Latin lovers in Japan

August 31st, 2009 by Jason Jenkins


I’m standing in Treasure Chest, a watering hole deep in the bowels of Shibuya. An old-school Jamaican-style sound system blasts cumbia and rock-en-Español while patrons trickle in, buy drinks and start shaking handmade rattles to the beat. In an hour or so, the band EKD (above) will set up behind the bar and play a free set of Latin-inflected surf-rock. They are relatively unknown so far, but if Japanese tastes continue on the same trajectory, EKD will be playing much larger venues soon enough.

Whether it be salsa, flamenco, samba or mambo, the Latin musical spectrum has a long and storied history in Japan, but in recent years more eclectic and subversive sounds have gained traction with the twentysomething set. These bands frequently mix traditional musical elements with punk ethos or political predilections. Sometimes both.

This is in no small part thanks to Smash, one of Japan’s big-dog music promoters and the company that brings you the Fuji Rock Festival. It’s no secret that Masa Hidaka, lovingly called Smash’s taisho (“Generalissimo”), is a fan of both Latin sounds and “rebel rock.” A quick scan through recent Smash calendars and Fuji Rock rosters reveals at least three Basque separatist bands — Boikot (punk), Esne Belza (cumbia) and Berri Txarrak (metal) — and last year’s surprise hit at Fujirock was Mexico City’s Rodrigo y Gabriella, who return to Japan this coming January.

Another promoter to look out for is Japonicus, an Argentinian/Japanese operation who promote a number of interesting bands and DJ nights. This includes EKD, who I first saw blowing the roof off the Crystal Palace stage at Fuji Rock this year as a 7-piece. At Treasure Chest last week they were a trio (probably couldn’t fit any more behind the bar), propelled only by an acoustic-electric guitar, cowbells and a sampler. There was a heavy dose of Manu Chao to their set, but the much more muscular sound of live performances (and if you think Manu Chao is only for stoners lounging in the youth hostel lobby, you really need to hear him live).

Here are some acts worth checking out in Tokyo



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