Enter the strange vocal world of Koichi Makigami at your own risk
|Courtesy of Smash
“Is he daft?”
Many uninformed concertgoers have no doubt asked themselves the same question that this writer posed to himself on witnessing Koichi Makigami perform for the first time some years ago. The occasion was a gig by notorious downtown Manhattan noise-meister, sax player, music impresario, and onetime Japan resident John Zorn.
Zorn had invited vocalist Koichi Makigami to join one of his occasional residencies at famed Shinjuku jazz club Pit Inn. With Zorn and co. honking and scratching away, Makigami emitted a stream of vocalizations that sounded like equal parts birdcall and the speaking-in-tongues of the clinically insane.
But in a studio after a recent Hikashu rehearsal in Tokyo, the band’s frontman—the word “singer” doesn’t quite do justice to his range of skills—proves decidedly rational. “In 1974 at age 18, I went to London to participate in the Fringe Theater,” he explains. “It was a time when improvisation and theater were becoming intertwined. I appeared in a performance in which the entire dialog was gibberish. It was a big influence, and I formed my own group on returning to Japan.”
That group turned out to be Hikashu, the avant-pop act that, along with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, was one of a number of bands creating a futuristic new sound in the ’70s. But where YMO looked for inspiration in the sweeping melodies of Kraftwerk, Hikashu was more partial to the zany escapades of psychedelic warriors like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.
“We were influenced by the experimental currents of the era,” Makigami (below, second from right) recalls. “We use the term ‘pataphysics’ to explain our music. The word was coined by French writer Alfred Jarry and means the study of what lies beyond metaphysics—Jarry intended it as a parody of modern science. We want to do something that can’t be judged by normal standards.”
No one could deny that, if Hikashu were to be judged by normal standards, words like “silly” and “bizarre” would apply. But at a time when humor seems sorely lacking in pop music, Hikashu remains one of the busier groups in Japan. “We get invited by young bands to play together a lot,” says guitarist Freeman Mita. “They seem to find us intriguing. The generation directly [after] us was never very interested, but the current generation has rediscovered us.”
When Makigami is not busy with Hikashu, he’s occupied with a solo career that will see him travel this year from New York to Romania and on to Cambodia and Spain for work and study. An impish onstage persona cloaks an ambition to learn demanding vocal techniques from cultures around the world.
For example, Makigami is a master of the otherworldly singing tradition of Tuva, an area of Siberia bordering Mongolia. The Tuvans split their voice into multiple harmonics, an effect that Makigami deploys along with clicks, shouts, guffaws—and even just traditional singing—to provide an arresting accompaniment to the likes of Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, whom he recently jammed with at the Where Is The Music? Festival in Ebisu.
“I’ve been studying Tuvan throat singing for more than ten years—this year I won a prize from the Tuvan culture authority,” enthuses Makigami, who also arranges visits by Tuvan musicians to Japan. “There are a lot of traditions that interest me. For example, in Iran, they have a style that sounds like birdsong, and in South Africa there is a technique in which you create very deep vibrations. It’s important to actually go to these places yourself. Just copying styles from records isn’t enough.”
Zorn has been an ardent supporter since the ’80s, releasing Makigami’s albums on his Tzadik label overseas and bringing him over for tours of the US. In 2005, Makigami was even the subject of a weeklong festival in New York that saw him take part in improvisational face-offs with some of the city’s most able musicians.
In Japan, too, Makigami’s resume includes numerous collaborations with the country’s more forward thinking composers and theatrical directors. The one constant in his peripatetic career is Hikashu, which he formed with mates from high school in Odawara, the city he still lives in south of Tokyo. Hikashu has never broken up and still performs regularly.
What’s the secret to their longevity? “For one, we’ve gotten better and better; and two, we don’t allow ourselves to be influenced by what people say about us,” Makigami muses. “It’s hard not to be affected by what other people say when you’re young, but as you get older you realize what it is that you really want to do.”
Hikashu plays Star Pine’s Café on April 1. Koichi Makigami joins John Zorn at Pit Inn on April 9. See concert listings (jazz/world) for details. For more info, see www.makigami.com.
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