Heavenly voyages: The restless explorations of Haruomi Hosono

By in Features





Founding member of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Haruomi Hosono is one of electronic music’s great innovators and extroverts. With five of his most important solo albums set to be reissued for the first time outside Japan, experimental musician and author David Toop digs through his archive of interviews to piece together a picture of Hosono’s serpentine musical journey.

It’s October 2014, and I’m sitting in Haruomi Hosono’s Tokyo studio. Inevitably, given our respective ages and convoluted histories, we are talking about change. “I’ve just been traveling around the northeast of Japan for our music tour,” Hosono tells me. One of the places he played with his group was only an hour’s drive from Fukushima, the site of nuclear power plant meltdowns that followed the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011. “The amount of radiation is really high around there,” he says. “Things still haven’t changed. However, I’m strong now because I absorbed all that air.”

Joking aside, the ongoing effects of the disaster are clearly profound and emotionally disturbing. At the time he was composing new songs, but then decided to stop. The only music he associates with that terrible moment was the audio alarm signal triggered by an earthquake warning. By strange coincidence, the alarm was developed by a researcher into sound-based assistive technology named Tohru Ifukube, who just happens to be the nephew of Akira Ifukube, famed for his soundtracks to Godzilla films. “The sound is like charan charan,” says Hosono. “It’s an alarm not only from phones but also television whenever an earthquake strikes. I’m always reminded of that memory whenever I hear the warning. So I try to hear it occasionally, just so I’ll never forget.”

Ever since then he has focussed on cover versions, often of songs that he heard when he was a child, during the American post-war occupation of Japan, but also songs of relevance to a crisis carrying sinister echoes of the two atomic bombs that ended that war. He called it Heavenly Music for his album of 2013, an indication that songs such as Bacharach and David’s ‘Close To You’, Kraftwerk’s ‘Radio Activity’ and Ella Mae Morse’s ‘Cow Cow Boogie’ were both heavenly and deathly in their personal and political significance. The nostalgic implications are unavoidable, but nostalgia has always formed a troubling, seductive part of Hosono’s brilliant career.

For many people outside of Japan he will be known predominantly as a founding member and bassist of Yellow Magic Orchestra. The story is more complicated. In the late 1960s/early 1970s he played in bands such as Apryl Fool and Happy End, but the origins of YMO lie in Haruomi Hosono’s solo album, Paraiso. Recorded in late 1977-early 1978, it continued the trajectory of Hosono albums like Tropical Dandy (1975) and Bon Voyage Co. (1976).

Pictured on the covers as captain of an ocean liner – a pensive playboy and flâneur, a dandified island-hopper who might have stepped out of a Joseph Conrad or Robert Louis Stevenson story – Harry ‘The Crown’ Hosono (as he styled himself in those days) filtered a mélange of American and tropical influences through a form of reverse Japonisme: Okinawan folk music, calypso and reggae, nostalgic echoes of big band swing, Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Hong Kong Blues’, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman, a touch of Sly Stone, the New Orleans R&B of Allen Toussaint, Frankie Ford and Dr. John, western boogie, Little Feat, singer-songwriter James Taylor, the bittersweet Hollywoodland exoticisms of Van Dyke Parks’s Song Cycle and Discover America, not to mention memories of Japanese acts like The Peanuts, Shizoku Kasagi and Club Nisei Orchestra. Dripping with tropical languor, popping with lovehearts and fond farewells, the songs conjured the image of a wanderer, gambling, romancing and singing his way through Louisiana and California, Trinidad, Hawaii, Okinawa, and Bali – all the ports of pleasure.

Paraiso was a little bit different, this time credited to Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band, with cover artwork that suggested a more mystical and expansive interpretation of the voyager and his journeys. One image of hot sun shows the traveller moving away from physical pleasures, the other is a glowing psychedelic night of gods and rituals. “I practiced what Brecht mentioned, ‘See as through the eyes of a stranger’,” Hosono told me in 1999. Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto both played on a number of Paraiso tracks, and so the creativity of these three highly talented individuals found a focus at exactly the moment when musical change and technological development converged.

Hosono describes a certain tendency in his musical tastes to being drawn to boundaries, inevitable for a generation shaped by the cultural schism that followed Japan’s defeat in 1945. “It was for me the place where different things collide,” he says, “like on a shoreline, which in literature is sometimes discussed as a universal kind of ideology, but in music it is simply the phenomenon of music itself, and I feel that just as some animal life begins on the shore, jazz and rock music also came to be.”

From this acute boundary sensibility came the potential to rise above pastiche. In his early work, Hosono sang with a melancholic depth of feeling that communicates beyond verbal language. At their heart these songs burned with a sense of yearning for a hybrid future, a nostalgia for lost ideals. These seemingly contradictory impulses came to define his work since the 1980s, whether the glitchy android romance of Sketch Show, the weirdly disembodied Watering a Flower (ambient music for Muji shops), or the fragile optimism permeating Heavenly Music, ultimately a poignant interrogation of how a creative individual can respond to collective catastrophe.

“I hate to divide the world, East and West,” Ryuichi Sakamoto once told me. “Where is the edge?” A desire to erase atavistic nationalisms runs through all this music. Retrospectively, we can understand it as not so much as hopeless idealism, but as a form of science fiction, an anticipation of what was to come (the dangerously nativist, fractious and polarised world in which we now live), and how we might prevent it if human beings could only learn something about coexistence.

In a 1987 conversation between Hosono and Katsuya Kobayashi, Hosono explained that he had moved beyond the information overload. He had reached a stage in his life where the spiritual searching of earlier work like ‘Shambala Signal’ had become a priority. “I’m looking at music historically,” he said, “choosing the old songs that I like best and putting them down on tapes.” Although the stylistic differences over this lengthy, convoluted career path seem very wide – between Hosono’s reworking of ‘Caravan’, the jazz-fusion exotica of Pacific, or the arcade craziness of Video Game Music – there is a continuity of exploration that links them. This is a music full of humanity, frailty and spirit, made in collaboration with the best machines. In its scope it is a dynamic museum of the past that lives and changes in the present and looks ahead to the future.

Illustration by Bethany Porteous

In 2015, David Toop collaborated with Christian Marclay to release a live performance at White Cube Gallery with The Vinyl Factory.