The coolest thing about the new Rough Guide to the Best Japanese Music You’ve Never Heard compilation- streaming at Spotify – is that some Okinawan acts are represented. Okinawa is to Japan what Ireland is to the British isles; more rugged but also in a lot of respects more passionate and earthy, in terms of music at least. While this compilation was not assembled by anyone with Japanese heritage, it’s a very entertaining playlist and a decent introduction to the esoteric, surreal side of Japanese music. Most of these tracks are upbeat, many of them infused with sardonic humor. Obviously, Japan also has deep roots in innumerable other styles, notably noiserock and jazz improvisation, neither of which are represented here.
Utsumi Eika, with Munekiyo Hiroshi & Sui-i-test Sound kick off the playlist with Don-Don Bushi, a slinky mashup of traditional pentatonic min-yo folk music and cabaret, played with a jazz rhythm section but also bamboo flute and shamisen. It’s a wonderful night for a Tokyo moondance.
Yan, by Boomdigi Otemo is a tongue-in-cheek hip-hop/mim-yo mashup. Aragehonzi work a surreal blend of Tunisian rai, min-yo folk and rap in Detarame Kagura. Tsukudanaka Sanpachi follow with Eh! Eh? Eh!? Janaika, ska-punk with a pennywhistle.
Shigeri Kitsu do the same in Tokyo No Your, except with reggae and a steel pan in lieu of the pennywhistle; it’s over too soon.
The trippy, hypnotic, organ-and-tonkori-driven Okinawan psych-folk of Oki Dub Ainu Band‘s Suma Mukar is a real find and a triumph of sleuthing for the playlisters here.
The one-chord jams keep coming with Amamiaynu’s otherworldly, rustic Kyuramun Rimse. Okinawan sanshin player Kanako Horiuchi and Malian kora player Falaye Sakho contribute the vamping, spiky, cross-pollinated Hana Umui/Yaboyae. Rikki’s Kuro Usagi Haneta is an even more surreal, waltzing mashup of min-yo and twangy Americana.
Emiko and Kirisute Gomen reinvent a 60s Japanese tv theme as the cheery if skittish surf-rock hit Shoten. Chanteuse Lucy – of Lazygunsbrisky – is represented by the expansive, determined shuffle Hiyamikachibushi, with its a lively web of stringed instruments and a wickedly catchy new wave hook: if radio played this stuff, it would be the single.
Okinawan acoustic surf-punk legends the Surf Champlers’ previously unreleased version of Misirlou is as surreal and adrenalizing as you would expect, complete with haphazard shansin tremolo-picking. With its stately sway and guy/girl vocals, Tetsuhiro Daiku’s Kuroshima Kuduchi is both the most rustic and hypnotic number here.
Hantabaru, by Aragaki Mutsumi Naakunii is the album’s starkest recording, although the insistence of the vocals and shansin has plenty of drama…and stormy samples from the seaside.
Shamisen player Etsuko Takezawa contributes an elegantly spacious, rainy-day solo diptych, Ano Hi e no Michinori. The playlist winds up with avant garde act Cockroach Eater’s trippy, circling vocal/flute/vibraphone theme Saboten no Wakusei.
And here is where the Rough Guide playlisters may be thinking further ahead than many of us realize. Sure, digital music as a saleable item tanked years ago. But if you think that Spotify is going to last forever, whether as a free or on-demand service, you’re living in a dream world.
Japanese culture, happily, seems to be in a stronger position to survive than many others, at least in the short term, as the needle of death takes its toll. So far, Japan has largely resisted it. But word to the wise: if there’s a recording that means a lot to you, from any style of music on the planet, it’s worth owning in some kind of hard-copy form. Get it while supplies last.