A crusader is someone who strives to achieve something because of their strong beliefs. Japanese ensemble Minyo Crusaders is very clear about what to stand for: minyo (min’yō), a traditional folk music from their homeland that has been lost over time. Their mission – or rather their “crusade” – is to rescue those old popular songs that were originally sung by fishermen, coal miners and sumo wrestlers hundred of years ago. And they do it by going on a real music crusade, a sound expedition, a journey through the rhythms of the world, with the aim of recovering something almost forgotten.
From cumbia to reggae, from bolero to boogaloo, from Afrobeat to Ethio-jazz. Caribbean, Latin and African music. Different grooves and cadences from around the planet allow Minyo Crusaders to rework traditional Japanese songs. So by blending minyo with these globally spread genres, the ten-piece band breathes new life into this ancient folk music that has mostly disappeared from everyday consciousness in 21st-century Japan.
“We play minyo, old Japanese music… Work songs, festival songs, hometown songs… Minyo is dead in Japan but we’re trying to revive it here. Bring minyo back!”, exclaims guitarist and founding member Katsumi Tanaka during the band’s 2021 home-based performance for NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concerts series. Minyo Crusaders was formed in Tokyo in the mid-2010s, following Tanaka’s meeting with singer Freddie Tsukamoto, both excited by the idea of returning minyo a bit to what it was: “songs for the people.”
“Minyo used to be music for the common people; popular music, but it doesn’t work like that anymore. It’s regarded as forgotten, out-of-date music. By comparison, reggae, cumbia, and ska are very well accepted,” Katsumi explained in an interview for Bandcamp, regarding the re-release of their debut album Echoes of Japan in 2019. There he argues that minyo could recover its own charm by combining with these other types of music. “As a traditional performing art, minyo is considered highbrow, yet these are mainly songs for working, dancing or drinking – we want to return them to that literal meaning.”
Originally released in 2017 on local label P-Vine, Echos of Japan was reissued globally two years later on Mais Um. The vibe and flavor of cumbia prevail from the beginning with “Kushimoto Bushi”, also chosen as the album’s first single. But then the groove can organically redirect itself towards African highlife and funk, drawing from minyo songs about the returning spirits of ancestors (“Hohai Bushi”) or about Japan’s smallest bird (“Toichin Bushi”). There’s also an old and funny story about a bride’s undying love for her husband’s pockmarked face played over a catchy reggae and dub beat (“Otemoyan”).
“For Japanese people, minyo is both the closest and most distant folk music,” Katsumi states in the album’s press release. “We may not feel it in our daily, urban lives, yet the melodies, the style of singing and the rhythm of the taiko drums are engrained in our DNA.” The spirit of the Minyo Crusaders invites you to dance, celebrate and drink to relax after a work day. In this way, they seek to return “highbrow” minyo to its “lowlife” roots.
In 2019, the ensemble traveled from Tokyo to Bogotá to soak up Colombian cumbia. They were invited by musician and producer Mario Galeano Toro to perform at a local festival and record with one of his projects, Frente Cumbiero (the other two are Ondatrópica and Los Pirañas). “I was really amazed how well they put together these ancient songs from Japan with Caribbean rhythms,” says Mario, who met Minyo Crusaders in 2018 at the Fuji Rock Festival. “You can really tell the high sensibility they have for being able to hear what are the meeting points between different vocal traditions, African, Latin American styles: they were fearless in trying to take this forward. It was also great to find tropical souls in Japan and see how much we have in common musically.”
The result of this meeting between the Japanese and Colombian bands is the acclaimed 2020 EP Minyo Cumbiero. “Putting this record together with Frente Cumbiero was very exciting. We recorded over two days: the first day we ate, the second day we recorded. It was a really nice atmosphere – a true cultural fusion. Now we’re family,” said Katsumi. “It was one of the best recording sessions we’ve had. Everyone was so happy and uplifted. The mics captured not just the sound, but the vibes of the people and the energy. This is why when you listen to these tracks, you feel that positivity and power,” added Mario.
Minyo Crusader’s most recent release is a live album: Live at Le Guess Who?(2021).It’s a treasured recording of their breakthrough performance at Le Guess Who? festival in Utrecht, The Netherlands, during their first European tour in November 2019. To date, the band’s lineup includes Freddie Tsukamoto (vocals), Meg (vocals), Katsumi Tanaka (guitar), Shoji Ishiguro (bass), Moe (keyboards), Sono (timbales), Irochi (congas), Mutsumi ‘Muupy’ Kobayashi (bongos), Kazuki Hashimoto (trumpet) and Koichiro Osawa (sax).