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Sakuma Masahide: Renaissance Man of J-Rock

Posted in J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the October 12th, 2013

Sakuma Masahide (佐久間正英) will be appearing with Hayakawa Yoshio in a free public concert here at the University of Chicago at 7:30 p.m. on October 18, 2013 (details here). A few words about Sakuma’s amazing career are certainly in order. He is a key figure in the history of Japanese popular music in many different guises–most notably, perhaps, as producer for more than 140 different acts that range across the spectrum, including such notable musicians as the Blue Hearts, BOØWY, HY, Judy and Mary, Teresa Teng, Glay, Soul Flower Union, Watanabe Misato, and L’Arc〜en〜Ciel.

Like Hayakawa, Sakuma is an alumnus of Wako University. While still a student, he began playing in folk groups. It was around 1975 when he joined the progressive rock group Yonin Bayashi (四人囃子) as its new bassist that he first attracted national attention. The band broke up a few years later, but Sakuma would be involved in a series of reunions that began in 1989 and have continued in the years since.

“Lady Violetta” by Yonin Bayashi, from their 1976 album, Golden Picnics:

From 1978-1981 Sakuma was a member of Plastics, a new wave band whose absurdist style and postmodern sound made them comrades to such Western contemporaries as the B-52s and Devo. Plastics enjoyed enormous critical success, both inside and outside of Japan. They toured regularly in North America and Europe, in addition to Japan, and appeared as musical guests on the SCTV program in North America. Trouser Press in its entry on the group describes them as ” A great, cool, original band that might just as well be from Mars.”

Plastics performing “Top Secret Man” live in Los Angeles, 1980

Sakuma’s career as a producer took off in earnest after the break up of Plastics. He also continued to be active as a performer and studio musician. In 1999, he became a member of NiNa, an international supergroup that brought together musicians from the B-52s (Kate Pierson), Judy and Mary (YUKI), the British new-wave band Japan (Mick Karn), Plastics (Sakuma and Shima Takemi), and acclaimed studio drummer Steven Wolf. The group released one album and several singles.

In 2001 Sakuma became a founding member of another international supergroup. The d.e.p. brought together Sakuma and Karn with Taiwanese vocalist Vivian Hsu 徐若瑄, Tsuchiya Masami (Ippu-Do), and Gota Yashiki (Simply Red). The name was an abbreviation of “doggie eels project.” As Sakuma would later explain,

“Dogs and eels are such a strange combination….The band is kind of like that. Putting Vivian (Hsu), Mick Karn, Gota (Yashiki) and all of us in a band together is such a strange combination.”

The band released one album and a couple of singles–and reformed briefly in 2010 to record new material in support of bandmate Karn after he announced that he was suffering from cancer.

Around 2004 Sakuma began collaborating with Hayakawa Yoshio, recording together and playing live–sometimes under the name Ces Chiens. In the decade since, they’ve continued to perform Hayakawa’s music, both from Hayakawa’s days as leader of the legendary 1960s underground folk-rock band the Jacks and from his subsequent solo career.

In 2008 Sakuma formed another band, unsuspected monogram. The unit includes members from a number of Japanese alternative rock bands and has so far released one album.

One other unique musical activity deserves mention. Beginning in 2010 Sakuma launched a remarkable series under the title “Goodnight to Followers.” For more than three years, every evening he would issue a new recording of an original composition to his followers on Twitter and Facebook. By the time he decided to slow down the pace of the project this past March, the series consisted of more than one thousand original pieces. The recordings from the series, mostly ambient acoustic numbers, are archived on Sakuma’s SoundCloud page. Here’s one typical piece from the project:

What a remarkable career! Sakuma truly is the Renaissance Man of J-Rock.

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