On March 27th, Music For Dreams will release Oto No Wa: Selected Sounds Of Japan 1988-2018. 14 tracks of chilled Japanese music cherry-picked by Max Essa, Ken Hidaka, and myself. The 3 of us being friends of some 10 years and counting, and hosts of a monthly party called Lone Star* – which takes place at Bar Bonobo in Harajuku. Founding members of the party also include Gordy Allan and original Disco Child, Guy Bassett, while guest DJs have encompassed both Tokyo locals and international visitors.
MFD`s Kenneth Bager floated in the idea of a compilation in April 2017. At the time Ken was working closely with master percussionist Midori Takada. Instrumental in securing her seminal Through The Looking Glass album for Swiss label WRWTFWW, Ken also accompanied Takada-san on a European tour. Following a triumphant gig at Copenhagen’s Jazzhouse, Ken hung out with Kenneth and the plan was hatched.
Back in Tokyo, one Sunday after a Lone Star shindig, we gathered at Ken`s and threw 100s of tunes into a pot. Personally these ranged from bargain bin discoveries to highly-desirables that I`d been tasked with finding by friends back in the UK. Heads such as Aficionado`s Moonboots and Emotional Rescue`s Chuggy. From Max there were tracks that he`d turned up, tried and tested in Tokyo`s clubs. But 14 from say 200, where did we start? Ken`s day-job, working with labels such as WRWTFWW, Mr. Bongo, and BBE, meant that he knew what releases / reissues others had coming up – and that put a big red line through a fair few. Then it was down to forming a consensus – a joint “yes” – for a short list of about 20. Those who`ve met all 3 of us will be surprised to learn that this was a remarkably quick and painless process. Ken then went away to look at the licensing – which is where we hit our second “filter”.
Dealing with Japanese majors seems an odd, and from the outside, frustrating, process. Often you’ll be met with indifference. They`re not interested in going to any effort for the peanuts you`re offering. Sometimes they’ll reply with a request for a licensing fee – for a single track – that’s more than your budget for the whole LP. There should be no need to ask why Japanese reissues are so expensive. Sometimes you’ll get a “no”, because, now that you’ve mentioned it, they actually have their own reissue planned. Sometimes this is even true – but when it does happen it`s only for the domestic market. More usually you’ll just be ignored. So without the finances, and maybe the patience, for this rigmarole, we took that red pen to about 3/4 of our initial selections and had a rethink.
We thought, “hold on a minute”, “let`s do something different”. We`re all out and about in Tokyo. Bumping into crazy, enthusiastic, passionate, talented people – people playing and making music, running independent record labels. Why not shift our focus away from the past, a little more towards today? Let`s give some props to the folks that need it the most. Those who continue to make Tokyo one of the most vibrant, musical cities on the planet. Those out there, doing it `n` stuff. You know. And there, the “concept” was sealed. To plot a course from pioneers, through to younger generations who`ve picked up the baton.
Ken`s connections brought in those pioneers – Yoshio Ojima and Yoshiaki Ochi. Ken`s research around other collaborations identified Takashi Kokobu`s Quiet Inlet – which in my opinion is one of the unsung gems on the comp. His long-standing friendship with the members of Tokyo Black Star gave us access to unreleased music from their side-project, Chillax. Ken`s desire to honour another, sadly departed, friend led to us include a track from Susumu Yokota`s seminal album, Sakura. A piece that proved key in linking the “old” to the “new”.
Max had done some remix work for Yuka Noguchi and her Room Full Of Records imprint, which resulted in him hearing the Orte remix of Olololop`s Mon. Music that I think is beautiful – part Penguin Cafe Orchestra, part Morgan Fisher part Phillips Saisse`s God Son, Paris. Max similarly secured something from Karel Arbus & Eiji Takamatsu – who’d released their debut recordings on Max` label, Jansen Jardin. Kaoru Inoue and Max regularly do back-to-back sessions all across Japan – so a track from Kaoru was essential.
I`d been given Kotani Kazuya`s Made In Love album, as a gift, by DJ / promotor Taro Yoda. One of a pile of CDs on Taro`s Blue Line imprint that I received as a thank you for doing a few warm-up slots. The whole album is great – its not just a one-tracker – and I couldn’t believe that no one else had picked up on it. Two of the 3 tunes licensed from Eitetsu Takamiya`s Flower Records were actually outstanding from a previous shelved project. About a decade ago I toyed with the idea of starting a label, and I was gonna put both Little Big Bee`s Scuba – popularized by the mighty Maurice Fulton – and Kentaro Takizawa`s Gradual Life on a 12. Ken had been my point of contact. Flower being another label with which he has close ties.
Ken submitted Little Tempo`s Frostie, and it was Gordy who dropped SDP`s Nice Guy at a Lone Star bash. Then there’s Coastlines. They’re also on Flower, and, well, we all love Coastlines. Masanori`s a mate, and supporting the pair of them last autumn was one of my top nights out of 2019.
So while the music contained on Oto No Wa spans three decades, truth be told only one piece dates from the late `80s. The bulk of the tracks were actually recorded this century. Nonetheless it does travel through time, very loosely joining the dots. There’s obviously a far bigger story to be told. Hopefully seamlessly, it segues soothing drones and distant chimes together in wordless lullabies. Songs for sundown, sun-up. Setting continental whispers adrift on a sea of bongos, seashells and shakers. Wedding dub bass-lines to romantic strings. Rippling keys with acoustic strum. Sequencing steel pans, and idiophone improvisations, in a heat haze hallucination. Native tongues and tribal drums. Kyushu kosmische and Hawaiian slide. Post-rave bleeps and nova bossa nova. Island sounds gently rocking to the rhythm of the tides.
Oto No Wa: Selected Sounds Of Japan 1988-2018 will be released on March 27th by Music For Dreams. There’s an orange “sunburst” edition available exclusively from Piccadilly Records.
If you’re in Tokyo there will be a small launch party at Bonobo on April 4th, with a larger live event to be confirmed as soon as the current lockdown is lifted – and just for your amusement here’s a couple of outtakes from the press shots we had done for the release…..
A big big thank you to photographers Beezer and Glenn for all your hard work. Being in a boy band isn’t as easy as it looks.
*Lone Star was named in haste, and at random, to avoid endless discussion / arguments, after an old T-shirt that Guy happened to be wearing.