October 8th, 2008


Matsuri-kei: Guía para el hipócrita

Matsuri-kei: A Hypocrite's Guide, my new column for Spanish music zine Playground, has gone up today. It's published there only in Spanish, so as usual I'm putting the English version here. There's more background research (focusing on The Slits, and including an mp3 of their Japanese-language version of Earthbeat) here.

Matsuri-kei: A Hypocrite's Guide

Today I want to tell you about a new genre. It's one I've just invented. I call it Matsuri-kei.

Now some of you, reading this, will want to exclaim: "Momus, what a hypocrite you are! Weren't you telling us just last month that categories and genres were ruining record shops, and that we should blow up statues of Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy? And, by the way, weren't you telling us the month before that record shops were dead? Hypocrisy on hypocrisy! Have you no shame?"

Well, I'm blushing, of course; I clearly have some shame. But I'm stubborn; in my mind this all makes sense. Yes, record shops are on their last legs. The insane plethora of categories is one symptom of their flailing, clumsy, hopeless efforts to cover the diversity of music out there in the digital and performance worlds. And yes, I sometimes wish they'd just arrange everything alphabetically.

But there's another solution, one I planned -- I promise! -- to add to that rant. Either there should be no genres (just alphabetical arrangement by artist name) or there should be millions and millions of genres, one for each artist. Better, how about one genre for each record, or one for each song, or for each section of each song, or each track on the multitrack master, or each string of the guitar on track 29.

Imagine that, my top E string could be in the genre "Swedish Flamenco" and my bottom E string could be in the genre "Twangy Shadows"! Or maybe the bottom E string could even have two genres: "Twangy 1950s" and "Sub-Peter Hook"! What's more, each new digital effect I applied to the naked sound of the string could put it in a different genre!

So, with this "either none or millions" argument in mind, let's proceed to a practical example. Here's Matsuri-kei. I've made it up. It's a genre containing Japanese female artists who shout over a festival drumbeat (a matsuri is a traditional Japanese summer festival containing Shinto fertility symbols and lots of drum-led dancing, and kei just means "style").

I didn't just pull Matsuri-kei totally out of the blue, though. I started seeing Japanese artists who had a certain sound that didn't really fit any categories I knew, but had something in common with each other. They seemed to be doing something tribal, something primal, something digital and yet also traditional. I think "Umo" by OOIOO was the first track in this style that really struck me:

OOIOO is of course the band started by Yoshimi from The Boredoms, so immediately there's a hippy-trippy-art-punk vibe and a Jamaican influence. That Jamaican feel, and the fact that OOIOO is an all-girl band with a primal, tribal beat, leads to comparisons, in my mind, with The Slits, and especially their second and final album, Return of the Giant Slits, produced by Dennis Bovell and Dick O'Dell in 1981 and re-released last year by Blast First. When I see the wild, boho-eco-tribal video for Umo, I feel like it could fit without much trouble onto that final Slits album.

Early on, The Slits kicked thick, distorted punk rock guitars out of their sound, opening it up to more subtle, precarious spaces and funky, broken rhythms. That decision is crucial, and it's why we can't include bands like Afrirampo in the Matsuri-kei genre. Afrirampo's guitars rock too hard, and their full-on assault takes us into a totally different area, not just of music, but of symbolism. If the Matsuri-kei bands are playing the role of female shamans, Afrirampo evoke a more male power: there's an unavoidable suggestion of penis envy in their use of music's best-known phallic symbol.

If Afrirampo are too phallic -- and have too thick a sound -- to be included in our hypothetical Matsuri-kei category, who else fits? Well, I'd say Kiiiiiii are candidates. Here's the Tokyo-based duo doing "4 Little Joeys":

Another all-female duo with a wild and crazy sound -- although more glitchy than tribal -- is Groopies (Nobuko Hori and Kyoka Kyoka, currently based in New York and Berlin respectively):

But Nobuko and Kyoka are in a slightly different area. A better fit to the Matsuri-kei template -- perhaps the best fit of all -- would be Osaka laptop artist DODDODO. This clip, for me, defines the sound almost perfectly:

DODDODO comes out of the Osaka noise underground, the same scene that hatched Acid Mothers Temple, Ove-Naxx, and The Boredoms. DODDODO calls herself a "sample bitch" and Boomkat calls her style "girltronica", but for me it's Matsuri-kei. What's more, DODDODO performed earlier this year at a festival in the mountains south of Osaka called the Gocha Matsuri Festival (see the start of her set 7 minutes and 51 seconds into this video). Perfect!

Other candidates for the Matsuri-kei badge might be more difficult to track down. I'd want to include an excellent but obscure 1989 album by Izumi "Mimi" Kobayashi (produced by Holger Hiller). It's called iK.i, and it's a strange mixture of sampled beats and traditional Japanese chants and songs. You might be able to tell me about some others I haven't heard.

So there it is, a new category for bands often declared "uncategorizable". A lineage from The Slits via Mimi Kobayashi and The Boredoms to today's laptop vandals. A clustered set of signifiers, an appetizing specification of stylistic limitations (no thick phallic guitars!). Matsuri-kei is totally fictional at this point -- it doesn't really exist anywhere -- and yet it doesn't not-exist, either. It's useless, and yet it might prove useful if you need a string bag for a day's record-buying, or a folder name for the contents of a day's downloading.

The next time you see a Japanese all-girl band in tribal make-up shouting eco-shamanic lyrics over an Afro-Jamaican beat unencumbered by guitars, you might well say to yourself: "Ah, this is the thing Momus calls Matsuri-kei! The hypocrite!"