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Minyo Crusaders rework traditional Japanese folk songs (minyō) with Latin, African and Caribbean rhythms to create some of the most infectious music anywhere between Latin America and Japan. The punchy and inventive arrangements of this ten-piece big band seamlessly blend Afro-Cuban and Caribbean rhythms with old Japanese minyō to create a compellingly modern sound.
Since label Mais Um, released the band’s debut album Echoes of Japan in April the acclaim has been universal. ‘Love this.’ Gilles Peterson; ‘Minyo Crusaders sound like nothing else lurking on your Spotify playlist.’ The Times; ‘Great grooves and fine playing.’ The Observer; ‘The best band I have heard in many years.’ Ry Cooder. Tonight the band make their live UK debut.
The band’s sound could be described as having a retro Japanese feel influenced by a a hefty dose of worldwide music. Otemoyan, a well-known folk song from southern Kumamoto Prefecture about a young maiden marrying a man with a pockmarked face, is reshaped into a reggae track with dub sensibilities. Akita Nikata Bushi from northern Akita Prefecture takes its cue from Ethiopian funk, while Fukuoka Prefecture’s Tanko Bushi swings to the sound of boogaloo. All the while, however, minyō’s distinctive stylised form of singing is maintained, providing a sense of authenticity despite the melange of rhythms.
Minyo Crusaders’ approach follows the path of predecessors who have experimented with combining minyō with Latin, jazz and other forms of contemporary music. The late Hibari Misora, Japan’s premier diva of the twentieth century, began using Latin rhythms in minyō compositions in the 1950s, while Chiemi Eri recorded minyō in the ’50s and ’60s backed by Sharps and Flats, an ensemble led by prolific jazz musician Nobuo Hara.
“These bands introduced what was then the latest dance music to Japan, whether it was Latin or jazz or foxtrot,” Katsumi Tanaka says. “And they extended their arrangements to minyō as well. That’s where we’re coming from.”
In the late 90s Tanaka moved to Fussa, a city in western Tokyo steeped in counter-culture folklore as the home of Eiichi Ohtaki of Japanese rock band Happy End. Tanaka met Tsukamoto playing in a session band where the latter was singing soul. Aware that Freddie’s true passion was minyō, Tanaka asked him to form a band to revive this style. They invited other musicians such as local drumming legend Sono and a turning point came when bassist Daddy U, a veteran of the Tokyo roots music scene and the respected Ska Flames, joined. Through him they met keyboard player Moe, the leader of spiritual Caribbean jazz band Kidlat; sax player KoichiroOsawa, a member of Japanese-reggae/ska groups Matt Sounds and J.J. Session and 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.