Last Saturday, five decades into his musical career, the legendary Haruomi Hosono played his solo work for the first time in the UK at the Barbican. As a founding member of folk rock band Happy End and pioneering synthpop group Yellow Magic Orchestra and composer of the song Watering a Flower, fans in the UK have never had the chance to see him perform his own music on their doorstep.
His musical influence has spanned exotica, movie/video game soundtracks, and ambient. The record label Light in the Attic rereleased some of his work alongside the Californian band Acetone and Inuvialuit musician Willie Thrasher, who both performed that night. Two more very special guests joined Haruomi Hosono on stage: fellow Yellow Magic Orchestra members Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi. The two ex-bandmembers made a cameo appearance for Hosono’s last song, Takahashi taking the drums and Sakamoto sharing the Korg with the keyboardist.
Listening to Haruomi Hosono’s most famous music, you’ll find lively, whacky disco that gets creative with its riffs and synthesizers. Between two songs, Hosono explained that he was born in 1947, just as Japan was becoming Americanised. That meant his first contact for music was “boogie boogie”, he said, before jamming into a soft tutti-frutti rhythm. I had seen the Square Enix Orchestra perform songs from the video games Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana in the same room a couple of years before. The contrast of seeing an orchestra fill the stage on one occasion and this time a band of five spotlighted musicians perform to a concert hall with two balcony levels was intriguing.
“He’s taking his lifelong career and turning it back into what he’s loved since he was a child. ”
With only a Korg synthesizer for electronics, the smooth rock concert he and his band performed was completely different to my expectations. Listening mainly to his album S-F-X and songs like ‘Sports Men’, I thought I was in for a high energy synth journey filling all balcony levels of the Barbican. Whilst a part of me was disappointed at the smoky-room blues, it grew on me the more he talked about why he was playing that music. As a friend of mine at the show said, he’s pioneered Japanese synthesizer music and tried his hand at all these new styles throughout his life. He’s done that. Now he’s taking his career and putting it back into what he’s loved since he was a child. When Hosono began a song by simply saying “Sports Men”, I suddenly realised that he’d been doing reworks from his lifelong music career. Whereas the original track, ‘Sports Men’, is a colourful, highly electronic piece that can’t help but make you feel a bit happier, Hosono played it for a calm, cool-suited bar with a double bass running steadily underneath. I also recognised the track ‘Body Snatchers’ from the S-F-X album, but only halfway through because the transformation was so distant from the original.
For the final song, Hosono strapped on a bass guitar and caused a wave of cheers when he welcomed Yukihiro Takahashi onto the stage for a surprise reunion. Another uproar from the crowd came when Ryuichi Sakamoto appeared unannounced halfway through the song. He and the keyboardist from Hosono’s band shared the Korg, Sakamoto taking the higher octaves. At other times he just held the keyboardist’s shoulders as he played, gently tapping his fingers on his back, no doubt imparting some of his insane musical soul into the young keyboardist. Only a few days before, Sakamoto had performed his own show at the Barbican alongside the experimental electronic musician Alva Noto. The surprise reunion of Yellow Magic Orchestra was definitely the crystalline icing on the cake.
The Barbican is proving to be a great place to find high calibre Japanese art of all kinds. With Ryoji Ikeda due to stop by there in September, the Square Enix Orchestra having passed through before and two of the most highly acclaimed Japanese musicians playing there just a few days apart, it’s a cultural hub to keep your eye on.