Minyo Crusaders rework historic Japanese folk songs (min’yō) with Latin, African, Caribbean and Asian rhythms on their debut album Echoes Of Japan, and it is out now on Mais Um. The band’s distinctive min’yō vocals glide over grooves that join the dots between cumbia, Ethiopian jazz, Thai pop, Afro funk and reggae.
The songs on the album have different histories – originally sung by fishermen (Kushimoto Bushi; Mamurogawa Ondo), coal miners (Tanko Bushi) and sumo wrestlers (Sumo Jinku) – they deal with topics such as the returning spirits of ancestors (Hohai Bushi), Japan’s smallest bird (Toichin Bushi) and a bride’s undying love for her husband’s pockmarked face (Otemoyan). They evoke nostalgia for a forgotten Japan. “As a traditional performing art, min’yō is considered highbrow,” explains band-leader Katsumi Tanaka. “Yet these are mainly songs for working, dancing or drinking – we want to return them to their literal meaning as ‘songs of the people’.”
“For Japanese people, min’yō is both the closest, and most distant, folk music,” adds Tanaka. “We may not feel it in our daily, urban lives, yet the melodies, the style of singing and the rhythm of the taiko drums are engrained in our DNA.”
In the late 90s Tanaka moved to Fussa, a city in western Tokyo steeped in counter-culture folklore. It is the home of Eiichi Ohtaki of Japanese rock band Happy End. Tanaka met Freddie Tsukamoto playing in a session band where the latter was singing soul. Aware that Tsukamoto’s true passion was min’yō, Tanaka asked him to form a band to revive this style. They invited other musicians such as local drumming legend Sono and for the first few years played low-key shows. Soon after, bassist DADDY U, a veteran of the Tokyo roots music scene and the respected Ska Flames, joined the band. Through him they met keyboard player Moe, the leader of spiritual Caribbean jazz band Kidlat; sax player Koichiro Osawa, a member of Japanese-reggae/ska groups Matt Sounds, J.J. Session and a regular pick-up for reggae musicians visiting Japan; trumpeter Yamauchi Stephan, also a member of J.J. Session; percussionist Mutsumi Kobayashi of Tokyo’s cumbia Banda de la Mumbia; Irochi, conga player with Afro Cuban band Cubatumb and vocalist Meg, a member of respected tropical DJ collective Tokyo Sabroso. Since then they have become a fixture on the Tokyo music scene and went national in 2018 through festivals such as Fuji Rock.
Initially indifferent to min’yō, a tragic event in recent Japanese history set Tanaka on his current path: “Following the Tohoku earthquake of 2011, I reflected on my life, work and identity. A fan of world music, I began searching for Japanese roots music I could identify with. Discovering mid-late 20th century acts Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri and the Tokyo Cuban Boys, I was captivated by their eccentric arrangements and how they mixed min’yō with Latin and jazz.”
With songs encouraging dancing and drinking, Tanaka says that the Crusaders are on a mission to bring “highbrow” min’yō back to it’s “lowlife” roots. “The point is to avoid making it too complicated, since min’yō is for everyday people.”