In a world where music is portable and personal soundtrack selection is almost a complete constant – present at work, at home, on the go, and anywhere in between – it can be easy for a kind of musical ennui to set in. Spotify can only facilitate so many weekly discoveries, and old favorites always eventually cross that fine line between nostalgic and stale after a few dozen plays.
It is for this reason that we, as a society, need groups like the Minyo Crusaders.
The word “minyo” refers to traditional Japanese folk music, but its self-proclaimed Crusaders are blazing trails around the world and back. Debut album Echoes of Japan sees them graft sounds from Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean to their own roots. At the risk of sounding like clickbait, the results may surprise you.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this sounds hokey. On paper, it smacks of a novelty act, a rehash of Hibari Misora slapped together with watered-down bossa nova. In practice, though, the Minyo Crusaders commit, finding exciting new meeting points between different cultural aesthetics, building connections eccentric enough to put a Rube Goldberg machine to shame. The beats of opening track “Kushimoto Bushi” alternate between kicky cumbia and steady taiko rhythms, while the equatorial warmth of brass backs soaring vibrato from the lead singer. Electronic keys draw a neon line down the center, a contemporary touch that further solidifies the Minyo Crusaders’ style as belonging in the here and now, even though so much of it is from the elsewhere and then.
It’s harder to put a finger on the different influences going into some of the other tracks, like “Hohai Bushi”, and that’s a good thing on a so-called world fusion album. Afrofunk melodies, bluesy riffs, and jazzy horns add flexibility to structured minyo sounds, and the resulting balance of flexibility and precision exemplifies what makes Minyo Crusaders’ work so different from any possible peers.
At the same time as the group goes all in, the Minyo Crusaders have fun with their music. Squeaky toy sound effects and a playful simplicity to the synths on reggae track “Otemoyan” keep the atmosphere tropical and light behind the gravity of the lead singer. Isolate the main vocal track of “Mamurogawa Ondo”, and you have something reverent, transcendent; add back in the full Latin big band instrumentation, and you have rumba heat.
There is a particular beauty to closing a cappella track “Sumo Jinku”, then, as the group finally plays it straight. Coming from a tradition that dates back to the 18th century, the jinku features a single voice, rising and falling, unencumbered technique with palpable emotion behind it. The perfect palate cleanser, perhaps, for an album that explores everything from Ethiojazz to boogaloo.
On Echoes of Japan, the Minyo Crusaders put forth a point of view that does more than simply layer expressions of one culture with those of another. This is a group that embraces the dynamism of folk music. Even at the album’s most lounge-ready moments, the group finds itself in undiscovered soundscapes. The Minyo Crusaders are not afraid to innovate, and the skill with which they do takes them leaps and bounds ahead of being a novelty act. They’re ready to shake up any and every worldbeat playlist in earnest, and such boldness makes them a group worth a full listen.