The Rough Guide To The Music Of Japan

San Francisco (California),  UK – Japan is no longer perceived as home to the worst excesses of idol pop or inaccessible traditional music. In truth, Japanese musicians have for years been skilful at blending the traditional with the pop and coming up with some of the world’s craziest concoctions. The Rough Guide to the Music of Japan (RGNET1211CD)encompasses sounds from ancient gagaku to today’s hottest roots acts, mixed with quintessential enka and post-war boogie-woogie – a compilation to blow away any lingering preconceptions.

Contemporary Japanese musicians excel in creating new combinations by mixing traditional sounds and instruments to a vast array of influences. Oki Dub Ainu Band has become one of Japan’s most successful world music exports, combining ancient Ainu (indigenous Japanese) sounds with dub, reggae and world styles.

Shibusashirazu is a unique loose collective of around twenty of some of Japan’s top free and improvised jazz musicians, combining experimental and avant-garde jazz with elements of rock, punk, Japanese pop and traditional music. They opened Glastonbury Festival in 2002 and the chosen track features members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, probably their nearest counterparts in the West.


 Chanchiki inject a fresh energy to minyo, local folk music, restoring the balance between tradition and creation by adding elements of rock, Latin, African and other styles to almost forgotten repertoire.

Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, formed in the wake of the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, blend Okinawan sanshin, the chindon drum plus accordion, hayashi backing vocals and the rasping vocals of Takashi Nakagawa.

UK/US duo Ryukyu Underground emerged from a mix of Okinawa’s island songs and pop, indie trick and dance. Keith Gordon and Jon Taylor combine the unique traditional sounds with electronic production. Their first two albums (2002 and 2003) became instant hits in Japan.

Takashi Hirayasu masters the sanshin, the three-stringed snakeskin banjo. He took part in the classic Blood Line album that featured Ry Cooder in 1980. Takashi went on to record two internationally acclaimed albums with Bob Brozman and has toured worldwide.

Known as the ‘Okinawan Jimi Hendrix’ for his fast sanshin playing Seijin Noborikawa is probably Okinawa’s most loved and respected elder musician.

 Tadao Sawai excelled in updating koto, the thirteen-stringed zither, and his compositions are some of the most performed of the last fifty years. His influence on younger players worldwide is immense — his thoroughly inventive approach changed the rules of koto composition.

Enka, the most quintessential of Japanese music, connects individuals with their dreams and heartaches and Harumi Miyako, featuring here, is considered the greatest contemporary enka singer by many. The greatest songwriter during the World War II was Ryoichi Hattori whose body of work laid the foundation for post-war enka. ‘Tokyo Boogie Woogie’ was one of Hattori’s biggest hits, recorded in 1948 by Shizuko Kasagi – known as ‘The Queen of Boogie’.

Kunaichi Gakubu is the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency, comprising about thirty members, who perform gagaku, an ancient form of Japanese classical music, for official occasions at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and elsewhere. Gagaku has been performed at the Imperial Court for about 1,200 years.

Shomyo is the Japanese version of Buddhist chants, the adding of melodic patterns to sacred Buddhist words in Sanskrit. Tendai Shomyo is one of the main Buddhist sects, founded in the ninth century at Enryakuji Temple. For 1,150 years it has been passed down from master to disciple. On this recording Tatsuya Koumazaki plays an acoustic guitar made from paulownia wood, and the koto.

Also featuring Nami Makioka, Michigo Suga, Hajime Ikoma, Kotsuru Tade, Kunimoto Takeharu and Morio Agata and a data track that includes music and travel from the Rough Guide books.

Buy the CD:

Author: World Music Central News Department

World music news from the editors at World Music Central