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Tom Smith on a Canadian-Japanese pop outfit

The CEO of one of Japan’s most prominent music publishing companies once told me a secret. A secret which he thought was the biggest mistake his country’s music industry has ever made. Surprisingly it had nothing to do with piracy, the transition to digital formats, or the downsizing of music retail – the things often listed as contributing to loss of revenue here.

“Japanese music is Japanese. That’s the problem!” he said from across a desk, taking a swig of bottled green tea as he said it. While that may not be the biggest secret in the world, he went on to state his reasoning. Japanese pop is made for one specific country, Japan, where it’s created to fit with their industry’s model, which didn’t allow space for activities abroad for its most successful artists. He then went on to list a number of countries whose artists were big across the world. “And do you know what else? Every single one of them is fluent in English, even if it’s not their first language – Japanese artists are terrible at speaking another language, generally.”

He has a point. Sure, there are some artists that are fluent in English, but many more that are not. Enter MONKEY MAJIK; a band equal parts Japanese as Canadian – and the English-speaking kind of Canadian at that. Are they the saviour of the Japanese music industry? Maybe not, but they are certainly in a position to take things in a new direction.

The hybrid group first shot to fame in Japan in 2006 when their second major-label single Around The World became the opening theme to TV drama Saiyuuki, an updated version of the famous Chinese tale Journey to the West. A fitting introduction for the band, considering the story is widely known as Monkey in English. Magic.

Around The World was a catchy blend of pop-meets-funk, with influences from hip-hop and rap thrown in, and a chorus incorporating lines in English and Japanese. It caught the attention of Japan’s urban music community, and by their next album the group was collaborating with some of the country’s biggest names in the scene, including VERBAL (m-flo, Teriyaki Boyz) and SEAMO.

More recently MONKEY MAJIK have managed to go international, including becoming ‘Goodwill Ambassadors’ for the 80th anniversary of Japanese-Canadian relations, as well as teaming up with America’s will.i.am while doing charity work in Sendai following the 2011 Touhoku earthquake and tsunami.

Despite these links, they have yet to fully penetrate overseas, but they have released their discography worldwide on iTunes, which is a start many other Japanese artists have yet to do. Though, like the CEO said, allocating time to tour abroad properly is important at establishing music outside of its home country, and they’ve yet to do that. Instead, they have done the next best thing; anime music. The series Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan features their single Fast Forward as the opening to Season 1 Part 1, and Sunshine for Part 2 as well as a ‘best of’ album with just English-language songs; English Best. Both parts have recently hit the UK on DVD for the first time; let’s see if it can help music from Japan grow that little bit further afield.

MONKEY MAJIK provide the opening themes for Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan Season 1 Part 1 as well as Part 2, out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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