, we eventually emerge into open countryside. I change trains and get on the ‘Thunderbird’, in a stroke realising one of my childhood dreams.

For their latest tour, the Boom are playing at small towns and villages on open air, or specially constructed outdoor stages. “Delivering music to the people” is what Miyazawa calls it. Makes a change from the usual antiseptic Shimin Kaikan or city halls that most tours comprise. Last year the Boom had one of their biggest successes ever, with the release of their album Okinawa- Watashi no Shima, continuing their love affair with the island. In 1993, their single Shima Uta sold a million and a half copies, becoming probably Japan’s best known ‘Okinawan’ song. Somewhat bizarrely last year it became almost as well known in Argentina as well, sung (in Japanese) by actor and musician Alfredo Cassero, and chosen as the official song of the beleaguered (yes!) Argentinean football team at last year’s World Cup.

Much Music

Such rare success of a Japanese song overseas became big news in Japan, and by a fate of timing, the album was released at the same time, featuring a new version of Shima Uta and other Okinawan influenced songs.

After a long bus journey from Toyama, I eventually reach the outdoor stage, in a park on the outskirts of the city, just in time for the start. To say Miyazawa has the audience in the palm of his hands is an understatement. They stand up when he stands up. They sit down when he sits down. They wave their hands when he waves his. At one point Miyazawa stands on his head. There are limitations I learn, but nevertheless Miyazawa has in abundance what I can only describe as natural charisma.

Two hours of greatest hits, and a fair smattering of Okinawan songs later, the show ends in a tumultuous finale. The whole exhausted entourage, eleven musicians and at least as many staff, retire to a Toyama restaurant. Miyazawa is clearly shattered. Today was a national holiday, he’s been touring incessantly, recording, acting in a TV drama, writing essays, books, travelling, but still graciously accepts my request for an interview. Together with two of his personal managers, we sit ourselves down at a table tucked away from the larger group, promising to be back before the main courses arrive.

I begin by asking how he first got interested in Okinawan music. “There weren’t many opportunities to listen to Okinawan music in Japan when I first started to get interested in it, so I asked friends who went to Okinawa to get some tapes for me. For me, I got the same kind of feeling or shock as when I listened to Bob Marley when I was a high school student. I really liked that the melodies were repeated often, almost incessantly, and the chorus too, the same rhythm throughout, and I thought it was very similar to reggae. That was about thirteen years ago in 1989 when we recorded our first record.”

In the 1970s, Haruomi Hosono had already found inspiration from Okinawa in some of his songs, which had not gone unnoticed by Miyazawa. “I knew Hosono was playing Okinawan music before he played with Yellow Magic Orchestra. Also, Shokichi Kina’s Haisai Ojisan was a hit in Japan in the late 70s, so I already had listened to some Okinawan music, but this was before I really got into it.”

It was the success of Shima Uta in 1993 that changed Miyazawa and the Boom forever. “I went to Okinawa to take some photos for the Boom’s third album , to a very beautiful and natural area called Yanbaru and for the first time saw a deeper side of Okinawa. I saw some remains of the war there and visited the Himeyuri Peace and Memorial Museum and learnt about the female students who became like voluntary nurses looking after injured soldiers. There were no places to escape from the US army in Okinawa, so they had to find underground caves. Although they hid from the US army, they knew they would be searching for them, and thought they would be killed, so they moved form one cave to another. Eventually they died in the caves. I heard this story from a woman who was one of these girls and who survived. I was still thinking about how terrible it was after I left the museum. Sugar canes were waving in the wind outside the museum when I left and it inspired me to write a song. I also thought I wanted to write a song to dedicate to that woman who told me the story. Although there was darkness and sadness in the underground museum, there was a beautiful world outside. This contrast was shocking and inspiring. There are two types of melody in the song Shima Uta, one from Okinawa and the other from Yamato (Japan). I wanted to tell the truth that Okinawa had been sacrificed for the rest of Japan, and Japan had to take responsibility for that. Actually, I wasn’t sure that I had the right to sing a song with such a delicate topic, as I’m Japanese, and no Okinawan musicians had done that. Although Hosono started to embrace Okinawan music into his own music early on, it was in a different way to what I was trying to do. Then I asked Shokichi Kina what he thought I should do about Shima Uta and he said that I should sing it. He told me that Okinawan people are trying to break down the wall between them and Yamato (mainland) Japanese, so he told me I should do the same and encouraged me to release Shima Uta.”


After such a spectacular and unexpected success, he next turned his attention to Brazilian music. ” I first heard bossa nova when I was high school student. I had an image of bossa nova as a kind of salon music but then found out it was completely different. I saw Joyce performing live in Tokyo and it was incredible. It was fast paced, complicated and thrilling music. I tried to do something similar with the Boom and recorded our first bossa nova song, Carnaval. I then went to Rio De Janeiro to see people’s real life, to feel and understand the local beat and went to a samba concert which was fantastic. The audience really enjoyed themselves, sharing enjoyment with others and they seemed more like the main star than the artist to me. I was in the rock music business in Japan where always the rock star is in the centre creating a dream world which was quite unrealistic. The samba scene was a new experience to me just as Okinawan music had been, and I wondered if I could make Japanese samba that the audience would want to sing together with us. I think we kind of succeeded with Kaze ni Naritai, which became a hit single. The Boom then released two Brazilian influenced albums, Kyokuto Samba (Far East Samba) and Tropicalism.”


Tropicalism was the Boom’s most ambitious project thus far, encompassing a wide range of influences that Miyazawa had encountered from Okinawa, Brazil, Indonesia and reggae, far from what a major record company might have expected of a best selling rock band. From the original four members, with the virtually full time guest musicians, the Boom had blossomed to about fifteen musicians. With his band somewhat spiraling out of control, Tropicalism was to act as a catalyst for Miyazawa’s solo career.

“Tropicalism became like my solo album eventually as I had too many of my own ideas and asked all those other musicians to play with us. Although the four of us in the Boom were still at the centre of things, we didn’t play together on some of the songs. Anyway, in retrospect, Tropicalism lacked the Boom’s own atmosphere. I had lots of ideas, so I thought I should do this experimenting solo. I could then play with musicians who I really wanted to, and do what I really wanted. The songs I write solo are generally less pop than the Boom, the lyrics are more personal.”

In 1999 he released two solo albums in quick succession, Sixteenth Moon recorded in London, and Afrosick recorded in Brazil. Sixteenth Moon turned out to be a fairly straight ahead pop album, produced by Hugh Padgham, probably best known for his work with Sting, and featuring many of the same musicians who played on Sting’s albums. “I always liked Sting very much, and I felt that as I’d been playing for over ten years, I wanted to know how far I’d come as an artist, and thought that by playing with Sting’s musicians I might find out. I wanted to find out what quality of music I could create with them. I had no idea how it would go beforehand, so I wrote the music score out and the lyrics as well, although I don’t write the lyrics down beforehand usually. I prepared an English translation of the lyrics and made a demo tape. I didn’t care at that time if it was new or not. I wanted create orthodox music of top quality, as if I had ordered a tailored suit for myself which fitted me perfectly.”

Afrosick recorded straight after in Brazil was a different affair, with some of the leading lights of the contemporary music scene that had influenced Miyazawa’s music with the Boom, such as Carlinhos Brown and Lenine. “My mind set for making Afrosick was like a fashion designer’s collection which changes every season. My mode at that time was for hip, kitsch pop, aggressive and progressive rock. I wrote the melodies and Carlinhos Brown wrote the lyrics and arranged for the other musicians with Marcos Suzano. I produced the album together with Carlinhos Brown. Suzano and Fernando Moura arranged some of the songs and then asked others such as Pedro Luiz, Paulinho Moska and Lenine to write other tunes.”

Miyazawa and his new Brazilian friends performed in Japan and Brazil. His fans lapped it up, but Afrosick didn’t manage to popularise Brazilian music in Japan, in the same way he had succeeded with the Boom. As a solo artist he was still to forge his own identity as a Japanese musician playing essentially Brazilian music. Instead it sometimes sounded like Brazilian music, just sung in Japanese.

Deeper Than Oceans probably realises Miyazawa’s own original ambition for mixing different types of music into something cohesive, original and unique to him. To help him achieve this, he enlisted the help of American Arto Lindsay as producer. They were introduced by mutual friend Ryuichi Sakamoto about fourteen years ago, after a show at New York’s Knitting Factory. “I thought I had managed to make a style that mixed different types of music, but for the new album, I wanted to make a kind of natural mixture, almost unrecognizable, so it doesn’t matter what kind of music is in that mixture. Bahian rhythms are not so unusual for me anymore, it’s a rhythm naturally inside me. It’s the same with Okinawan music. These were very different and unfamiliar years ago, but now I can use them for my own music.”

Miyazawa decided to work with some of the new generation of Brazilian musicians as well as some he had worked with on Afrosick. “I knew that Arto knows that younger generation. He heard Afrosick and told me his opinion and gave me some ideas, and we decided to work together on a new album. We’re completely different types, but I like the music he produced for artists such as Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, Marisa Monte and Ile Aiye. I think he is an artist who gets power from playing with other artists. He gave me lots of advice during the recording and I learnt a lot. He advised me not to over express emotion too much, to sing in a natural way as the melody is strong enough to carry that emotion. If I had produced the album by myself it would have been too much in my style. I also had something he didn’t have, so this too worked well.”

Deeper Than Oceans was recorded at various locations around the world with some forty musicians roughly divided equally between Brazilian and Japanese. “First, I went to Bahia to record the rhythm tracks with six or seven musicians from Ile Aiye a famous percussion group in Bahia. I asked Juninho to play with me again, a guitarist who was on Afrosick before. Then I flew to Sao Paulo and worked on one song with a young musician, Max de Castro. After that I went to Rio de Janeiro and did some recording with Kassin, who was also on Afrosick and with Caetano Veloso’s son Moreno.”

“After finishing recording in Brazil, and just before flying to New York, our next recording location, I stopped in Buenos Aires for one day and had a meeting about recording there. In New York, we recorded at Arto’s friends’ studio. Arto is meticulous about studio work and never misses what sounds need to be recorded. He is like me as the type of artist who records the main sounds one by one in the studio but he has many more attributes that I do not have. The taste and atmosphere of Arto’s friends in New York, the rhythm tracks of Bahia and my own melodies all helped to make the music this time very interesting.”

“Back to Tokyo from New York, Arto and I continued recording for another month, including with Takashi Hirayasu from Okinawa, and after that we went down to Okinawa to record with Yoriko Ganeko . Buenos Aires was the last recording location for this project. We had already recorded Tango for Guevara and Evita in Rio de Janeiro but I wanted to make another version with real tango musicians in Argentina. The lyrics of the song were sort of flexible and I revised the words from time to time, as I wanted to make a kind of documentary song. Osvaldo Requena, one of the country’s most important tango musicians and arrangers, put a melody to my lyrics together with a tango orchestra. He read a Spanish translation of my lyrics and liked them. He said this was not only Japan’s problem, but Argentina’s as well.”

Miyazawa believes his latest solo album is probably his best suited for an international audience. ” In Brazil, I kind of recorded according to Brazilian rules, but overall the album has no nationality with traces of the chaos or disease of Tokyo. It has some elements of Japanese tradition and a very modern style as well.”

He is planning to tour in Europe later this year, having performed at a festival in Spain last year. “I like this unit of musicians very much and would like to do concerts with them in Japan as well as in Europe, but I might need to make a solo album every year with them as the circle of the Japanese music scene is very fast. It might be different in Europe, where people seem to think of what they are doing in a longer term. I want to be well prepared anyway, to always have a permanent unit to play with in Europe when I am offered any chances. I also have to think of the Boom too of course, and a ‘Best of’ was released last year in Argentina. The fact that Shima Uta was such as big hit in Argentina, while sung in Japanese, gave us some confidence that we don’t always have to sing in English.”

Suddenly realizing my promise that this would be a short interview, we return to the main table where everyone is still waiting patiently. Probably never before has the end of an fRoots interview been greeted with such a collective sigh of relief.

Next day my shinkansen arrives back in Tokyo about one minute late for which we receive a gracious apology over the train’s loudspeaker system. Two days later I arrive back at Heathrow to find the Underground isn’t running due to flooding. I decide to take a bus. While queuing up a bus driver comes up to me. “Have you got the time, mate?”. My watch may be nine hours ahead, but at least the minutes are still pretty accurate from my first morning in Japan. The bus driver adjusts his watch. I can’t but help feel there was a certain amount of irony attached to that simple question. Eventually the bus departs nearly an hour late.

Go to the Shopping page for Miyazawa and The Boom

Kazufumi Miyazawa – The Conversation, Tokyo Journal, Feb. 1996

I recently came across this interview I had done with Kazufumi Miyazawa, one of the most popular singers in Japan at the time. The band is currently on tour to celebrate their 25 years together and have released a compilation of their  best known tunes, that includes some new and live recordings. The Boom were formed the same year that I first went to Japan in 1989, and I ended up working with them quite a lot, including a few overseas tours and presenting a radio show with Miyazawa. Good memories..


The Conversation:

Kazufumi Miyazawa
interview by Paul Fisher
photographs by Bruce Osborn

He may be a hero to hundreds of thousands of screaming fans, but Kazufumi “Miya” Miyazawa is no ordinary pop idol. As composer and vocalist with The Boom, he is one of Japan’s most innovative popular musicians, a rare item among his generation. From reggae to Okinawan folk, Indonesian gamelan to Brazilian samba, Miya borrows freely, but without a copycat approach. His music is blessed with an originality that for many is like a shining light in the dull world of Japanese pop.
The Boom’s Okinawan-influenced single, “Shima Uta,” was the mega hit of 1993, selling over 1.5 million copies and capturing the Japan Record Award–the local version of the Grammy. Last year, the band sold out a 42-date national tour and headlined several festivals, including WOMAD and Club Asia at the Budokan. The group’s current album, Far East Samba, has notched sales of close to half a million.

In person, Miya lacks the pretentiousness you might expect of a rock star, although he exudes a certain style, confidence and the good looks that have made him many a schoolgirl’s fantasy. He sits on the sofa at his manager’s Aoyama suite, bouncing his one-year-old son, Hio, on his knee. He speaks in a soft but resolute manner, taking time to answer each question carefully, patiently checking my comprehension. The challenge of changing the status quo looms ahead for Miya, but he insists he’s just an ordinary kid from the sticks who likes to sing. He is not immune to a laugh or two, but is more concerned about getting down to the serious issues at hand.

You were recently on the TV program “Music Station,” reading the lyrics from Tegami, your new single. What’s this all about?

Around the 17th and 18th centuries, Christianity was banned in Japan. There was a test called fumie which was used to find out who was a Christian. The authorities would ask everyone to step on a picture of Jesus Christ. Those who could, passed the test. Those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, were obviously Christians, so they were executed. The single Tegami is a kind of fumie test.

What do you mean?

Those who can listen to and accept the message of the song are those who believe in themselves. Those who scream out “No!” are those who don’t believe in themselves–the ones who are not really musicians.

What is it about the lyrics that some musicians will find so offensive?

Basically, I’m saying, “Fuck Japanese pop music, it’s rubbish.” So a lot of people are going to hate me. Except, of course, the ones who have pride in their music.

Can you be more specific about which musicians will react?

I have no idea.

How did Sony react to Tegami?

I don’t know for sure, but I would think opinions are quite divided. People who like music will think it’s good.

What is it about the current scene that you deride?

The way the system just creates music to be consumed. It’s like it’s a throwaway product. I hate that buy, listen, throw away and sing at a karaoke bar mentality.

So Japan is just like the U.S. or Europe, where music has become just another luxury item.

Yes, but Japanese people have a desire to express themselves, and that’s why they need the medium of karaoke. It’s certainly not creative, but if people can get rid of stress through karaoke, then I think I can just possibly accept it. Most pop songs here have an eight or 16 bar intro. That’s to give the singer at a karaoke bar time to get from his seat to the microphone. And the songs can’t be more than a few minutes long. It was like that in the U.S. in the ’60s, but this music isn’t rock & roll. It doesn’t encourage originality. I want to do something different–not for karaoke–so I have to break the current system.

And how do you do that?

Well, Tegami is a poem reading, so it doesn’t work as karaoke. And our previous single, Kaze ni Naritai, had a very complex back rhythm to it, over 100 percussion tracks, so I think I’m also saying, “Try making a karaoke version of that!” But I do know that there are contradictions: I’m challenging the system, but in another way, I am part of it. In the end, I just want to sing–nothing more.

Is it the system that keeps you so busy with this schedule of touring, recording, videos, TV work?

If they don’t do anything for awhile, musicians always get scared that they’ll be forgotten, and will worry about what other bands are doing. The maximum number of records we can sell in Japan is about three million. U2, for example, can sell about 20 million worldwide, so you can see the difference. Japanese musicians don’t get paid high royalties compared to the big foreign artists, either.

As a successful band, do you now have the power to negotiate higher royalty rates?

I don’t think this is quite the time to do that. I’m kind of envious of the systems in the U.S. and the U.K., but we can’t just suddenly import their way of doing things. I think Avex Trax pays higher royalties, so it’s slowly changing in Japan. But to make really good music, we need a lot of financial support. In the end, I don’t want to be rich; I just want to make good music. It takes a lot of money for us to go on tour. Some singers or groups have formed their own record companies, but it has never worked out. I’d like to change the system, but at the moment we need the big companies’ money.

Do you enjoy the rounds of interviews, TV appearances and commercials, or is it just a bore?

Interviews like this are usually okay. I’m not a “talent” though, so I don’t like talking about things I’m not interested in. I sometimes refuse them. I just look at each one being offered and decide on its own merits. If I wanted to be rich, I’d do all the TV stuff I could!

Where do you find the time in this hectic schedule to be creative?

When I’m traveling–in Asia, Okinawa, Brazil or Cuba. Those are the times that I get inspiration, pick up new ideas.

Do you feel pressure to come up with something new all the time?

Of course. But I always have a certain purpose, and it comes down to my own ambition after all. After we finished the album Puberty about four years ago, for example, we just didn’t have a vision of what to do next, so we took a six month rest.

You’ve described Puberty as the time you reached puberty. What do you mean?

Well, up until that point, I didn’t really have any of my own opinions, or at least they weren’t that thought out. Puberty usually comes at about 13 or 14, but my mental “puberty” came at about 25. Japanese people aren’t always given the chance to develop their opinions.

So this was quite a shock for you?

Yes. I’m from a conservative town, Kofu, and we weren’t encouraged to think about anything. The government, or educational authorities want to keep the system that way. It’s very clever. School is like a factory, just churning out people who are all the same. There’s no debate about anything. After graduating from high school, I came to Tokyo and started working part-time at a restaurant, where I began meeting people from China, Bangladesh, Iran and so on. We were getting paid very low wages, and I started thinking about their situation and things on a wider scale.

What were some of these new-found themes you wrote about for the album?

It was during the period that many foreigners first came to Japan from all over Asia, and I felt that our response as Japanese people and of the government was really poor. So one theme was about how we should treat foreigners. The illegal waste dumping from factories was another issue. Another theme was the relationship between the four members of The Boom, and between The Boom and our fans. We were thinking about splitting up at that point, as we didn’t have any direction. The song Sarabat means sayonara because we thought we might not be continuing.

But you did.

I traveled around Asia. I took part in the Asian musical Nagraland and conceived a vision for the future that became the Faceless Man album.

Some have called you the spokesman for the apathetic generation now in their late 20s or early 30s who grew up never questioning anything. Do you see yourself in this role?

I never tell people what to do. I just let them make up their own minds. I really just write about my own experiences.

You said earlier that you grew up in a conservative atmosphere.

And we weren’t poor, either.

And you weren’t a rebel?


Is that why you followed the path of going to university and didn’t just drop out and become a musician?

I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. Though I didn’t study much either.

What did you study?

Business. But I didn’t want to be a businessman.

So why business?

Because you didn’t have to know all the old Chinese literature for that course! But actually going to university was a chance to go to Tokyo and meet different people. As far as my parents were concerned, I was studying. They didn’t know that I was really just trying to be a musician. It was just like a legal way for me to be in Tokyo, a four-year moratorium.

Was this when you used to play in Harajuku on Sundays? On “Paradise Walk”–or “Din Alley,” depending on your point of view?

That’s right.

You used to play songs by The Specials and The Police back then.

Yes, and our own songs too. I never liked punk; to me, it was violent. But when bands like The Specials came around, I thought they were really different. I liked Led Zeppelin and Queen, but they didn’t seem very intelligent, somehow.

You said you’ve been inspired by traveling. What about your own “roots”? Where do they come from?

I really don’t know. I’ve felt sometimes that I haven’t got any musical roots at all. There was nothing to start from. After WWII, the Japanese gave up their own culture and became very Americanized. We have min’yo and Kabuki, and there was a small movement to protect our own culture, but it was very limited. If forced to choose, I would say that my roots lie in the pop music of America. It’s a kind of tragedy. I guess I’ve been traveling to countries that do have musical roots to pick up ideas from them.

One of The Boom’s most famous songs was Shima Uta. Did you get any adverse reaction from the traditional musicians, thinking that you had stolen their music?

I’m sure that some of the traditional musicians think that way, and I used to worry about it. The Okinawans were sacrificed by the Japanese government during the war, and the Okinawan intelligentsia today still believe the Japanese government was guilty. So I wondered if I could really make Okinawan music. I’m sure for some Okinawans it wasn’t pleasant to hear a Japanese man sing that song. But Shokichi Kina [one of the first Okinawans to combine traditional and rock music] really helped me. He invited me to play with him in Okinawa and just accepted me. I also think that, rather than breaking tradition, I perhaps encouraged young Okinawans to pick up the sanshin and play their own traditional music again. There is an invisible wall between Japanese and Okinawans and Shokichi helped to break that. He’s got a very big heart.

Has there ever been resistance from the people of other countries–such as Indonesia or Brazil–whose music you’ve embraced?

I’ve never had a chance to discuss that with anyone from those places.

Your fame in Japan has certainly risen sharply in the last few years. Are you still the same person as before?

Yes. I don’t want to be a rock star. I hate the drug thing that rock stars are associated with. It’s just not cool. All I want to do is play music.

There isn’t much of a wild side to the life of The Boom then?

Times have changed. Who knows? If this was the ’60s or the ’70s, maybe I’d be taking drugs.

So what is your pressure valve?

I always feel pressure, and sometimes I want to be released from that. But I don’t feel frustration, because I love music. I can understand about Kurt Cobain, but that was such a waste. I would understand it better if it was some cause that I would be willing to die for, but that was just a waste of a life.

Has becoming a father, as you did recently, changed anything?

I’ve become more conservative. But at the same time I’m more radical. When I was single I think I used to care much more about what everyone around me thought. But I don’t have to care about what people think anymore, because I’ve got my own family now. It’s like with the lyrics of Tegami; I’m not thinking about other musicians. It could be dangerous, I suppose, because it’s a radical message. But because I have the trust of my family, I have more power to challenge things.

Although The Boom is a four-member band, it increasingly seems to have become your solo project. Is this a fair comment?

No, not really. Think of a big ship. No one person can make it move. You could say the four of us are in the control room, but we need other crew from outside to help us. So, without me, the ship won’t move–no one would know the direction to go with it. But you could say the same of Takashi or Yama or Tochigi. The fans are also a part of the crew in a wider sense.

Speaking of fans, does it concern you that your fans are still predominantly young and female? That you haven’t attracted an older audience?

It used to. Three or four years ago, I used to question why it is mostly young girls who come to see us. But now I think it’s okay; in fact, it’s a good thing. There were, though, quite a few older people who came to see us on our last tour.

Is your message predominantly for the young?

For me, the meaning of rock music isn’t about playing electric guitars or whatever, but opening doors for a new generation. It also means breaking down the old system, and part of that is getting rid of the generation gap, where, say, 20-year-olds listen to this, and 40-year-olds listen to that. Kaze ni Naritai might have been a samba song, but its spirit is definitely rock & roll. Any generation can sing that song. It’s the same with Shima Uta–the melody might have been close to Okinawan folk, but it was also rock. I don’t mean a sound like the rock music of the ’60s and ’70s in the U.K. and America. I mean a new vision. It’s not punk, either, which is just breaking down the system without a vision of the future. What I call rock has a future beyond.

What is the new vision, musically?

Our last album, Far East Samba, was quite straight in its use of samba and Cuban rhythms. Bossa nova was clearly just bossa nova and Latin was just Latin. I’ve got great respect for those sounds, so that was our first step. Tegami, though, is the next stage and it’s an experiment with our interpretation. It has Brazilian rhythms, but it’s a rock version, it’s another sound completely. It’s really quite radical. There’s been nothing like it in Brazil even, with that mix of Brazilian rhythms and rock. There have hardly been any poem-reading songs in Japanese music either. Maybe some in the indie scene, and there’s rap, of course, but that’s different.

Have you always wanted your music to progress like this?

Yes, I suppose so. Shima Uta, for example, did mix rock and Okinawan folk, but it was quite simple. Then we recorded E-Ambe; it wasn’t just Okinawan, but had a Jamaican rhythm and Indonesian gamelan all mixed into it, so it was a new interpretation of Okinawan music. We seem to start off quite simply and then move on to other stages.

I know that you also want to take your music outside the country. What do you think is necessary to be able to do that?

Confidence. I think the next album might be good for other countries. We need about 10 more songs with our own style of Latin or samba music. Then we might go to the Festin Bahia, a festival in Brazil next year. We don’t want to go just to play; we’d like to release a CD as well.

And will you sing in languages other than Japanese?

We’re recording Kaze ni Naritai in Portuguese so that it can be released in Brazil. If the album Far East Samba comes out there, it could end up as a bonus track. Then, if we get a best of The Boom album released in China, we’ll probably do a version of Shima Uta in Chinese as a bonus track. But I don’t think a whole album will ever be recorded in another language.

Would you like to be considered in the future as a “Japanese Peter Gabriel” or “David Byrne” figure?

Maybe, but that’s not my goal. I think they’re really interesting and I like them a lot. But I don’t want to be a star or anything. I just want to introduce good music.

It seems to me that the bands who have made it to some extent in the West, like Boredoms or Shonen Knife, are on the fringe of the music scene here.

That’s right. Do you know Shinji Tanimura? He used to sing American folk songs, and then he began to sing enka. He has become quite well known in other Asian countries as an enka singer. I never liked him before, but I think that now he’s really trying to find some originality in Asian music. Shonen Knife or Boredoms may be pretty cool, but they’re not very original. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I like Shinji Tanimura and don’t like those bands. It’s just that I prefer Tanimura’s way. He’s searching for his Japanese roots, and I’m basically trying to do the same thing.

The New York Times recently ran a feature that said something like Japanese music in America is about at the same stage as British music was 35 years ago before The Beatles. In fact, The Boom’s album Far East Samba was actually the first Japanese one listed in their top 10 CD recommendations. Is this an accurate reflection of the situation right now?

About half right. There are some good bands in Japan, it’s true. But I still don’t think we have enough pride in our music because of our lack of roots. Take some village in Peru, for example, which has both its own folkloric style of music and Madonna-like pop. Who can say which is advanced and which is backward?

Are you saying that it is important for you to make some inroads internationally?

Yes. Ultimately, I want to make music that crosses boundaries as well as generations.