Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tokyo Tramps - "Young, Bluesy and all the way from Japan" - by AJ Wachtel

Tokyo Tramps
"Young, Bluesy and all the way from Japan"

By A.J. Wachtel

It's always cool for an aging hippie like me to walk into a nightclub and be totally blown away by the music and vibe that surrounds me. And when the performers are young, well-versed in the R&B founding fathers and transplanted from Japan to conquer the American Blues scene, it becomes my honor and duty to help them spread the word. Their opening tune was a taut slide guitar version of Muddy's "Rollin' and Tumblin’" and I immediately became a fan dedicated to enlightening everyone about this trio's true talents. Just back from a visit back to the Far East to decide the best way to ship their American success back home, female bassist and vocalist, Yukiko Fujii and guitarist Satoru Nakagawa took time to impart their observations of the local blues scene to this interested writer. (Drummer Kosei Fukuyama was unavailable for this discussion.) Read on and get impressed:

BBS: What are three young Japanese musicians doing in Boston playing the blues?

TT: Somehow our paths crossed in Boston. We decided to stay in the States to play music rather than going back to Japan. We love American music and each of us has quite different musical backgrounds but we have one thing in common: we all want to make and play music for a living.
BBS: How big is American blues in Japan? Is there much chance for young musicians to hear and purchase music from blues musicians?

TT: It's not so big, but remember, Japan is the second largest market in the world. You can easily find blues recordings if you want to.

BBS: What do you see as major differences between blues in Europe and Asia compared to America? In terms of audiences, places to play and other opportunities?

TT: We don’t know much about the blues scene in Europe so we can’t quite answer about the differences there, but there IS a blues scene in Japan. We don’t know about other Asian countries.

BBS: Who are your blues influences?

Satoru: John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Taj Mahal, Elmore James, too many to mention.

Yukiko: I came to Berklee to study singing so I have influences from female singers like Bonnie Raitt and Etta James. Recently, I'm into Irma Thomas and Janiva Magness.

BBS: Is there much of a concert circuit in Japan? Can you make a living playing the blues there? Do any major blues artists go on tour through Japan?

TT: We just went back there to search for that. There is a scene in Japan and making a living playing music is as hard there as anywhere else. The common system of live music venues in Japan is "pay to play" or heavily dependent on cover charges. Restaurants and bars hire jazz musicians and there are some venues for blues in major cities like Tokyo and Yokohama where clubs normally charge a $25 or $30 cover. I believe every major blues artist has been there at one time or another: B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, and so on. I wonder how often they go to Japan. Pop/Rock and Hip Hop artists often tour through Japan and they are always welcomed - even new and young groups - but I'm not sure blues artists are treated in the same way.

BBS: What blues artists did you get to see growing up?

Satoru: Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Dr. John.

BBS: Are English blues artists better known than American blues artists in Japan?

TT: U.S. blues artists are better known.

BBS: Did you three meet and start playing in Japan or here and how did it happen?

TT: Satoru and Yukiko met while attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. Kosei graduated Berklee as well but didn’t join the Tramps until much later, almost three years ago.

BBS: When was the first time you heard the blues and what did hearing it do to you?

Satoru: My first record was by John Lee Hooker. I listened to the entire album once and I put it away for a year. I was seventeen and it was the hardest sound I'd ever heard.

Yukiko: Back in the 70s and the 80s, I grew up listening to a radio station called FEN (Far East Network) in Tokyo. It was part of the American Armed Forces Network and it played American Top 40, The Wolfman Jack Show, The King Biscuit Flour Hour, etc., 24/7. So not just blues, but American music in general was the huge thing in my life. It drove me to study English, Music, History, and so on. I spent all my money buying records and going to concerts and ended up forming an all-girl band when I was 14.

BBS: Are there any blues groups that sing their lyrics in Japanese?

TT: There used to be Japanese blues bands like Yuka-Dan and the West Road Blues Band that did but they're both no longer playing together.

BBS: What's in the future for Tokyo Tramps?

TT: Our next big thing is to attend the International Blues Challenge in Memphis next February, not representing the Boston Blues Society but The Blues, Jazz and Folk Music Society in Marietta, OH because we won the River City Ohio Blues Competition last February. We might be the first all-Japanese Blues band to participate in the IBC so we hope we get some recognition for being truly unique.

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