Trying to interest English-speaking listeners in East Asia must be one of the least lucrative ideas in the whole world music business. The Chinese singer Sa Dingding has been selling well on the backs of favourable reviews and public appearances, but she’s a rarity. You’d have an easier time of it trying to market a kora player. This is the reason I like Paul Fisher. For years, he’s been promoting the kind of Asian musicians whose music has never appealed to the popular Western imagination as profoundly as South African isicathimiya or Cuban son or any of a dozen other foreign genres with roots in Africa, Latin America, or Europe. There was a time during the 1990s when it seemed that things might change and music from Okinawa might take off in the UK, but that possibility seems to have withered. Ongoing effort is not rewarded with great success. Fisher maintains a neglected niche.
In this second edition of the Rough Guide to the Music of Japan, he sets out to chart a middle path between what he refers to as “idol pop” — by which he seems to mean J-pop in general, embracing everything from Mini Moni to Gackt — and the slower, older styles of Japanese music that sometimes alarm outsiders with their shrillness and periods of esoteric silence. This middle path of his is occupied by folk, or folk-fusion. There is a lot of shamisen on this album, battalions of rapid upward plucks, each note as abrupt as a chicken peck. Lyrics are sung with an efficiency of pleasure. A song like Michiko Suga’s “Ushibuka Haiya Bushi” goes off as brightly as a string of firecrackers. Every syllable Suga’s chorus sings comes with its own set of exclamation marks.
Other musicians are more relaxed and experimental. Old Morio Agata gives his “Tokyo Bushi” the bounce of a Japanese folk song, his voice accompanied by an un-Japanese tuba and an anarchist flute. The instrumentation wheezes and boings and threatens to disintegrate around him. “Tokyo Bushi’s” tune has been borrowed from an American civil war song. Agata is not the only Japanese here playing with the idea of Japan-American crossovers. Takeharu Kunimoto’s shamisen bluegrass seems witty but otherwise pointless, an entertaining dead end, adding nothing to our understanding of Japanese music aside from the knowledge that a shamisen can impersonate — at a lower register — alto to the other instrument’s soprano, if you like — a banjo.
There are nods to the music of the Okinawans and the northern Ainu, even a faint acknowledgement of the country’s avant-garde/indie side when Fisher decides to end with Shibusashirazu’s “Akkan”, a track that abandons any idea of sounding Japanese and works itself into a crescendo of swinging brass. It’s tame compared with some of the more experimental groups he might have used, yet it seems to be in the right place. This quasi-wild quasi-domesticated sound fits the album.
Classical styles are downplayed, but not ignored. Tadao Sawai is elegant for six minutes on the koto. Courtly gagaku makes a brief appearance, followed by a group of Buddhist monks proceeding at a grand pace through a piece of shomyo chant. Then there is a welcome example of unadorned shamisen and voice. This is a terrific inclusion. It means we can get some idea of how far the new-roots musicians like Suga have come from the old-roots, how they have upped the volume, increased the speed, yet maintained a fidelity to their origins. Listening to this older woman singing, it occurs to you for the first time that the J-pop bands Fisher is trying to get away from are more inescapable than he thinks. “That ‘Ushibuka Haiya Bushi,'” you reflect, “yes, it’s folky and her singing is ambitious, but isn’t it also a bit, mm, girl-groupy too? That plastic brightness, like a music video; the folk song taking on the outlines of a pop song….”
Despite the title, this album shouldn’t be mistaken for an even-handed examination of Japanese music overall. For that, you’d need some of the popular songs that the compiler avoids. Think of a Rough Guide to the United States that included blues, Gershwin, a contemporary country singer, one Cajun track, and nothing from any pop star, no rock music of any kind. You might enjoy it, and it would give you an idea of the nation’s variety, but you’d be missing out on a large part of the people’s everyday musical life. Perhaps this album needs a companion piece. There could be a Rough Guide to the Music of Traditional Japan, incorporating folk and classical music, then a Rough Guide to the Music of Modern Japan, investigating everything pop, rock, indie, experimental, electronic. There must be someone out there who could put one together.