There are two related things about this season that ensured my travels were underscored with disquiet. The first is hay fever as the flowers come into bloom and the second is cherry blossom viewing season, as all my friends in Tokyo gather under the trees to party without me.
After my brief stop in Hofu, however, I had engineered a slight return to Fukuoka to scratch a particular itch that, while not directly related to the purpose of this trip, had been obliquely informing several aspects of it. Monday March 28th was the final date of Afrirampo’s short reunion tour, and I was damned if I wasn’t going to catch it.
First, I met up with Evgeny again and we cooked a Russian military lunchbox in Ohori Park. Needless to say, cherry blossom viewing is enhanced by the rare combination of Cosmonaut-approved processed cheese spread and shrieking raptors overhead. After that, we headed back to The Voodoo Lounge where preparations for the show were underway.
I’ve said this before on numerous occasions, but I missed Afrirampo. When I was first getting involved in the Japanese indie/underground music scene, they were this flash of colour from Osaka in a Tokyo that was still struggling earnestly under the shadow of Fukuoka export Number Girl. Tokyo’s music scene feels in many ways like it’s become quite “Osakacised” in that brash, colourful, comical, performance-led acts are among the hottest things in the capital right now, but for some reason when artists from Tokyo adopt the sort of colour and humour that made Afrirampo so fresh ten years ago, they often seem to miss the delicate balance of raw punk rock power and playful experimentalism that made Afrirampo more than just a novelty act.
Travelling through Kyushu and hanging out with so many of the bands my Call And Response Label works with, it became clear to me how Afrirampo’s influence informed a lot of the bands I liked and how I was unconsciously drawn to music that twanged those same wires in me. In Kagoshima, Zibanchinka would never have existed in the form they did without Afrirampo, and in Nagasaki there’s clearly some lingering influence in the wonky post-hardcore garage-punk of Mechaniphone. Perhaps less consciously, it’s hard to imagine Hakuchi’s balance of hysteria-tinged rock’n’roll art-punk without Afrirampo too. The only band in Kyushu I work with who show no discernable influence of Afrirampo is Hyacca, and then largely because they evolved contemporaneously out of an older set of influences.
Seeing Afrirampo in Fukuoka is interesting too. As I mentioned before, it was to the influence of Number Girl, which in Tokyo had become a bit staid and over-earnest by that time, that the Osaka invasion provided such a refreshing and lively contrast. However, Number Girl themselves were in part a reaction against the sort of fun-loving rock’n’roll orthodoxy of mentai rock, and that thread still exists in the Fukuoka music scene.
The organiser of the show is Bogey from Nontroppo, whose main artistic allegiance is to the quirky and fun. He played as a solo artist at The Vottones’ event the previous week, but this time Nontroppo themselves are playing, while Yusuke Okumura returns from the previous week as well, this time playing in a duo with drummer Uchimura from marukin.
It’s the opening act, Tokotokotonntoko’s, that I’m most interested in though. Another project of Ann Murasato from Hakuchi, the group currently takes the form of three girls in papier mâché mardi-gras heads performing a nonsensical mixture of lo-fi pop and ferociously contorted punk rock. It’s magnificent, and it’s also really heartening to see the members of Afrirampo in the audience watching it with obvious delight.
Yusuke Okumura and Nontroppo are both reliable fixtures of the Fukuoka music scene and put on solid performances too, with the former given an extra jolt of power by Uchimura’s furious drums and the latter never less than entertaining, like Pink Floyd sipping cocktails on a beach with Kid Creole & The Coconuts.
Given the stories I’d heard of the packed shows on other dates of the tour, the 300-400-capacity Voodoo Lounge is only about 10-15% full, about half of them friends of mine, which coupled with Bogey’s odd decision to make the “DJ” just pure silence (some sort of art statement I think), gives the event a strange atmosphere of bleakness mixed with small-gig intimacy.
Afrirampo enter singing an a capella wedding march before performing a mock wedding ceremony on stage, and then as Pika takes her sead behind the drum kit and Oni slings on her guitar there’s a moment where they’re poised there, waiting to start and it really does feel electric: they’re back, a rough-edged splatter of red, just as I remember them.
It actually takes them a few songs for things to click, and I wonder how much of that is down to them feeling out the audience’s vibes, figuring out how far they need to push and from what angle. I’ve talked before about the importance of “call and response” in the context of reaching out to the audience but also requiring the audience take a step towards you as well, and while I tend to treat that as a more psychic thing, Afrirampo approach something similar from a far more physical perspective. From the start, they emerge not directly onto the stage but through the audience, and early on in the set Oni is crouched down at the edge of the stage, playing and singing right into Ann’s face. They gather at the front of the stage do demand participation, instructing audience members to tweet the band’s name, and later Oni bundles everyone into a chaotic conga line. By the end, half the audience is on stage playing drums along with Pika, although it’s mostly Ann again – an incredible drummer in her own right, making for a thrillingly intense superhero team-up. The drum kit ends up coming down off the stage too, while the band are joined by Bogey onstage for the encore.
The constant pressure Afrirampo put on the boundaries between band and audience is exhausting, and it reminded me of something that always made me feel a little uncomfortable about them back in the old days. While their approach is undeniably thrilling, it also feels a bit like being bullied into enjoying their music in a way they determine for you rather than being able to do so in your own way. It’s an attitude towards the audience that always felt characteristic of artists from Osaka (with obvious caveats for the immense variation a city of that size offers) and it may have simply been a feature of that time. There’s something particular about the way Afrirampo do it as well though. Watusi Zombie, who played at The Vottones’ event the previous week, were always notorious for taking the drum kit apart and bringing it down into the audience, but that’s the point: they did it at every gig to the point where it really was just a gimmick. With Afrirampo, there genuinely does seem to be a chaotic element to what they do, where Oni and Pika may have determined a loose structure for the show, but have also built into that room for considerable improvisation in how they duck and weave, tack to the flow. Are they forcing the audience into behaving in a certain way, or are they responding to a silent request for such intervention that we are sending out?
The following morning I wake to find that my friend Ai has laid out a set of sandwiches for me, which might rank as the single most adorable thing anyone has done for me on this whole trip. After that, I’m back on the bullet train to be reunited with my bicycle in Hiroshima.
I’m also reunited with Ando from Jailbird Y, along with my old friend Togawa who I knew in Tokyo many years ago, and Yui, a former Fukuoka face who I had met a few times in the past. We gathered at Organ-za, a live music bar and café run by accordion-playing avant-cabaret musician Izumi Goto.
I mention to Ando my theory about the gravitational zone of cities and he identifies Hiroshima’s field as extending as far as Iwakuni to the west and Onomichi to the east.
Speaker Gain Teardrop
Meanwhile, Togawa adds to the growing list of good Hiroshima bands by pointing out Sittaka Brilliant and Usagi Bunny Boy, both to general approval by the group. Shoegaze band Speaker Gain Teardrop are perhaps the Hiroshima band with the strongest penetration outside the city, although historically such influential and famous acts as folk-rock singer Takuro Yoshida, ‘80s pop-rock singer Shogo Hamada, and major ’80s rock acts like Unicorn and Street Beats. Eikichi Yazawa of ‘70s rockers Carol is also a Hiroshima native, occupying a position rather like Rod Stewart in the UK of a formerly cool rock musician who became decidedly soft-rock after leaving his band and going solo.
There is a network of bohemian little venues like Organ-za that allow offbeat music to operate outside of the restrictions and difficulties posed by traditional “live houses” and in particular in smaller cities that don’t have an active indie rock scene of their own. You can look at flyers in a place like Organ-za and see the kinds of places in other cities touring musicians pass through, which reveals a totally different world to the wone you would see if you confined yourself only to live houses. It influences the kind of music that gets played though. Goto is a big fan of Umineko in Hofu, for example, but there’s no way a full rock band could play in a venue like that.
Togawa mentions Otis, another café/venue in Hiroshima, which he says does excellent Tex-Mex food. The Fukuoka/Tokyo-based duo Sonotanotanpenz played there, and their tours have also taken in places like Shimane and Tottori, on which many more rock-orientated underground bands tend to dismiss as too unpopulated to support what they do.
I’ve shared a lot of that apprehension, but since Shimane is my next stop with Tottori to follow soon after, I’m very quickly going to have to confront it face-on. How does music happen in places where there are no people to make it?