Everyone Gets the [Japan] Blues: an Interview with Howard Williams

Bulat Khalilov speaks with the founder of Japan Blues

Japan Blues is the project of Howard Williams, a Londoner and self described “obsessive record collector” whose work has included the release of numerous compilations, a long standing radio show on NTS, and concerts in Europe and Japan. Bulat Khalilov spoke to Williams about the history of his project Japan Blues, the ways that some genres are translatable and untranslatable, and the dynamics of compiling and releasing Japanese music in Europe. This interview is part of a series of publications from Khalilov’s project Global Zomia, dedicated to DIY-ethnography and non-academic initiatives working with traditional and local music around the world.

Japan Blue LP, with liner notes that describe it as “an atmospheric Japanese travelogue, taking in some underbelly tourist spots on the way.”

BULAT KHALILOV: There's not much information about you on the internet. How did Japan Blues come about? Could you describe the concept of Japanese Blues and its basic aim?

HOWARD WILLIAMS: Unlike the rest of the world these days, I’m a lousy self promoter, but you can find the complete Japan Blues’ radio show archives on NTS, an interview for Boiler Room Collections on YouTube, information about my LP Sells His Record Collection, the remixes I’ve been doing the last couple of years, and most of the gigs I’ve done in Europe and Japan.

This started as the work of an obsessive record collector, learning about an area of music that is not widely available in the West. Eventually, it became too much and I had to get out and share it, starting in bars and small clubs, leading on to Hessle Audio’s show on Rinse FM, and then my monthly NTS show. Three years after it started as a guest show on NTS, it seems there’s a lot of interest in Japanese music out there.

I have always made music in one way or another, inevitably the Japanese influence seeped into my own work. The plan is to expose some great and unusual new Japanese artists I’ve met along the way, while working on some more classic reissues.

BK:What is hiding behind the name? Where does the term “Blues” come in?

HW:Every person has the blues—if they’re human beings. I am still completely hooked on early American blues recordings—a major root of Western popular music. The Japanese blues resides in enkaenkaA popular Japanese music genre that, like the blues, utilizes pentatonic scales. Modern enka developed in the postwar era (1950-80s) in the form of sentimental ballad music.; in the voices of some of the giants of kayōkyokukayōkyokuA Japanese pop music genre that became a base of modern J-pop.; min'yōmin'yōA broad term for traditional Japanese music, the name of which derives from the German word "Volkslied" (folk music) and has only been used since the twentieth century. Some min'yō are connected to forms of work or to specific trades and were originally sung between work or for specific jobs. Other min'yō function as entertainment, as dance accompaniment, or as a component of religious rituals.; and in Tsugaru-shamisenTsugaru-shamisenA genre of Japanese music that gets its name through the combination of the instrument it is performed with (the shamisen, a three-stringed lute played with a plectrum) and the location of the genre's origin (the Tsugaru Peninsula in present-day Aomori Prefecture). particularly. The first mixtape I made for The Trilogy Tapes many years back was called Nippon Folk, Japan Blues. I was running club nights experimenting under different names, then one day it dawned on me that Japan Blues was the best way to sum up what I was dabbling with—even though I may also play party music. There’s also a pun here: a Blues is a type of Jamaican party where they turn the lights off in an intimate room so people are completely uninhibited to dance. This is my favorite way to play records, at a Japan Blues.

BK:Is there a scientific or ethnographic motivation behind your interest in this music? Or is it just a music lover's journey into Japanese musical culture?

HW:Yes, it may be just a music lover’s journey, it is often still trial and error (less so than in the beginning). As I have been introduced to the myriad variations of Japanese folk min'yō I have become fascinated by local folklore and work songs and their links to ancient Shinto beliefs and nature worship. These songs have an influence on Japanese popular music, sometimes even on J-pop.

I have two very good friends and guides in the Riyo Mountains Tokyo based DJ duo, who strictly play min'yō and are academic in their collecting and researching, reaching out to the leading figures in domestic Japanese ethnomusicology, and the rural workers who preserve some of these songs. They have been a great inspiration to me—min'yō was one of my early loves, through professional modernized versions. I have since been drawn to the more amateur, local recordings. The greats of popularizing ethnic recordings, like Alan LomaxAlan LomaxAn American ethnomusicologist known for his numerous field recordings of folk music of the 20th century and the role he played in preserving folk music traditions, especially in America and England., realized that rapid modernization would destroy local folk and music traditions and set out to record as much of it as possible. There are vast archives in Japan made by similar academics.

A mix from William's friends and guides, the Tokyo based DJ duo Riyo Mountains

BK:Do you consider Japanese music “exotic”?

HW:That depends on which music, as I follow so many genres. Even in electronic pop, there is a difference in the sound and aesthetics compared to Western versions. The Japanese pentatonic scale makes music sound more “Eastern” but if you dig deep enough in Western folklore these scales turn up again—and Ethiopia still shares this pentatonic scale. I was completely hooked on the Ethiopiques Series—and still am. When I contacted a Japanese customer about Ethiopian music many years back, he said “it sounds like min'yō.” Early on in my library research, I read the work of an academic who wrote about “self-orientalizing,” where the Japanese studio system producers maybe over-egged the Asian musical pudding.

BK:Does not being Japanese give you any advantages or add a different quality to the specific nature of your project?

HW:One advantage has been that friends and people along the way have been keen to help and make recommendations. Otherwise it’s really hard to work in a language that has three alphabets, one being made up of Chinese characters which even Japanese people sometimes find hard to interpret. 

My background, as a Londoner, being exposed to punk, reggae, soul, and other urban music, has affected the mood of what I tend to look for in Japanese music. Though I am equally captivated by the native sounds of enka and kayōkyoku.

As the world opens up even wider, experiences are breaching formal borders

BK:In your opinion, is there a special idea or meaning in Japanese music that can only be understood by Japanese people?

HW:Language will separate deeper meaning from listeners of other nations. Enka expresses a sense of loss—of love, or missing one’s hometown. The latter is poignant in the context of the rural people’s economic migration to the cities to feed the economic bubble of the 1960s to 80s. Min'yōis a universal music within Japan; some songs are familiar to every Japanese citizen: work songs and celebrations of regions and their natural wonders. Aidoru musicAidoru musicAn idol (Aidoru), a type of entertainer manufactured and marketed for image, attractiveness, and personality in Japanese pop culture. plucks some bizarre chord with Japanese fans, with its quasi-religious worship of idols. NHK TV recently followed a European aidoru fan coming to Japan to see their favorite star, following the same behavior patterns as their other otakuotakuA Japanese term for people with consuming interests; a “super fan.” followers, waving a light stick in a packed stadium gig, crying, and marveling at the alleged fantastic personality of the performer. As the world opens up even wider, these experiences are breaching formal borders. I have finally been to some summer Bon festivalssummer Bon festivalsA Japanese Buddhist custom structured around a three day festival to honor the spirits of one's ancestors., and was deeply moved by them, but I’m just a gaijin (foreigner). 

BK:I know you’ve done supervisory projects and issued compilations and you also make collages and put on Japan Blues shows. Is there a crucial difference between these projects? Or are they all just different sides of the same idea? 

HW:Various sides of the same idea, I’d say. With compilations, one is restricted by making an end product. Japanese record labels are historically difficult to do business with—and even then there’s the archaic artist management system. One wonders if there have been some scams pulled off by foreign companies in the past to make them so defensive. Tracks may have to get changed, which throws a project a bit. Taking one’s time over making a show or a mix, one is much freer, though the shows are always played live, so there’s always some improvisation involved, mistakes and all.

Album covers for Sells His Record Collection, Kotonoid, The Kasai Osharaku Preservation Society and others by Osharaku (Label: Em Records), and 7FO by Ryu no Nukegara (Label: Em Records)


BK:By making collages of Japanese music, you take music of different types, contexts, and ages and mix it all together. Do you ever feel like this may in some way violate the music's integrity? 

HW:Yes, probably to some purists. Hip hop is already forty years old, an art form that took the context of purity by the scruff of its neck and made something new with music from the past. My show is a two hour journey through a country’s musical history to the present day. What one says (answering these questions) or does (making a radio show) can always be taken out of context. I can’t expect everyone to approve.

BK:Your releases and radio shows usually appear on European experimental platforms (like NTS, The Trilogy Tapes), but not on the ethnographic or Japanese ones. Why do you think that is? 

HW:My research has been done in the record shop, meeting people, and in libraries, and of course, on the web. This knowledge was hard-earned, through a lot of trial and error. I doubt I would get to release on an ethnographic label, say, Folkways. My compilations have been of modern music, though not Western, I wouldn’t necessarily describe them strictly as ethnographic. The Maki Asakawa compilation I did for Honest Jon’s when I worked there, did get a domestic Japanese release, called Maki Asakawa: UK Selection, as was my Takeshi Terauchi compilation, Nippon Guitars. So far I have not been approached by a Japanese label to curate or compile, though it would be a smoother way to work. So, Japanese labels, please get in touch! 

BK:Why do you think European labels and music fans are so interested in non-European music? Do you see any traces of colonial politics there or a continuation of those ideologies embedded in it? 

HW:Surely people are getting tired of the old formulas they are offered up by an equally knackered music industry. I’m not so sure that fans are behaving like colonials, though there may be some of that good old fashioned “orientalism” hovering in the background. But when it comes to record labels, there are definitely a few who are out to exploit. A glaring example these days is with African music, but this was an issue before the African music boom, with reggae. For decades, there have been some successful European reggae labels (mentioning no names) who have released records with little or no licensing whatsoever. These labels have been treated with reverence by millions of record buyers, ignorant of the true situation. The African music boom has brought even more labels of varying legitimacy to the fore, some of whom are definitely colonial in their attitude, exploiting artists, producers, and owners too far away or too poor to do anything about it. There are some labels in Europe that release with impunity, sometimes giving false contact details on their releases. That said, there are definitely some great labels who really love the music and work hard to ensure royalties are paid. There are a lot of Japanese bootlegs of European music too, by the way.

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Bulat Khalilov
Ethnographer, journalist, co-founder of the Ored Recordings label, specializing in field recordings of authentic traditional music from the Caucasus, Russia, and the world. Lives and works in Nalchik.
Howard Williams
Record collector, distributor, and DJ. He is the founder of Japan Blues and has a long running show on NTS radio by the same name.