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Rastaman Vibration - What's up with Japanese Reggae? (2005.05.21)

Japan's love for reggae perhaps resembles Finland's love of tango (yes, tango) - a seemingly incongruous affinity that is nonetheless undeniable.

On paper, though, reggae seems like a tough sell in Japan. Jamaica, the birthplace of reggae, is on the other side of the planet from Japan, and there are few historical or cultural links between the two countries. The fervent Rastafarian religious belief displayed by many reggae musicians is something outside the experience of the largely non-religious Japanese, for example. The same goes for the Rastas' love of marijuana, which is strictly verboten in Japan. And while there are plenty of Japanese kids wearing dreadlocks these days, it's more about fashion than culture or religion. Also, much Jamaican reggae is sung in Jamaica's notoriously difficult-to-comprehend patois, and often concerns subjects such as racism and poverty, which definitely aren't common themes in Japanese pop music.

So why do so many Japanese love reggae? Some people think that the festive vibe of reggae, especially in terms of its historical roots in mobile DJ units, resembles the atmosphere of Japan's local festivals, or "matsuri." Others see similarities between the highly stylized "skanking" dance style associated with ska music and Japanese "bon odori" festival dances. (Ska music and ska-punk have long been favorites in Japan, and today there are countless Japanese ska and ska-punk bands.) And reggae's syncopated rhythms are echoed in the rhythm of Okinawan music - so much so that Okinawa music is sometimes called "Japanese reggae."

Japan embraced Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and other Jamaican artists in the 1970s, but it wasn't until the 1980s that homegrown Japanese reggae started to take root and flourish. Among the earliest Japanese reggae artists were Rankin' Taxi and Nahki, who both performed in dancehall vocal style and who began the peculiar style of singing in Japanese with a Jamaican accent. Their releases never sold well, however, and Rankin' Taxi and Nahki remained cult acts.

Mute Beat (originally Rude Flower), which specialized in dub-style reggae with horns, was formed in 1982. This pioneering group was led by trumpeter Kazufumi "Echo" Kodama, who remains active today, and included drummer Gota Yashiki, who later joined Simply Red. Mute Beat worked with a number of Jamaican artists, including Lee Perry in 1988. The band's recordings sold only moderately well in Japan, but Mute Beat did win widespread critical applause overseas.

A number of Japanese artists then started recording in Jamaica in the hope of obtaining an "authentic" reggae sound. Japanese percussionist Pecker met Bob Marley in Japan in 1979, and told him how he would love to record in Jamaica. This resulted in Marley arranging Jamaican sessions for Pecker with top musicians like Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, as well as Augustus Pablo. Sandii & The Sunsetz, who explored many types of "island" music, had a reggae phase and also recorded and performed in Jamaica.

Two of the biggest Japanese reggae artists today are Moomin (who physically resembles the famous Finnish cartoon characters of the same name) and Pushim. They both sing more in a "lovers rock" mode - reggae-influenced tracks with smooth, romantic vocals.

Among the most popular Japanese dancehall performers today are Mighty Crown, Fireball, Ryo the Skywalker and Ketsumeishi. Some argue that Ketsumeishi's sound is more hip-hop than reggae, and as in the U.S., many Japanese artists are influenced by both genres. The very popular - and very beautiful - female vocalist Minmi is another artist whose music has both hip-hop and reggae elements. Yokohama, home turf of the Mighty Crown DJ/production ensemble, is the center of Japan's hip-hop/reggae scene.

Japan also has lots of artists who prefer a more traditional reggae style, most notably the duo known as Dry & Heavy. While in most parts of the world dub is a nearly abandoned studio technique or merely a stylistic influence, Dry & Heavy deliver booming hardcore dub as a live band. Dry & Heavy have toured all over the world, and their albums have been released in Europe by famed reggae label On-U Sound. In 2000 their cut "Dawn Is Breaking" was a New Music Express single of the week. Other highly regarded Japanese reggae bands include Homegrown, who have backed many, if not most, of Japan's top reggae vocalists at one time or another, and Little Tempo, whose sound incorporates steel drums. And Audio Active achieves a unique sonic blend by mixing reggae with club music styles, and the band has played many dates internationally, including seven tours of Europe.

Festivals are a big part of Japan's reggae scene. In the late 70's and early 80's a number of reggae festivals were held in and around Tokyo at which the artists were primarily Jamaican. The number of Japanese acts playing such festivals gradually increased, apparently due to cost considerations and the fact that a number of Jamaica's bigger acts were notoriously difficult to work with. Eventually there were festivals featuring Japanese reggae acts only. Five years ago Tower Records established its annual "Reggae Festa" in Naha, Okinawa, an event which features Japanese reggae acts exclusively. It consistently draws around 5,000 people, and is broadcast on TV. And it was recently announced that a large reggae festival called Sapporo Reggae Festa 2K5 Explosion will take place in Sapporo, Hokkaido, on Aug. 7 (http://smash-jpn.com/srf2k5.html).

Japan also has a long-running reggae magazine, Riddim, which features a mix of articles on both the foreign and domestic reggae scenes.

Like squid pizza, strawberry-frosted pretzels, and tea-flavored ice cream, Japanese reggae is Japan's own peculiar twist on a foreign Creation. It may seem odd at first, but try it - you might just find it delicious!

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Originally submitted by: Keith Cahoon | See Edit History | Edit Article