Interview: Q&A with Minyo Crusaders – The Tropicalization Of Japan (October 2019)

Despite the distance between the southern tip of Japan and the nearest Tropics, tropical sounds have reaped plenty of music listeners on the archipelago of the rising sun. One of the most tropically-obsessed victims is a 10-piece band that, after some EPs, has recently released its debut album for Mais Um Discos and is ready to pay a visit to Europe in a few days’ time – Minyo Crusaders.

The Tokyo-based ensemble is a specimen of what effect tropical vibes can have on Japanese music lovers, to the point that the collective has even re-worked its own musical roots in a tropical key. Katsumi Tanaka, Freddie Tsukamoto and the Crusaders unearthed the traditional folk repertoire of their country (more specifically the min’yō genre) and breathed new life into it, rhythmically contaminating it with Latin, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean influences.

To prepare you for Minyo Crusaders’ Euro Tour and London show (taking place at the Jazz Cafe on 11th November), we reached Katsumi Tanaka, founding member of the project, and gained a better insight into one of the most creative and original Japanese bands to date.

Minyo Crusaders’ project has quite a unique purpose, reinterpreting the Japanese traditional folk repertoire using faraway styles. Why did you choose to approach your country’s music in this way?

Japanese min’yō for us is both the nearest and furthest to roots music. The rules about how to sing, with a unique melody and kobushi (a kind of vocal warbling technique, similar to vibrato), and the rhythm of the taiko drum, are somehow engraved in our DNA. Yet min’yō is music that is not felt in our daily urban lives and is quite distant from the current Japanese music scene. Apart from Freddie Tsukamoto, the members in the band had little experience of playing min’yō.

As a traditional performing art, for some people, min’yō has become rather highbrow. Min’yō, for some people, is something completely from the past; a kind of traditional art. I wanted to return to the literal meaning of ‘songs of the people’, for the masses; songs for everyone.

Like the various world music styles that we love, we wanted to have our own roots music updated into current, popular music. And so, we decided to bring, for example, vintage Thai pop and old school Ethiopian music to min’yō in our music. So now, just like cumbia, Japanese min’yō can be considered a cool world music.

When and where did the project start?

In about 2000, singer Freddie Tsukamoto and I were living in the city of Fussa, where the US military base of Yokota is located in west Tokyo. We got to know each other through a band session, playing soul and blues. Freddie had already sung min’yō, but in the band he was singing soul, such as that by Sam Cook. I was rather indifferent to the roots music of my own country, and would occasionally meet Freddie at local bars and events, but we didn’t play together in any regular band.

Meanwhile, the Tohoku earthquake struck in 2011, and many things in Japan came into question, including things like values. Many artists, including Japanese musicians like myself, took the opportunity to review their lives, creative activities and Japanese identity.

Listening to various roots music from around the world, I started searching for Japanese roots music. At that time, I heard singers such as Hibari Misora and Chiemi Eri, and bands such as Tokyo Cuban Boys and Noche Cubana. I encountered modern min’yō, with Latin and jazz arrangements, and conceived a concept to revive this modern min’yō for the present age.

I asked Freddie Tsukamoto if he would like to form a band, as a Japanese min’yō singer, not singing music from other parts of the world. We formed Minyo Crusaders with other local musicians from Fussa. While often changing members, we mainly played at parties in Fussa. The turning point came when DADDY U, who had previously played trumpet with well-known ska band, Ska Flames, joined as the bass player. This brought us the opportunity to meet with various musicians in Tokyo, and other like-minded musicians joined the band. After this, we became the current 10-member big band formation.

Who are the musicians forming Minyo Crusaders, and what were they doing before joining the band?

I was in a party band called The Mo’lets, playing jump blues and rumba blues. I also played guitar, together with the bass player DADDY U, in a Latin and Caribbean band called Hully Gully Ensemble. As a teenager, I played with Metal Kids, playing covers of Metallica, Anthrax and Motorhead.

Freddie moved to Tokyo in his 20s as an aspiring jazz singer. Even though he studied with a teacher of jazz vocals, he felt slightly uncomfortable singing in a foreign language with his pronunciation and felt a bit frustrated as a vocalist. He listened to a min’yō song from his hometown in Ehime Prefecture called ‘Iyomanzai’, which was playing on the TV as part of a min’yō competition at his local soba restaurant. He received a shock-like revelation. Talking to the owner of the soba restaurant, he learned that a min’yō teacher had just moved in behind the shop. He studied with that teacher. In the closed min’yō society, it’s rare to find a teacher willing to teach singing with such a free attitude. Freddie understood the joy of min’yō songs, singing the lyrics with empathy. 

Here is some info on the other members: 

Meg: Singer + Melodica – Member of tropical music DJ collective, Tokyo Sabroso, working mainly in Tokyo. Spiritual jazz lover. 

DADDY U: Bassist – Former member of Ska Flames. Collector and DJ of various Caribbean music. Veteran of the Tokyo roots music scene and long-time roots music maestro with various bands.

Moe: Keyboards – Old synthesiser lover. Leader of spiritual Caribbean jazz band, Kidlat.

Sono: Timbales – Original member. Fussa’s busiest session drummer.

Hiroshiro Osawa: Sax – Active in the Jamaican music scene in Tokyo. Member of Matt Sounds and J.J. Session, who are often backing musicians for visiting overseas artists in Japan. Of all the members, the only one who can write music. Plays classical music and other styles, bringing a range of musicality to the band.

Yamauchi Stephan: Trumpet – Member of ska band, J.J. Session.

Mutsumi Kobayashi: Bongos – Leader of Tokyo cumbia band, Banda de la Mumbia. Percussionist transcending genres, taking part in many sessions. Known as ‘Senju Kanon’. Beat master and the happy-mood maker in the band.

IROCHI: Congas – Member of Afro Cuban roots music band, Cubatumba. Cuban rhythm aficionado and rumba lover.

What are your main musical influences? Is there any particular music style or musician/band you are listening to at the moment?

Hibari Misora, who is considered by many as Japan’s greatest ever singer, combining min’yō with Latin and other rhythms. Also, Chiemi Eri, backed by saxophonist Nobuo Hara’s ensemble Sharps & Flats. Tokyo Cuban Boys, formed by Tadaaki Misagi, performed instrumental versions of min’yō in the 1960s and 70s, with samba, salsa, Afro, cha-cha-cha, bolero, reggae, boogie, soul, rock and dixie all added to the song titles. Also, cumbia, Afro Cuban styles, ska, reggae, Caribbean music, jazz…

How and how much is the min’yō repertoire considered in Japan today? Is it still a popular style or is it losing its grip on people’s music tastes?

As I mentioned earlier, for many people, min’yō is rather highbrow – something from the past, a kind of traditional art. Min’yō is not felt in the lives of urban people and is quite distant from the current Japanese music scene. Apart from Freddie Tsukamoto, the members in the band had little experience of playing min’yō. I wanted to return min’yō to the literal meaning of the ‘songs of the people’, for the masses; songs for everyone.

Do you feel that your work can help the preservation of the min’yō repertoire?

Yes! We hope so. We would like min’yō to become a type of ‘world music’, like cumbia, salsa etc.

Is there any Tokyo-based act you would like to recommend for us to listen to?

We would suggest the other bands that the musicians from Minyo Crusaders play in, such as Cubatumba, Banda de la Mumbia, Matt Sounds and J.J. Session. Also, Ajate, who have had some success in Europe already.

How did people in Japan react when they first listened to their traditional repertoire reworked in such an original way?

Many Japanese people today cannot understand the lyrics, because they are written in old Japanese script and sung in strong accents. In general, the songs describe the life and nature of the region where the songs comes from. These songs can, however, be shared by people from the same regions, as they will likely have similar memories, and can also be enjoyed by outsiders, as the songs act as “guidebooks”, giving an insight into local customs and traditions. Min’yō has a unique melody and singing style, and in many ways, vocals sound like an instrument.

How do you pick the tropical styles you employ to rework min’yō songs?

Min’yō has lots of regional styles and also various purposes, such as work songs or songs for festivals. We try to use rhythms that will not harm the song; rhythms that make Freddy’s singing shine.

Despite the fact that original songs you have reworked come from all over Japan, you’re a true Tokyo band, born and bred in Fussa. What’s your relationship with the Tokyo music scene, and what is going on there today?

As there are so many music scenes going on in Tokyo, it is difficult to summarise it succinctly. MC actually come from the city of Fussa, which is located outside of Tokyo, and is where the Yokota American military base is located. We combine a mixture of the roots music scene from Tokyo along with the ambience of Fussa, where a military base culture has developed, and min’yō is presented as our music.

Since you are also extensively touring outside of Japan, do you feel that people abroad understand and relate to the songs you play, even if they recall such a quintessentially Japanese tradition?

We started our music without knowing much about min’yō. It would be great if non-Japanese people could enjoy it as we started to.

Echoes of Japan, your first LP, is roughly six months old. How do you feel about its release, and what are its strong points? Are you already thinking about a second album?

We were very surprised that our album ranked number 1 in the (Transglobal and European) world music charts. It was totally unexpected! We started our music aimed at Japanese audiences in search of their own cultural identity, but it is nice to know that it has also become popular outside of Japan: a new opportunity! There are some tunes for our second album, and perhaps we will play them at our show in Europe. 

In a few weeks’ time, you’ll be performing in London. What should people expect from the show?

I think our music is very unique but also very inclusive; you can find many things to enjoy in our songs. It would be great if the audience could feel the unique Japanese emotional touch when Freddy sings.

How would you introduce Minyo Crusaders and your sound to someone who has never listened to it? It is music born from the celebration of traditional Japanese folk songs (Min’yō) and the tropical music heard at Tokyo’s popular Izakaya (pubs).