Artist Spotlight: Towa Tei, music

Artist Spotlight: Towa Tei (week two)

Every month, Memories of Shibuya will be taking a look at a different artist or group, with featured songs – one per week – highlighting the peaks (and, occasionally, troughs) of their musical career.

After leaving Deee-Lite and heading back to Japan, Towa Tei embarked upon a solo venture that found him taking his rightful place in the canon of Shibuya-kei artists. The Japanese scene welcomed him with open arms, bolstered both by his major-label connections from the Deee-Lite days and his own Shibuya-kei style, which could hardly have been more perfectly suited to the J-pop zeitgeist in 1994.

Towa Tei has never been particularly open about his personal life, and as a result any overview of his career inevitably paints a picture of a charmed existence, characterized by success after success. His tone in interviews is often imbued with a flippancy completely at odds with the magnitude of his accomplishments, with comments like “I decided to go for easy musicians” (on his choice of collaborators) seeming to describe something entirely different than the all-star guest lists that his albums inevitably carry with them. However, being approachable has never been a part of his identity as an artist, and so the lack of intimacy afforded to journalists is hardly a surprise. Choosing to live in rural Nagano rather than Tokyo, collaborating with singers entirely over the internet (many vocalists on Towa Tei albums have never met the man in person), borrowing Kraftwerk’s slick, artificial “Man-Machine” look for press photos, and even stating his distaste for playing live shows – despite making music for large groups of people to dance to, he clearly doesn’t want to let anyone get too close. This is even reflected in how his name is written: despite being a Japanese national, born and raised, his press material invariably uses Western name order and either katakana or romaji script – the writing systems employed for foreign words, rather than the native Japanese kanji. Every effort is made to ensure that the real man behind the music, the one who spends most of his days listening to funk LPs with his family in Nagano, is separate from the “Towa Tei” character, which has an ultimately positive effect on the music: when the music is completely separate from the man, judging the former on its own merits becomes incredibly easy. Whether or not the deliberately cultivated impression of supernaturally good luck (his last three albums’ titles were Big Fun, Sunny and Lucky) is genuine or illusory doesn’t matter; the music can stand on its own.

When he released Future Listening! in 1994, his first album as a solo artist, Towa Tei was not exactly an unknown in Japan – he had previously collaborated with Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto on the elder musician’s Heart Beat and Sweet Revenge albums – but even still, it’s impressive to take a look at the personnel assembled for the album. In addition to Sakamoto and his YMO bandmate Haruomi Hosono, the album boasted collaborations with Yasuharu Konishi and Maki Nomiya of Pizzicato Five and Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra founding member Yuichi Oki; Tei’s Shibuya-kei credibility was rock-solid, right out of the gate. Future Listening! wasn’t the first Shibuya-kei release to prominently feature samples – those were present right from the beginning – but it is indicative of the very definite sea change in the scene that was taking place in the mid-’90s. The neo-acoustic sound that had defined so much early Shibuya-kei was on its way out, the new sound being built on as eclectic a selection of samples as possible. The new groups that came on to the scene around this time, Buffalo Daughter and Cibo Matto chief among them, bore little resemblance to the twee indie-pop of Bridge, Flipper’s Guitar and their ilk, but found kin in the sample-heavy sounds of Scha Dara Parr and Pizzicato Five – it was in this group that Towa Tei most definitely belonged, and his return to Japan was timed perfectly with its rise.

One of the most frequent musical reference points for this new Shibuya-kei sound was Serge Gainsbourg’s work in his last decade as a musician, a period which began with the French singer/songwriter traveling to Kingston, Jamaica to record a reggae album in 1979. In the years from 1979 until the release of his final album in 1989 (a live album recorded the previous year), Gainsbourg experimented with new wave, funk, Caribbean folk music and even hip-hop, unintentionally setting the stage for a new generation of imitators, that began with the roster of Mike Alway’s él Records and carried on to the Shibuya-kei scene that was just getting started at the time of his death. Although never directly sampling Gainsbourg, Towa Tei’s sample-collage aesthetic on Future Listening! owes as much to the French pioneer as it does any of the funk, jazz and soul 45s played on the album. Nowhere is this influence stronger than on “La Douce Vie,” a cross-cultural mashup that marries funk guitar to an easygoing Caribbean rhythm, augmented with a grab-bag of rarely-combined instruments that range from electric sitar to accordion. Yasuharu Konishi co-wrote the Japanese lyrics with Tei, and Konishi’s Pizzicato Five partner Maki Nomiya provided a suitably romantic vocal, but despite the many cooks (the album’s liner notes credit 11 guest musicians) the broth remains delicious. With the Parisian flavour of Nomiya’s singing (reminiscent, as always, of Gainsbourg collaborator Francoise Hardy) and Yuichi Oki’s accordion mixing with the laid-back island atmosphere, the song serves as a comprehensive tribute to the influential songwriter’s career without ever sounding like a mere imitation.

Towa Tei may be more well-known for his dance music, but to attempt to pigeonhole him as something as simple as a “dance musician” would only do a disservice to one of Shibuya-kei’s greatest talents. We may not know much about Towa Tei’s everyday life, but his music speaks more eloquently than the man ever could.

Part one, part three, part four.

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