New Blues, Old Roots

Story by Matt Heidkamp - Photos by Andrew Rodriguez Video by Max Power

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In most cases, I tend to avoid musical acts that look like possible gimmicks. Extravagant outfits and unnecessary showmanship have always been a turn off to me. I always figured those people were trying to overcompensate for their lack of talent, hiding behind some mask, or overdone make up, or a giant luminous stage display. Any other day, I would have avoided a singer in a kimono, writing it off as a novelty, but, as I marched through Washington Square Park, I came to hear the soulful crooning of a Japanese songstress singing along to a hybrid fusion of jazz, progressive rock, and R&B. Suddenly, the kimono made sense.

Kimono Photo © Andrew Rodriguez

This was my first encounter with Neo Blues Maki, a five-piece group of Japanese transplants and native New Yorkers seeking to push the boundaries of modern musicianship. The kimono, worn by singer Kayo, was no gimmick, but rather a symbol of Japanese pride, and a way to balance the futuristic vision of the band’s musical genius with the strong ties to their home country. Enka, a form of Japanese soul music, is the backbone of the band’s sound, but far from the complete picture. With strange and intriguing song structures, an affinity for blues inspired solos, and a seriously emotive energy, NBM’s sound becomes a beast of its own.

Kayo Photo © Andrew Rodriguez

We joined the band in their cramped rehearsal space in Astoria, Queens to film them perform the classic Japanese enka song “Kita No Yado Kara”. Japanese symbols scattered against the purple wall as eight of us squeezed into the prison cell sized room. Kayo belted out lyrics in Japanese as Soshi, the band’s bassist and conductor, sat atop his amp, mouthing along the words and smiling in delight. Junya, looking like the Asian Steve McQueen our videographer noted, rifled away on the keyboard as David, the hooded guitarist, smoothly riffed through solos. Luci provided the heartbeat of the band, keeping the funk-filled rhythm with ease. Their rendition of the classic track was a step into another dimension, bridging the gap of traditionalist roots and multinational stadium rock. I’ve never witnessed a more appropriate kimono in NYC.

David Photo © Andrew Rodriguez

Soshi Photo © Andrew Rodriguez

Luci Photo © Andrew Rodriguez

Junya Photo © Andrew Rodriguez

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