Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Jan 18th 2011 4:30PM by Steve Hochman
Yup. Tokyo may be the place for the wearin' of the green. And we don't just mean dribbled wasabi.
Tokyo has hosted a St. Patrick's Day parade since 1992 and has been the site of a huge event celebrating Irish pride, with a bunch of Celtic-rooted bands from near and far providing musical entertainment. Among those on the bill this year is Johnsons Motorcar. The Tokyo quintet stands out for several reasons, not least of which is that it's fronted by an actual Irishman but sports a lineup that's 3/5 Japanese, collectively knocking out raucous, rowdy versions of such Emerald Isle favorites 'Rocky Road to Dublin,' as featured on the new mini-album with the fittingly improper title 'Funky Disco Hardcore.'
Johnsons Motorcar, 'Rocky Road to Dublin'
"It's the mother of all parties," says Blacko Muiri, the exuberant Irishman-in-question who took his own road from Dublin to Tokyo in 2005.
Last year's St. Paddy's shindig, in fact, was the first gig for the full Johnsons Motorcar lineup, which had evolved from a relatively low-key, largely acoustic duo of Muiri and Florida-born fiddler Martin Johnson into a high-energy, high-decibel juggernaut that's taken hold in a surprisingly vibrant Irish music scene in Tokyo.
"There's a real strong following for Celtic punk," Muiri says. "The Pogues pretty much kicked it off, and then bands like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys."
So how'd that happen? Muiri cites a longstanding mutual affection between Ireland and Japan, culturally and diplomatically.
"Maybe it's being two island nations," he conjectures.
His draw eastward was a bit more prosaic, if romantic. He followed a woman – a Japanese national he met while living in Scarborough, England, where he was working as a recording engineer. He was trying to pursue that same line of work in Tokyo, no thoughts of being a musician despite classical training as a kid and subsequent stings in folk acts around Ireland. Then about nine months after his move to Japan, he got a "random e-mail" asking if he might be able to put together a band to play at a Celtic-style wedding.
"Just a pair of Japanese people who had met in England," he says. "They had two English friends who contacted me."
He, in turn, contacted a musician who was part of a local band – using the name Johnsons Motorcar – that played some Irish material and put together an ad-hoc ensemble. That, in turn, introduced him to Martin Johnson, who also played in that band that used his name. ('Johnson's Motorcar,' FYI, is the title of an Irish rebel song, made famous in the '60s folk revival by the Clancy Brothers.) The two began playing together as a guitar-fiddle duo, gigging in pubs and busking on street corners and such. It was while they were doing one of the latter in 2008 that a young Japanese woman approached them.
"One day this girl comes up to me and hands me this gold business card that said, 'Percussionist,'" Muiri says.
"I was walking and heard the sound of Blacko and Martin, and I heard music I really liked," says the gold-card-hander, named Rinamame, with Muiri alternately filling out her halting English and translating her Japanese. "Had a feeling of – there's a word in Japanese, no direct translation in English: natsukashii. Sort of a wistful feeling from long ago."
Hooked on that wistful feeling, she started turning up at the duo's gigs regularly and engaged the pair in conversations about music, especially about what to her was new, exotic music – she had been playing in rock bands, influenced by such ambitious acts as Radiohead and Japanese star Shiina Ringo. After a few months, she joined Muiri and Johnson in some rehearsals. And then in a show.
"She had never heard Irish music before in her life, but was all over it," a still-amazed Muiri recalls. "So it was, 'Okay, you're a full member. End of story.'"
And now with Rinamame – known to her bandmates as "Beanie" (her name means bean) – making the group a trio, things really took off.
"We were a three-piece for a while, getting better and better shows," he says. "We made our own little album, mostly acoustic. Sold 11,000 CDs busking with her! Can you believe that? That's insane."
Then the group became a half-Japanese four-piece, with Katsuya (as with Rinamame, just one name) joining on bass in 2009. Through him, a local keyboard player named Keita Imo entered the fold – though he had a hankering to play bass, and Katsuya switched to keys.
"All of a sudden last year in March we're a five-piece," Muiri says. "Just been flying ever since."
It's certainly a distinct cultural-musical mix, though even the participants have a hard time putting a finger on just what Japanese qualities may have entered the sound.
"There's a natural rhythm in Japan," hazards Rinamame. "It's all about the space between the notes. And that's important. I think the natural groove comes from that sort of approach to rhythms."
"That's the first time hearing that," interjects Muiri. "It actually makes sense to me now!"
If that wasn't enough mystique, another element was brought in for the mini-album's final track, a version of the traditional song 'The Star of the Country Down.' American R&B singer NDea Davenport, who had worked with Katsuya on a few projects during trips to Japan, contributed some vocals, with Muiri having Clare Torry's gospel wail on Pink Floyd's 'The Great Gig in the Sky' in mind, though taking a more 2010 approach.
Johnsons Motorcar, 'The Star of the County Down'
"I said, 'NDea, just give it some rap,'" Muiri says. "We recorded it over Skype. She was in her studio in Atlanta and I was here in Tokyo, and we were sending files back and forth. It was awesome. Really stretched out brains to get that."
And as they gear up to record a full album, ideally for summer release if they can scrape together the funding and time, as well as support for touring (including in the US) to back it up, they're looking for more ways to stretch their brains and their music.
Maybe incorporate some Japanese folk tunes into the mix?
Rinamame isn't sure about that.
"She says, 'Mmmmmm,'" Muiri says upon relaying the question to her. "That has intrinsic meaning."
But he's open to the notion.
"I'd love to give it a try," he says. "Some of the rhythms from Okinawa, some of the shamisen things, are really interesting. And the scale, the pentatonic scale they use, you hear a lot of that in Asia, could fit. The simplicity of that and the simplicity of Irish music could fit together. Thanks for the idea!"
Maybe St. Patrick's Day 2012.