World Music: The sincerest form of flattery: From salsa to ska, if it swings the Japanese have copied it. Philip Sweeney reports

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The Independent Culture
WRITING about the Japanese predilection for recreating other people's music involves a delicate tack between the Scylla of hack sociology and the Charybdis of Clive James- style foreigner-mocking.

At first they dominated the world market in music hardware by diligent analysis and copying, the same method they used on cars. Now they're cloning the musics of the world, first for their own yen and leisure-sated consumption, then for export. This is the easy theorising. And there is an undeniable comic potential in figures such as Shigeo Nakano, the Japanese Jimi Hendrix, with his band Shigeo Rollover and his note- perfect renditions, studied from video, of specific performances from the late maestro's canon - the Isle of Wight 'Purple Haze', the Albert Hall 'Voodoo Chile'.

Plenty of nations reproduce or adapt popular foreign musics, but no one seems to copy styles with such dogged meticulousness and, by certain criteria, with such success, as the Japanese. Cliche though the 'analyse and copy' paradigm may be, you don't have to look hard to produce supporting evidence. Wasaburu Fukuda, the Kyoto-born and Paris domiciled heir to the century-long Japanese tradition of fascination with French chanson, says, 'When the Japanese want to do something, they do it seriously, too seriously, they become copies.'

Shuhei Hosokawa, a Tokyo musicologist and journalist, says, 'The Japanese produce highly authentic- sounding music, but it is totally learned, reproduced without social context.'

In modern Japan, western popular music has always been of higher status than home-grown. Every Anglo- American genre this century has had its Nipponese interpreter, from Fumio Nanri, the Japanese Satchmo, to the Eighties hard core rockers Laughin' Nose and Nineties acid jazzers Cool Spoon. French culture gained an early foothold.

In the Twenties and Thirties, the demure revues of the Takarazuko Girl Opera were largely adapted from Parisian repertoire, and the eagerly consumed films of Rene Clair spread a romantic image of 14 July petits bals, accordions, standard lamps illuminating Montparnasse back streets . . . The record companies were already busily compiling, with Columbia Japan issuing 78rpm collections of Chevalier, Trenet, Damia, and Lys Gauty.

By the Fifties, a new generation of style-conscious educated Japanese were looking to the Bohemian intellectual circles of St Germain, and Yoshiko Ishii, daughter of a post-war transport minister, had embarked on her career as the Tokyo 'ambassadress of French song', with her own TV programme and Franco-Japanese repertoire.

By 1990, with the closing of Tokyo's 40-year-old chanson cafe, the Ginpari (Silver Paris), the French boom was much diminished. Madame Ishii's career was still ticking over, however, boosted by a Paris Olympia concert that attracted mixed comment in France. 'Living in the past,' remarked the younger candidate for ambassador of French song, Wasaburu Fukuda. French listeners liked the distinctive touch of kobashi vibrato that colours la Ishii's voice.

Latin music entered Japan in the wake of its 1920s Parisian and New York successes, when modern Meiji- era Japan was only half a century old. Tokyo adopted the tango and the rumba eagerly. With a pause for World War Two, when all foreign music was banned, the Latin aficion grew in the late Forties and Fifties, boosted by the presence of American troops. Japanese Latins were already going to unusual lengths in pursuit of authenticity, including the virtual abandonment of their native language.

Ranko Fujisawa, star tango singer with the Orquesta Tipica Tokyo, was the first Japanese to sing in Spanish, proving sufficiently convincing to tour and record in Argentina. The Tokyo Cuban Boys, meanwhile, were turning on the parents of today's salsa fans with their meticulously transcribed mambos and ruffled shirt sleeves, paving the way for visits by their models, Perez Prado and Xavier Cugat. Bridging the gap to the present was the Orquesta del Sol (of the sun), off-duty jazzmen and session players who purveyed Seventies and Eighties New York / Cuban salsa in the basement of the Pit Inn jazz club in Tokyo.

Japanese salsa's biggest splash in the outside world occurred three years ago, with the remarkable success of the first record by a young Tokyo band named the Orquesta de la Luz (of Light). The album Ide la Luz rocketed to the top of the Billboard Latin charts, where it stayed for 11 weeks, helped by immensely popular live and television performances by the group in the USA, Central and South America. The following year their second album, Sin Fronteras (Without Frontiers), went gold within a month of release, and the band headlined the August New York Salsa Festival.

The 12-strong Orquesta de la Luz was founded in 1984; university and music school graduates feature prominently in the ranks. Most of the members played jazz, soul or rock before turning to salsa. The founder, Gen Ogimi, was an alumnus of the Orquesta del Sol, while the most prominent individual, the singer Nora Shoji, sang Chaka Khan and Earth, Wind and Fire covers in an American military camp band before moving to Panama, marrying and divorcing an American, and converting to salsa in New York, the year of the band's formation.

The Orquesta de la Luz learnt its repertoire the Japanese way - diligent practice, long hours of studying videos of their models, principally the classic Seventies New York Fania All Stars, top Puerto Rican bands El Gran Combo and Sonora Poncena, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz. A meeting with Puente in Tokyo led to contact with the powerful salsa promoter Ralph Mercado, who took up and nurtured the band.

'There was an element of novelty at first,' Nelson Rodriguez of the Marcado Organisation, concedes 'and maybe Latin audiences warmed to them because they spoke Spanish, even with mistakes. But we knew they were good musicians and they got better and better with every tour, always learning from the bands they played with . . . ' And, of course, from the videos.

From the videos, the band picked out the exact details of their polished stage act - the trumpet players swinging and twirling their horns immaculately in the manner of the Fania star Luis 'Perico' Ortiz, the conga player flashing an authentic grimace. Nora's phrasing too made leaps and bounds, allowing her to roll out bravura renditions of the notoriously problematic l/r phoneme, as in 'Buenas noches, Nueva Yorrrrrk' on the live album of the '91 Salsa Festival (although a momentary slip later in the track has her accepting applause on behalf of the 'Orquesta de la Ruth').

The Latin community is by no means unanimous in praising the young Japanese band. One eminent manager was overheard remarking testily, 'There are 100 better groups in Venezuela, a thousand in Colombia, and 10,000 in Puerto Rico and New York.' There has been unkind reference to the 'chipmunk' quality of their vocals, and it is true that the bright, CD-polished gloss of their music lacks the soulfulness and depth of great Latin originals.

The Orquesta de la Luz, however, are perfectly entitled to point to their established public acceptance, and the dozen or so young Japanese bands eagerly following in their wake. And presumably studying their videos.

Another genre shaping up nicely in Japanese hands is ska, with the second Tokyo Ska Explosion event in July set to feature at least two Tokyo groups, the Ska Flames and the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. The former, practitioners of a highly authentic blend of early Sixties instrumental Anglo-Jamaican proto-reggae, have already played the Notting Hill Carnival, while the latter, a slick, designer ska 12-piece, all radio mikes, matching suits and immaculate choreography, are touring France.

The Orquesta de la Luz plays the Equinox, Leicester Square, 13 June

(Photograph omitted)