I was listening to "Japanoise" bands like Mono and Boris long before I came to Japan. Japanese musicians are particularly good at this kind of super sonic, non-vocal, experimental rock, and these groups have a small but global fan-base. But music sung in Japanese is by and large not exported to the West. Some of the most popular groups of the last 20 years - artists like Ayumi Yamasaki, AKB48 and Arashi - that have sold more than 30 million records in Japan are completely unknown anywhere else. While American and British musicians tend to be bent on world domination, Japanese artists seem to be content with an audience that doesn't reach beyond their shores.
I have made feeble attempts to discover Japanese music since I arrived almost three years ago. I like the traditional music played on the shamisen and flute, but finding recorded music in a record store is near impossible because of my lack of knowledge and my poor Japanese. From time to time I happen upon interesting contemporary musicians performing here in Kyoto, but these occasions are few and far between.
Last month my friend Aki in New York (better known as the musician/DJ AKA SUGA) released her new album "No Label". On one of the tracks she references a Japanese singer Maki Asakawa. I looked her up. I was fairly blown away.
Miss Asakawa began her career as a cabaret singer in Tokyo in the mid 1960s, frequently performing at the social clubs on American military bases. However, unlike other female singers of the time she shunned the exotic eroticized image of the Japanese woman and dressed in ankle-length black dresses, wore her hair long with bangs and sang blues and jazz covers in Japanese. Perpetual cigarette in hand and a passion for black American music as well as French literature and film, Asakawa was the ultimate cool for the intellectual university crowd of the 1970s.
But it is her voice. A beautiful, dark, melancholic contralto that is both Japanese and not at all Japanese. East meets West. It is sometimes the sorrowful moan of a solo singer in an odori (traditional dance), and sometimes the sultry croon of an American lounge singer. It is a voice that somehow transcends language altogether. A sublime musical instrument, rather than a mundane oral mechanism for transmitting information.
I've found the blues in Japan. To it and dig!
Maki Asakawa "Blue Spirit Blues"