It’s a weekday evening and Lewes feels like it’s deserted. Though it may seem like a quiet and conservative setting, this small town continues to be a beacon for interesting events and outsider art. Tonight’s concert is no exception. The opening notes of Oki’s performance can be heard ever so quietly snaking and rolling down the empty streets pulling us in as we arrive.
Inside, the venue is as packed as we’ve ever seen it. Some audience members are stuck at the back in the bar trying to peer over the crowd. SOURCE goes low and squeezes to the front as the hypnotic groove of opener ‘Tukinahan Kamuy’, from the recent ‘Live At Café Oto’ album, transfixes the crowd.
Oki and his Dub Ainu collective have been performing and recording since the late 1990s. The Ainu are an indigenous minority from the northern islands of Japan and the Siberian end of Russia. Oki is half-Japanese and half-Ainu, and has embraced the musical heritage of his distant father.
Oki’s 2004 album ‘Dub Ainu’ was a seminal text in the art of global fusion. Centred around his mastery of the tonkori, a traditional Ainu stringed instrument, the album took all that’s good about folk music and mixed it with dub basslines. The songs have a unique sound somewhere in the realm of Massive Attack and trip hop without ever falling into the cloying naffness that the tag ‘global fusion’ can often conjure up (see Viz’s The Modern Parents). His music also provides the perfect soundtrack to one of the more esoteric moments from Twin Peaks.
Tonight, the band are resplendent in traditional costumes, worn over some pretty sick Vans trainers. Indeed, it feels like a family gathering. Oki is joined by his wife, Rumiko Kano, primarily on vocals, along with his son Manaw on drums. Oki’s long-term collaborator is here too: the truly incredible bassist Takashi Nakajo. His thunderous deep grooves underpin some of the best moments of this performance.
The show, which doesn’t feature any support acts, is split in two to give the band a break. It benefits from the obvious closeness of the family, whilst offering some lessons in the history and traditions of the Ainu people, including some joyous vocal upopo work songs which involve getting lost in repeated vocal lines and harmonies sung in a round like ‘Frère Jacques’.
In the second half we get some excellent playing of a bamboo version of the Jew’s harp. There are also several moments of good-natured audience participation, despite the fact that most of the crowd are struggling with a foreign tongue that has few reference points for those with western ears.
The show is brought to a close with a post-punk dub-stomping frenzy, worthy of PiL, before a jubilant Oki is called back to the stage by a crowd that wants more. He plays three solo songs as an encore: just him, his engaging personality and his beautiful tonkori playing.
When we leave the band are mingling with the audience, obviously delighted to be chatting and sharing the love of music with members of this diverse crowd.
Lewes Con Club, Wednesday 23rd August 2023