I came across Asa-Chang & Junray on one of my favourite blogs – Momus’ Click Opera. The group seems to consist of three people: Asa-Chang, ex-hairdresser and make-up artist, ex-member of the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, and percussionist; guitarist and programmer Hidehiko Urayama; and tabla player U-Zhaan. They formed in 1998 and appear to be still going, although it’s difficult to say for sure: they have a MySpace page but it hasn’t been updated since February, and the link to the ‘band website‘ goes nowhere of the sort…
Here’s the video of their best known track, Hana, which dates from 2001:
The video is technically very simple, and yet remains enigmatic, elegiac, and mysterious. There’s a marvellous use of colour and an exquisite economy of means which serves to heighten the implied drama. The emotional impact of the relationship—apparently unravelling backwards in time—is counterpointed by the metronome ticking relentlessly across the bottom of the screen…
The music itself is based around a string sequence which sounds on first listening as though it’s a recording of a real strings: having listened to it more closely I’d say they used either a good orchestral sample library with some synth backdrops, or solo violins/violas dubbed over a synthetic backing. Either way, it changes subtly all the time and this organic quality means it doesn’t get boring despite playing the same chord sequence for over 6 minutes. Nicely done!
The vocal/tabla pairing is one of those things where you think “Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before?” Presumably the idea originated in the tabla bols, onomatopoeic oral patterns that tabla players use to learn specific rhythm/sound combinations. Whatever, it somehow creates the effect that there has been a fundamental shift in the internal organization of the music that leaves the cut up voices and tablas free to create explosive bursts of kinetic energy and meaning across the poignant ground of the strings.
All in all, then, absolutely superb. I then went looking for more and found Tuginepu To Ittemita (2003):
I love this video: it’s so simple and yet so effective. The use of colour is exquisite. I also found Senaka (2004):
Again, the economy of means is just mindblowing. The music and visuals are both soft, sensual, organic, flowing, and undemonstrative, and show up the vast majority of contemporary ‘pop videos’ as being boorish, moronic, brutish, crass, dumb, and about as sexy as a blow-up doll.
I think what particularly impresses me about Asa-Chang & Junray is that they seem to have some kind of overall vision, and that everything they do adheres to that vision. The word ‘compromise’ doesn’t seem to be in their vocabulary.
At Post Everything I had a good listen to most of stuff off their two albums, and to be fair those featured here represent their best work. Nonetheless, these three tracks and their videos resonate with me emotionally in a way that no other new music has done for… I dunno, years and years.
They seem to be able to effortlessly synthesize whole worlds of opposing musical force: the organic and technological, the modern and ancient, the tonal and dissonant, the rhythmic and the floating. They are somehow able to integrate classical Japanese and classical Indian musics with Western pop, bebop, Stockhausen, and laptop glitch electronica in a completely natural and seamless manner. Their music is fabulous, exotic, and avante-garde, but remains totally satisfying emotionally. No mean achievement.
And no, I don’t have any idea what the songs are ‘about’.