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On stage, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (KPP) often brings the fantasy world of her music videos to life, and her show next month will be no different.
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The Tokyo three-piece mouse on the keys' shows next month are in support of their latest album The Flowers of Romance.
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As part of Super Japan, the all-women band Unaigumi is performing some favourite Okinawan classics, which have been updated for today's audiences. Okinawan music has gained recognition for being unique, strange and elemental.

Bowling the world over with music

Despite the language barrier, Japanese artistes have managed to wow music fans all over the world with their individual styles. To find out what the fuss is all about, check out the unique sounds of these three acts from the Land of the Rising Sun which are part of the line-up of the multi-disciplinary Japanese arts festival, Super Japan.

J-Pop Princess' weird and wonderful world

LIKE most Japanese teenage girls, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (KPP) grew up taking fashion cues from Harajuku, the famous cutting edge Tokyo shopping district that is the epicentre of kawaii (cute) culture.

Despite her parents initially disapproving of her outlandish dress sense, the 23-year-old fashion-blogger-model-singer has since become a global style icon and is currently one of Japan's biggest pop music exports.

She shot to fame in 2011 when the psychedelic video of her debut single PonPonPon went viral worldwide.

The catchy tune and face-melting trippy clip has since raked up more than 94 million views on YouTube, and KPP, whose real name is Takemura Kiriko, counts fellow fashionista pop stars like Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry as both fans and inspiration.

She has released three studio albums to date with the last one, Pika Pika Fantajin (2014), debuting at the top of the charts in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

KPP will be celebrating her fifth anniversary in music with a new world tour 5iVE YEARS MONSTER which includes a stop in Singapore next month. She last played sold-out shows here in 2013 and 2014.

"I am very surprised as I did not imagine (ever cracking the pop charts outside Japan)," KPP says in an email interview ahead of the show. "Even though it was not specially planned or anything, fans from overseas were waiting and anticipating and this makes me very happy and is an encouragement to me."

On stage, she often brings the fantasy world of her weird and wonderful music videos - think half Alice in Wonderland, half Tim Burton - which features anything from singing polar bears to dancing giant eyeballs to life, and the upcoming show will be no different.

Intending to keep it as a surprise, she reveals no more than "plans to use new costumes and stage sets".

Asked whether the over-the-top visuals or music comes first for her, KPP shares: "The songs are all written by music producer Yasutaka Nakata (one-half of electronic duo Capsule and producer of Japanese girl group Perfume); because of that, the music videos are conceptualised later."

In addition to the world tour, the reigning J-Pop Princess' fifth anniversary celebrations also include an upcoming "best of" compilation album and a special attraction at Universal Studios Japan. "I want to make it a special year," she muses.

While KPP might be the glamorous face of everything in Japan where she appears on numerous giant advertising billboards and television commercials, she professed to local media here on her first visit in 2013 that she is nowhere as flamboyant in real-life and dresses like the average girl-next-door off-stage.

So keep your eyes peeled as you might just spot her around town soon. "I'm looking forward to eating Chicken Rice!" she says.

By Dylan Tan

  • Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's KPP 5iVE YEARS MONSTER TOUR takes place at Esplanade Theatre on May 13 at 8pm. Tickets at S$88 and S$118 from Sistic and at the venue's box office.

Blending genres for a unique sound

YOU don't need to understand the Japanese language to appreciate mouse on the keys. Their brand of jazz-tinged post-rock instrumentals is best enjoyed with simply an open mind.

"I don't think I can describe what we are trying to say through songs - that's why we (just) play music," says keyboard player Daisuke Niitome of the group's genre-defying sound which also has funk, classical and electronica elements .

The Tokyo three-piece was formed in 2006 when Akira Kawasaki and Atsushi Kiyota of influential Japanese indie post-hardcore/post-rock band Nine Days Wonder joined forces with Niitome to form mouse on the keys.

Their guitar-free set-up is as unique as their sound made with just two keyboards and drums. The trio has toured Europe extensively and played two sold-out shows in Singapore as part of the Esplanade's Mosaic Music Festival in 2013.

Mouse on the keys' gigs are high-energy affairs where it's not uncommon to find Kawasaki stage-diving into the audience at some point. ("He ran in front of the crowd (in Singapore) instead because people were in their seats," recalls Niitome.)

Their upcoming shows next month are in support of their latest album The Flowers of Romance, released in July last year. It will feature a slightly expanded line-up for the first time with saxophonist Jun Nemoto, trumpeter Daisuke Sasaki and VJ artist Rokapenis joining the tour.

Niitome says The Flowers of Romance is slightly different from their debut and two other EPs they have released because this time the songwriting duty was shared.

In the past, drummer Kawasaki will typically work on his own using a computer before presenting the material to his band mates to jam in the studio. "This time, we all wrote separately and even had another writer (contributing) to two songs," says Niitome. "That gave this album more colours and variations."

The new arrangement might have made the process tougher than usual but he adds they enjoyed recording, sleeping and walking by the sea while working out of a studio in Atami, a seaside city on Japan's Izu Peninsula, in the Shizuoka Prefecture south-west of Tokyo.

On why Japanese acts like themselves, post-rockers Toe, J-Pop Princess Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and faux heavy metal idol group Babymetal have all managed to find followings outside the Land of the Rising Sun, Niitome offers: "I think we have a unique culture ... We learn from others and rearrange or mix and sometimes go to extremes which the original (artistes they're influenced by) never do so that makes things strange and interesting."

But he also feels the domestic indie scene could use a little more home support: "The majority of the (industry) is mostly supported by idol groups or Otaku and Anime fans. There are many (good) musicians and bands in the underground scene but I don't think (the following) is really strong - I think people overseas recognise (our talent) more."

By Dylan Tan

  • Mouse on the Keys plays at the Esplanade Recital Studio on May 20 at 7.30pm and 10pm. Tickets at S$35 from Sistic and the venue's box office.

Okinawan songs seep gently into the soul

THE folk music of Okinawa is unlike the music from the rest of Japan or, for that matter, the world. It is characterised by the happy, high-pitched singing of women and the accompaniment of a banjo-like instrument called the sanshin.

Like Indonesia's gamelan, it takes a while getting used to, but once you let its mid-tempo grooves ease into your soul, it can become hypnotic - even if you don't understand a word of what they're are singing.

As part of Super Japan, the all-women band Unaigumi is performing some favourite Okinawan classics, which have been updated for today's audiences.

Sahara Kazuya, producer and manager for Unaigumi, says: "When singing folk songs, modern arrangements are often used during the delivery. However, the song's basic nature must not be changed - for example, to have them sung in English would not even be considered."

"But what remains unique about Okinawan folk music and the singing style of Unaigumi is the way singing is done without any vibrato. Instead, one uses one's own vocals as the base and adds the kobushi singing techniques."

Kobushi singing involves the pitch of the singer's voice fluctuating irregularly within one scale degree - as opposed to vibrato, which vibrates in a regular cycle.

Okinawa, Japan's southern-most prefecture, comprises 150 islands in the East China Sea between Taiwan and Japan's mainland. Its warm temperatures and beautiful beaches contribute to the relaxed tempo of the music. Songs that praise the beauty of nature are a staple for Okinawans.

Mr Kazuya explains: "We have many kinds of folks songs - songs for the gods to thank them for harvests; education songs sung by parents to their children to teach them lessons of life; romantic songs for men and women; and labour songs sung while we work. These folk songs are all sung in Okinawan dialect."

"We've also taken various songs from all over the world and arrange them in an Okinawan style, such as Indonesia's Bengawan Solo, Ireland's Mountains of Pomeroi and the western song Amazing Grace."

Okinawan music remained largely undiscovered until the 1990s when famous record producer and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto introduced Okinawan sounds on his popular albums. Since then, it has gained recognition for being unique, strange and elemental.

Mr Kazuya says: "Japan, like other Asian countries, is undergoing rapid westernisation and globalisation. As such, the reality is that it is getting increasingly harder to preserve Japanese tradition and culture."

"But we try as much as we can to preserve our traditions and music. The teaching of traditional instruments and the Okinawan dialect in schools has progressed over the past 15 years. Okinawan folk songs and stories are passed on during traditional celebrations. So we have done a better job of preserving our culture than Japan's main islanders."

By Helmi Yusof

  • Songs of the Ryukyu Islands by Unaigumi is on at the Esplanade Recital Studio on May 22 at 5pm. Tickets at S$35 from Sistic.