The March 11 tsunami disaster has brought Japan into sharper focus, so hie thyself over to the Hollywood Bowl on June 26 for KCRW's "Big in Japan," which presents a major, major gathering of that country's premier artistic ambassadors: renowned electro-pop kingpins Yellow Magic Orchestra (with original members Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi), along with Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori reuniting as Cibo Matto, plus Buffalo Daughter, DJ Towa Tei and the one and only Yoko Ono. Plus traditional kabuki-style dance, taiko drumming, origami exhibits and sake tasting.
This will be YMO's first show in L.A. since 1979. Sakamoto, one of the trio's founding members and a high-profile solo artist and film composer, recalls the early days. One problem, he says, was what to call their newfangled thing.
"We elected to be a techno-pop band, although we were not so sure what techno is," he laughs. "But now the name doesn't matter. We don't need to be techno, we just do music. In the beginning we liked Martin Denny's exotica and German electronic music and funk and English pop. In the case of Mr. Hosono, his roots are country and western or folkish music like James Taylor or Motown bass lines or American musicals — anything he knows from his life he can put into this group we call YMO. We can use everything we've got."
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Which sounds easy and simple, but the fact is bands in the late '70s simply weren't doing that. From the beginning YMO sounded different, in part due to the unprejudiced way they drew upon wildly disparate sound sources (Bacharach-Ravel–Archie Bell, anyone?) and hybridized them with Eastern/Asian tonalities — as if there was no good reason not to. That's the attitude that has characterized the best Japanese music of the post–WWII years.
"Between our first and second albums we did our first worldwide tour, then the writers and media started paying much attention to our activities, and then shwoosh!" Sakamoto says. "At the time, it was the nature of the modern Japanese people that they think a Japanese artist who goes abroad has succeeded at something, and they passionately welcome a group. So now they've created the success story of YMO."
Says Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda: "YMO is pretty much equivalent to the Beatles of Japan, in terms of popularity and influence. You know how if you're a musician it's a little embarrassing to say you've been influenced by the Beatles? In Japan YMO is so big, it's almost more than you can say. They were not just musically creative — they were the entire culture at one point."
KCRW presents Big in Japan with Yellow Magic Orchestra, Cibo Matto, Buffalo Daughter, others at Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hlywd. Sun., June 26, 7 p.m. $24-$134. All ages. hollywoodbowl.com.