Born and grew up as a zainichi Korean (Permanent ethnic Korean resident of Japan), and got awakened to music by British punk and matsuri (Japanese traditional festival) tunes. TURTLE ISLAND was born to perform live concert to get his own DNA to dance.
Interview by Takashi Kikuchi / Photo by Yusuke Kitamura
Translated by Tomoe Watanabe
Things you find at a bottom of your heart.
-- TURTLE ISLAND is inspired by music from a variety of countries and indigenous instruments including Japanese drum and woodwind instrument. And a key member is Yoshiki Nagayama, the main vocalist. Please tell us your story:
Yoshiki: My grandfather moved to Japan from the Korean peninsula, then, moved around Japan until my dad was born, and they moved to Toyoda when I was born. Our meals and seasonal events are just like how people celebrate in Korea. Family-gathering events like memorial services or birthday parties for hal-abeoji - `grandfather` in Korean, traditional dishes like kimchi and Jeon are always on the table, and we start singing and dancing in rhythm to handclapping when everybody gets drunk. Apart from this, I went to Japanese school and grew within Japanese culture, so I have had with the best of both cultures as well as staying objective towards them both. There was no local matsuri, Japanese traditional festival in Japanese, in my area, but I was so interested in it. I deeply love local folk songs I can hear in matsuri and their variety styles and I even joined a local performing art club to learn more about them when I was an elementary school student.
–– You had played in a punk band before you formed TURTLE ISLAND.
Yoshiki: I started it when I was a junior high student. I found THE BLUE HEARTS and other Japanese punk bands when I was a late elementary grade student, and I thought this is what I want. There were other six or seven punk bands in a same grade at school. My school was just like that.
–– Then, TURTLE ISLAND was formed in 1999.Yoshiki: We toured in Europe as a punk band. I felt something wrong when I played there. I got to be ashamed of my expressions. I had been influenced by British music, punk, and hardcore music and played just like them, and I played same in Europe, and found that I was not able to find myself in my own music. As soon as I went back to Japan, I resigned from the band and formed TURTLE ISLAND.
–– Was TURTLE ISLAND originally a large band with more than ten members?Yoshiki: We were only three members when we started, two for drums and me. The combination of percussionists and a singer is a primitive orchestration. We started with a poetry reading kind of style to express what we want to say, or we also sang sounds which are not yet called songs. As we continued, people found it interesting and joined us, so we ended having more than ten members in 2000.
–– What made you ashamed of yourself in England?
Yoshiki: What we played was just like what we just borrowed. It made me thought that I want my music to be made of what I have at the bottom of my heart, and that is how I can free myself from any category of music. Of course I love punk and leaned a lot from it include how I set myself mentally. And it was the time to mix every single sound coming from my roots like matsuri tunes and Korean styles to let our own DNA dance.
–– Your music is made of what you are made of. And that makes TURTLE ISLAND so original and special.
Yoshiki: Once you get rid of what you have been holding, you ended up being naked showing who you are. That is called the originality or the core part of one`s personality. It is like digging into yourself and asking why I need music to express myself. The experience in England made me think that it is the most important matter.
The meaning of performing around the world
–– You appeared on a stage at the Glastonbury Festival, a well-known and massive music festival in England. You play a lot overseas too.
Yoshiki: Our first live performance overseas was in The Basque Country in Spain, then Morocco, China, New York, and China again. We also toured five festivals in Europe including the Glastonbury Festival. To be honest, there was a hesitation to perform in foreign countries when we got our first offer.
––Is there any difference on how you get ready to perform between Eastern countries like China and Western countries like in Europe and The States? It may just not be cool to ask the question to TURTLE ISLAND, seeing the world separated into those two east and west areas?
Yoshiki: Playing in Europe and The States made me a bit nervous. We play and people listen, I understand the structure is always same, but Western culture is different from Eastern in a many ways such as cultures, values, and even just how people look. That is normal. I felt it was easier to share our values with Chinese people although we had a close communication with them before we got there. There is a Mongolian folk rock band called HANGGAI and we toured together in Japan in 2012. HANGGAI organizes a world music festival in Beijing. We were on a same stage in Tokyo, and I instantly thought I should go to China because they were such a cool band. At the HANGGAI festival, most Chinese bands were the same generation as us, and we actively contacted with them. There was a big and distinctive wall to get over at first. But we keep going, and they started to open up to us. We have now built a close relationship with HANGGAI and understand each other well.
–– That was 2012 that you organized your matsuri, a music festival called SOUL BEAT ASIA, whose Japanese name is Hashi-no-shita world music festival, in Toyoda.
Yoshiki: We originally practiced at hashi-no-shita, which means under the bridge in Japanese. And that was where we gathered all rhythm, beats, culture, art performing and rest of what written in our Asian DNA, activate cells along with it, and shake ourselves up.. just kidding. I just wanted matsuri to make every single pore on our skin happy, more than appealing just to our brain.
–– Did the Great East Japan Earthquake motivate you as well?
Yoshiki: After the earthquake, I went to support affected areas in Tohoku with members who could make it for about a year. It was, however, just too hard to continue voluntarily for us who even have difficulty to feed ourselves, and those areas are, simply, quite far. We decided to get back to basics which is that we should do what we can do, and that lead us to organize music festivals. I did not feel like joining demonstrations even in our local area although I thought that nuclear power plants are not needed any more. I thought I should rather do something I can speak to cells directly. I do not underestimate demonstrations, but I should build a space to share what we all learned and to develop a zest for learning and living through music, art, and indigenous culture with not only people with “high consciousness” but every single person. I should work at a root level.
–– Artists for SOUL BEAT ASIA are selected from all over Asia include HANGGAI.
Yoshiki: Because I am Zainichi Korean, how media and government act against us has been awful. Whatever the situation is among countries, it doesn’t have to be a matter among people, does not matter even if it’s China or Korea. Wherever it is, people just live. As we creatures are easily affected and get carried away with the mood of society, we become brainwashed by the information from government and media and make up those people as enemies, and it causes hatred at the end even if they both haven’t been to one-another, which is just ridiculous. Every society has both good and bad people. So, we just need to keep our own pace and get connected. Each one builds a relationship with another. It’s not about diplomatic relations or politics. Our politics have to be done on a daily basis at our own level. Getting to know each other helps you to get rid of negative images of China and Korea. Not being against a country or something else, bring an arrow pointing at ourselves and setting up spaces to make the world how I want it to be. SOUL BEAT ASIA is the festival to get rid of barriers in our way. People copy if it’s cool and makes yourself happy. I’ll make something cool without complicity. That is music, and where music gathers becomes a festival. That’s something we have common with the festival HANGGAI organizes. Getting connected to people who have same perspective, and to share it.
–– People need spaces to be connected with others.
Yoshiki: All we can do is to make friends one by one. I don’t like let’s-get-together-and-be-happy sort of things because there seems some lying behind. No one needs to fake yourself to join to “the one”, but it would be great if we end up being something huge while each one stays being as you are just like separate weeds in a field. That is normal that everyone has their own opinion.
–– So, music has a big role for that.
Yoshiki: It is huge. I don’t know anything more powerful than that. People dance. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Glastonbury festival, Chine, the Fuji Rock Festival, or SOUL BEAT ASIA, people just dance along with music. When people dance together, they feel happy and peaceful. I want it happens on a daily basis even outside of festivals.
Profile: Yoshiki Nagayama
Yoshiki Nagayama formed TURTLE ISLAND in 1999, at the end of 20 century. Their far east multitudinous gods sound is made of Japanese traditional festival music, groove getting from Japan and other Asian country, punk, rock, rage played by variety of indigenous instruments as well as Westerns like guitar, base, sax. They pursuit their own music to dance with their roots, souls, and DNA and cell level by mixing Asian indigenous music and improving their original perspective and expressions. They were on the main stage at Glastonbury Festival in June, 2014.