Japan's 'Hot Salsa' Stirs the US

When an all-Japanese salsa band called Orquesta De La Luz (Orchestra of the Light) decided to tour the United States two years ago, with no released album, they had to pay their own way. But the Latino sound of these 12 Japanese musicians was such a hit that the group is now leading the salsa scene in America with their precise performance style and exotic image.

The group's first album, ``Salsa Caliente del Japon'' (``Hot Salsa from Japan''), was released last August by RMM Records and reached No. 1 on the Billboard salsa/tropical chart in November, staying there for ten consecutive weeks (vinyl - RMIL80420; compact disc - CD80420).

Back in 1989, ``We didn't know if we would be welcomed or just receive boos,'' says percussionist Carlos Kanno of the band, the first Japanese group to reach the top of this music chart. Sales of their album in the US - reaching nearly 200,000 - far surpass that in Japan, where Latino music has only a small but hard-core following. (The record is titled ``De La Luz'' in Japan and is released by the Japanese label BMG Victor Inc.)

Orquesta De La Luz excites American fans with its perfectionist approach to salsa, a fast-tempo music from Spanish Harlem that has its roots in Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms. Lead vocalist Nora (who goes by a one-word name) sings with a clear and deep exuberance, confident in belting out precise Spanish lyrics to lilting rhythms from congas, bongos, and timbales, and saucy sounds from trumpets, trombones, and piano.

But the group is still trying to define its originality. ``We play a very orthodox salsa,'' Mr. Kanno says.

``Technically, De La Luz has no problem,'' says Tadashi Hirai, editor of the Japanese music magazine, Latina. The band members' rhythm is solid and their Spanish pronunciation is correct. ``The issue is what's next,'' he says.

The members of Orquesta De La Luz believe the strength of their music lies in something uniquely Japanese, which they themselves don't recognize, but probably Latinos do. ``Latinos sense something exotic,'' Kanno says.

Salsa itself has recently reached a plateau of popularity in the US, resulting in salsa buffs who gladly welcome the novelty of a Japanese band.

In the album's title song, the group sings in Spanish, ``It's not important where you are from if you have rhythm and heart.'' Lyrics from another track make a similar point: ``Though I am Japanese, I have the blood to enjoy this rich music.''

Most members of the band were exposed to salsa as teenagers during the 1970s, when the salsa boom hit the US and came to Japan.

``Young Japanese grew up with Western music,'' says Nora, who felt more familiar with salsa than with the often teary-eyed romantic Japanese ballad called enka. The band members have never used such traditional Japanese instruments as a shakuhachi flute or a wadaiko drum.

Nora describes salsa as a fusion of jazz with the folk music of Hispanics and Africans. ``Because so many elements are blended in salsa, we thought the Japanese can do it also,'' she says. ``The passion and melancholy in the music make Japanese feel sentimental.''

But at salsa concerts in Japan, ``The audience just faces the stage, each one alone in their listening,'' says Kanno. In the US, ``people come to our concerts to dance, definitely in pairs.''

Kanno doubts if the Japanese will ever use or enjoy their traditional music in the same way that Latinos do theirs, passed down from generation to generation.

``Many people in Japan do things only to look trendy, not to enjoy themselves,'' says Kanno. Latinos have less money but do have an eye to select what provides real enjoyment, he says. ``With lots of money, Japanese have tried everything, but they seem to be unable to find anything fun.'' Orquesta De La Luz wants to bring real enjoyment of salsa to the Japanese, he says.

``The group is trying to convey that Latin music is fun to dance and listen to,'' editor Hirai says. Cold and inhuman relations created by Japan's rigid school system make people yearn for the warm-heartedness of the Latinos and their music, he explains.

Last September, the band toured the US a second time, including a performance at the 15th Festival De Salsa in New York. Some band members worry that their success comes more from the novelty of being Japanese than from being good salsa artists. That was partly confirmed when they first saw the cover of ``Hot Salsa from Japan'': an Oriental man wearing a white loincloth and beating a large Chinese-style brass gong.

``I thought this must be a mistake,'' says Kanno. But he concedes the cover's stereotyping does give the group a mysterious appeal.

The real test will come this spring when Orquesta De La Luz plans to tour Latin America. They also are working on a second album due out later this year. -30-{et

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