Minyo Crusaders just had their big performance in Colombia at XI Festival Internacional de Jazz de los Andes and are currently preparing for their first European tour in November with a show planned at the 2019-edition of Le Guess Who? in The Netherlands. It will be also the first long period tour for the 10-piece, says guitarist and co-founder of Minyo Crusaders, Katsumi Tanaka. He continues: “This will be a chance to become more close with each other and create a better relationship between us”.
Let’s start at the beginning
Katsumi Tanaka has been active with music since his teens. He played Rock music and had a big interest in Heavy Metal and Hard Rock, mostly western music. “Music was always a kind of a tool to do something fun with my friends. You can see it as a play toy, it makes it possible to create something with other people. That is the meaning of music for me: to share something that I really like.” When time passed his taste in music developed when he started to find the roots of Rock Music and went later over to Blues and World Music.
Following the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, Katsumi Tanaka decided to search for the roots of Japanese music that he could identify with: “I started to think about the Japanese identity. At that time I did know about the existence of Min’yō, but I never really listened to it. Then I remembered that Freddy Tsukamoto is a singer of Min’yō and contacted him after a long time of not seeing each other.” Freddy Tsukamoto was active as a Jazz and Rhythm and Blues singer when they met each other for the first time. Katsumi Tanaka: “We met in Fussa in Tokyo. At that time, I was active in a session music band of Rhythm and Blues and occasionally did a session together.”.
The naming of Minyo Crusaders followed the path of the groups as Jazz Crusaders (later The Crusaders), Folk Crusaders and Beat Crusaders. Katsumi Tanaka: “The word crusaders is quite popular for music bands to use as parts in their band name. People in the music scene are already familiar with it. You can also see the ‘crusaders’ as people who save something, but I want to approach it like a social action through Min’yō, the word crusaders signify that.”.
The challenges for Minyo Crusaders
Minyo Crusaders currently consists of 10 persons, from bandleader and guitarist Katsumi Tanaka to vocalist Freddie Tsukamoto in the beginning, the group started to grow and grow with all people with a love for World Music. The instruments used in the music of Minyo Crusaders range from the melodica, used by vocalist Meg, bass (DADDY U), keyboards (Moe), timbales (Sono), bongos (Mutsumi Kobayashi), trumpet (Yamauchi Stephan), saxophone (Koichiro Osawa) and the congas (Irochi). Every member has a different task, but to keep such a big group in balance is a challenge. Tanaka: “Each member of Minyo Crusaders has their own personality and talent. To create the freedom to bring out the talent and personality while at the same time you want to go towards the same direction. That balance is the biggest challenge. Our aim is very simple: let’s convey the Min’yō to the people who never heard, but also to as many people to share it in a fun form It is a challenge, but very straightforward.”.
But is it a fun challenge? The bandleader comes with an extensive response: “Yes, it is fun. If we take Reggae for an example, it is a music genre from Jamaica but many non-Jamaican people do play Reggae music, also in Japan. In such a case, it often happens that people try to be authentic, how authentic you can be, to be as close to that identity as much as possible. They become more like a copy as they search too hard to be authentic. But you can never be a Jamaican and it might cause that you can become frustrated by that.”.
He continues: “In the case of Minyo Crusaders, our aim is that we convey the music of Min’yō and enjoy the music of Min’yō with the people. We don’t have to be that too strict with Reggae and other World Music. It is more that we enjoy the other music and combine it. Min’yō itself was close to being abandoned, but we wanted to revive that with other fun elements. So Minyo Crusaders can’t be too strict with those music genres we combine Min’yō with, but the most important thing for us is that they enjoy it with an open heart. That vibe could naturally create the fun.”.
Tanaka wants to add: “Freddie Tsukamoto is a great singer. When he starts to sing Min’yō, he has a great vibration that Reggae and other World Music also have. The power of music is already very strong because of his voice. The other band members can be more relaxed because of that and don’t need to be that strict to be as authentic possible to the music genre that gets combined with Min’yō.”.
But what is Min’yō?
Min’yō can be explained very simply as a genre of traditional Japanese music since the twentieth century. It is literally translated as a folk song and is divided into different kind of categories from rural style to a working song to a Bon song. These songs were originally sung solo or by groups without the support of instruments, but later on the traditional Japanese instruments as shamisen, shakuhachi or shinobue were added for the melodies.
On a daily base, Japanese people can enjoy popular music such as western pop and Japanese pop, but also the newest hype, Korean pop music (KPOP). If it is not on the radio or television, you’ll come into contact with it on the street. But in the case of Min’yō, it is something Japanese people know about, but not actively listen to. Tanaka: “They know the music from their childhood as part of the music from their past. It has been regarded as almost cultural, something you learn like a tea ceremony or flower arrangement (ikebana), it is something you learn for your sophistication.”.
Talking about the place Min’yō has after Minyo Crusaders started, Tanaka finds that there are other young people who started to think about the Japanese identity, like he himself, and their culture. The number of people who do this has increased. “It is almost like it happens simultaneously with the existence of Minyo Crusaders, but I don’t want to say it happens because of the existence of Minyo Crusaders.”.
According to the bandleader of Minyo Crusaders, it is almost like it happens simultaneously in different places. For example, there is a DJ group, called 俚謡山脈 (Riyo Sanmyaku), that only plays Min’yō music combined with World Music in the club. It can be seen as very unique. Furthermore, there are small festivals in Japan, called matsuri, where the community have their Bon dance and other festival activities for the local community. It used to be very traditional, but nowadays those Summer village festival or city festivals are produced by young people. “It has young energy. They introduce a DJ in a Bon dance and that means more younger people are attracted to participate more. There are new things happening around Min’yō,” Tanaka adds.
Echoes of Japan
Echoes of Japan, the debut album of Minyo Crusaders, got their worldwide release earlier this year through Mais Um. While Minyo Crusaders originally focused on sharing their reworked Min’yō in a World Music coating in Japan only, the album got well received inside and outside Japan. It was a pleasant surprise for the 10-piece. Katsumi Tanaka: “We never expected that our music would be introduced and received so quickly outside Japan. The comparison of responses between the people in Japan and outside of Japan is interesting. In Japan, the people might have heard Min’yō once or twice, but they are familiar with it. The Japanese people were at first a bit confused when listening to the music of Minyo Crusaders, but eventually, they found the music fun. Compared to the people outside Japan, they just enjoy the rhythm as a mix of different types of music, they received the music of Minyo Crusaders more straightforward.”.
To create the newest album with the current arrangement it took two years. Before that, Katsumi Tanaka did this with a different jazzy arrangement and with different band members. All that trial and error became this current album. But how did they decide with genre fits with which Min’yō? Tanaka: “Most of the music genres belonging to World Music are the music of the people and is popular music, not to be confused with pop music, as they are made by common people, it is native for the people and rooted in them. The music resonates very well with Min’yō. That is the base.”.
Katsumi Tanaka explains further: “The shamisen (string instrument) and shakuhachi (flute) appear in Min’yō as a melody. We converted the melody of those Japanese instruments with a guitar or keyboard, the western instruments. Then we analysed the rhythms in the songs and find the similarity in other genres. For example: ‘This rhythm sounds like Reggae and this rhythm phrase goes well with funk.’ We cut those melodies made by Japanese instruments into pieces and try to interpret in a different way with the western instruments. There are different types of Min’yō, for example, those which melody lines are very clear and modern or you have one called just the rhythm is going, with an unclear melody and have native and very primitive sound and are in comparison very old to something very modern. The very old native sounds go really well with the African, really native sound. If the melody line is very clear and modern, maybe it fits better with popular music. That is the mindset Minyo Crusaders had while combining Min’yō together with World Music.”.
The upcoming European tour
In November the 10-piece will tour Europe for two weeks, with their newest release in their back pocket, for the first time they will tour for such a long time. The performance at Le Guess Who? 2019 is one of the many shows on their schedule. They will present themselves for the first time in front of a big audience in Europe. Tanaka: “There is pressure, but it is good pressure. Doing a performance in Japan, the audience is mainly Japanese. Even if they are not familiar with Min’yō, they know the track itself. It is easy to have a call-and-response from the audience. Now we will perform for those who don’t know about Min’yō and there is a pressure to deliver attractive music.”
The tour will bring Minyo Crusaders to a few other festivals, like Oslo World Music Festival and Überjazz Festival in Germany, but there are also some cosier shows planned. What does the bandleader of Minyo Crusaders prefer: a big stage or a small and cosy stage? The question is hard to answer: “When we perform on a big stage during a festival, the audience comes to the festival to expect different types of music where Minyo Crusaders is part of it. It is really interesting to appeal to those people who don’t particularly come for Minyo Crusaders. But when we perform on a cosy stage in a smaller venue, the people come especially for us. Both types of performances have different types of audiences and have a different charm, so it is hard to tell.” For the interested in the music and performance of Minyo Crusaders, they have to choose where they want to see the 10-piece live.
We started to talk about the many Japanese musicians performing outside Japan and in Europe, where we are based. Every year it seems more and more Japanese musicians get invited to perform at big festivals or even have a tour to introduce themselves. What does Katsumi Tanaka think of of the fact that there is quite an interest in Japanese acts and music outside Japan? “I think it is really a good thing to happen. There are many interesting and good bands in Japan. It is really nice for those people who are getting introduced to it outside Japan and the fact that Japanese music can be shared by people outside Japan.”
The next steps of Minyo Crusaders
Minyo Crusaders’ plans after the European tour are a big live show in Japan, a performance at Rencontres Trans Musicales in France coming December and the 10-piece will contribute to a compilation album. We can also expect something new from Minyo Crusaders, but first, they need to pilot the tracks before making any new steps towards a new album. Before all of this, the Minyo Crusaders will conquer European grounds with their debut album Echoes of Japan.
On the question about what kind of alcohol drinks the band leader advice while enjoying the music of Minyo Crusaders, since the songs encourage dancing and drinks according to record label Mais Um, he answers after laughing for a bit: “Maybe Japanese sake.” Our conversation with Katsumi Tanaka ended with a few words from the bandleader: “Please enjoy our music as one of the new types of World Music.”
Enjoy the performance of Minyo Crusaders at Le Guess Who? 2019 in Utrecht on Saturday 9 November from 23.45 at TivoliVredenburg. More information and tickets can be found on the website of the festival.
A big thanks to Katsumi Tanaka for his time to talk about Minyo Crusaders, Akiho Horton for the translation, Lewis Robinson from Mais Um and Iris van Korven and Barry Spooren from Le Guess Who? for making this interview possible.