JAPAN: Echoes of Japan - Minyo Crusaders
Restoration of a noble Japanese music tradition by way of Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America
It is not often that an album leaves me stumped about how to start a review; when that happens it is usually because of its immense quality, feeling as if my words cannot do justice to the glory of an album. Whilst there are certainly touches of class in this record, that excellence is fundamentally not the reason why I was left somewhat speechless by the rollercoaster that is Echoes of Japan. The whistle-stop tour of world music, combined with a revival of an entire genre was at first too much for my tiny little brain to process. Each song offers something totally different and yet the entire album works towards the same intellectual goal. Hand on heart, although I cannot say that I enjoyed the album as much as many others I have been introduced to on this journey, there are very few that can claim to be more interesting than this one.
“Art has many purposes; at its best is meant to be expressive, symbolic, entertaining, communicative, experimental, political and even infuriating... this provocative piece serve all of these functions.”
In a previous review of an album I deem to be perfect, Sigur Rós' Ágætis byrjun, I waxed lyrical about how music can sometimes translate into high art. Although, my reasons are totally different, Minyo Crusaders’ debut album forces me into arguing the same thing. Art has many purposes; at its best is meant to be expressive, symbolic, entertaining, communicative, experimental, political and even infuriating. Not only does this provocative piece serve all of these functions at many moments throughout, it does many of them simultaneously. Furthermore, as an unashamed fan of the controversially labelled ‘world music’ genre, I cannot avoid the almost objective fact this album has a claim to be the most ‘world music’ album we have featured on the review section of the site. This serves as a big tick in favour of the album’s genius.
So, for those of you who haven’t yet heard the album, let me soon try and justify these claims, but first I shall give context to the album. Min'yo music is a traditional form of Japanese folk songs once sung by the working classes, that has since been hijacked by the upper classes. Originally sung by coal miners, fishermen, and sumo wrestlers, the genre has in recent times been detached from its common man roots. The aim of the Minyo Crusaders seems to be to bring back the genre for a wider audience as it was once intended, and do so through their myriad fusion stylings, which make the folk songs accessible to all. But why bring back these folk songs? What importance or relevance do they have today? Well, whilst rose-tinted nostalgia can often lead to the nationalism we see across the globe today, it must be acknowledged that when applied in the right way, nostalgia can be a beautiful thing. Lyrically min'yo music harks hark to a forgotten Japan and the Minyo Crusaders are simply trying to do the same thing, reminding their nation of this forgotten party music that has become inaccessible to most due to its stature as performance art sung by geisha’s on stage for the wealthy.
This for me is art in itself. The protest against how the working class genre has turned into a pretentious art form, has within it much artistic value. The inclusivity of the album doesn’t just extend to those within Japan regardless of class, but tries to embrace all nationalities and cultures within its highly ambitious and varied fusion songs. The album includes min'yo folk songs fused together with Cumbia, Reggae and Ethio-jazz (a particular favourite of mine Akita Nikata Bushi) to name just a few examples of the band reaching out the olive branch to other cultures. Regardless of the immense ambition and innovative nature of the album, I cannot say that the constant whiplashing made it a pleasant listener experience. The whistle-stop tour across the broad-church that is world music, with an undercurrent of traditional Japanese culture, is not something I am often in the mood for to put on in my headphones and as such I imagine this works best as a live experience to see the 10-piece maestros in action. Despite the album’s overwhelming musical variety, it is always of a consistent quality, although there are times where I am a little turned off by some of the vocals. If you chose to listen to this artistic endeavour then do so open-mindedly and prepare to have your head blown at one band’s capacity to imitate authentic sounds from other genres and cultures, whilst they effectively revive one that is closer to their heart than anything else.