Our Daily Bread 463: Makoto Kubota & The Sunset Gang ‘Hawaii Champroo’

August 20, 2021

REISSUE ALBUM FEATURE/Dominic Valvona

Makoto Kubota & The Sunset Gang ft. Haruomi Hosono ‘Hawaii Champroo’
(We Want Sounds)  27th August 2021

I’ve never read Julian Cope’s obsessive Japrocksampler but feel there’s a special place in the archdruid of head music’s heart for the all rounder Makoto Kubota. There’s almost certainly room for the infamous Les Rallizes Dénudés in that tome; the rambunctious hardliners that Kuboto managed to uncouple himself from in the early 70s. Devoid of official releases – their entire output more or less unofficially released as bootlegs – the Rallizes (a French corruption that translates as ‘naked suitcases’ in case you were wondering) reigned supreme as the most cultish of cult Japanese experiments. Frontman Takashi Mizutani and bassist Moriaki Wakabayashi were tangled up in the messy Japanese Red Army fringe of haphazard terror cells. The latter found himself marooned in North Korea for his troubles, after naively taking part in the hijacking of Japan Airlines flight 351: the idea being to defect and land behind the iron curtain with a cargo of hostages and leverage. Unfortunately this idealist oasis proved nothing but a regretful nightmare for the one-time bassist, who wished to return home: willing to even serve prison time if it got him home.

But I digress. For this review type feature is dedicated to that cult’s former band member, the free-roaming Kubota, who left his native homeland to soak up the musical heritage of Uncle Sam. The music backpacker was especially enamoured with good ol’ barreled salon piano ragtime and the quivery tropical, bendy swoon and charms of Hawaii. Perhaps as an escape from all the heavy shit back home, the flirtations many of his comrades had with red army like fractions, Kubota turned away from the confrontational, reverting back to the roots of a more subdued form of American and Japanese folk music.

Released originally in 1975 with his Sunset Gang ensemble, Hawaii Champroo makes clear the producer-musician’s fusion tastes: A blend of two Pacific oceanic islands, Hawaii and Okinawa. (The “champroo” of that title actually derives from the traditional Okinawan stir-fry dish, the “chanpurũ”.) A delectable, even fun serving of those two island’s folk roots, the middle album in a trio of iconic Kubota 70s albums, Hawaii Champroo also soaks up the great American revival by a boomer generation of previously psychedelic, acid and garage playing bands. That translates as plenty of waned country; deep southern boogie and bluesy rock ‘n’ roll for your buck.

Why are we talking about this relatively obscure record now? Well the fine people over at WEWANTSOUNDS have picked up not only this album but also Kubota & The Sunset Gang’s eponymous debut from ’73 and the Dixie Fever album from ‘77. All three get the remastering varnish, with Hawaii Champroo the first to roll off the vinyl presses this month; released we’re told for the very first time outside Japan.

It doesn’t get much more salivating and cultish than this, with one of Japan’s most influential innovators, leader of the legendary electronic pop group, the Yellow Magic Orchestra (pen pals of Kraftwerk), Haruomi Hosono, producing and sitting in on drums. The actual Sunset troupe included Takashi Onzo on bass, Yosuke Fujita on guitars and mandolin, Keni Inoue on lead and Hiroki Komazawa on lush pedal steel, with an extended guest spot from Teriyuki Kokubu on lively salon bar jangling piano. All names I’m sure any aficionado and head music obsessive will know very well indeed.

Imbued in the Hawaiian spirit, and the hula-limbering breeze, Kubota recorded this album at Herbert Ono’s famed Sounds Of Hawaii studio in Honolulu, with Hosono producing – and you can tell; a companion piece to the legend’s own Tropical Dandy and Bon Voyage Co. albums, which Kubota, in returning the favour, even played on. 

At the forefront of a tropical movement, the lilting island sound permeates an album made up by both interrupted covers and original dreamy mirage like country-blues and ragtime. Those covers prove surprising choices, with a Mike Nesmith stands around with Al Jardine at the piano in a Mississippi salon version of The Texas Playboy’s ‘Steel Guitar Rag’; a Fats Domino meets Elvis yodeled take on Gus Cannon’s – via The Rooftop Singers – ragtime classic, ‘Walk Right In’; a Rolling Stones leaning reggae like chopsticks vision of Jesse Fuller’s ‘San Francisco Blues’; and a sweetly incipient drifted version of, fellow compatriot, Shoukichi Kina’s instant ’72 classic, ‘Hai Sai Ozisan’.

Kubota and his troupe’s original songbook selections sail and sway to a backing of peaceable coconut rock ‘n’ roll with touches of Dr. John at his most laidback, George Harrison guitar bends, a bit of enervated Savoy Brown and trace of Country Joe. Moonlight beachside serenades sit comfortably with grass-skirted limbering and lush faux-reggae in Kubota’s paradise.

Whilst Glam had all but reached its nadir, and the era of the singer-songwriter was in full flight, and with punk not quite on the threshold, Kubota turned to the timeless to lead a tropical new wave in the 70s. Hawaii Champroo is a lush, harmonious testament of that move: a far cry from those formative years in the infamous Les Rallizes Dénudés. Go ahead; soak it up, as this is a most lovely, soothing and dreamy album. And don’t worry, there’s two more albums form this creative period to come.

FYI: Hawaii Champroo is first out the blocks in this reissue series, with the eponymous debut Sunset Gang LP (originally released in ’73) set to be released next month, and Dixie Fever to follow (originally released in ’77) in October.

One Response to “Our Daily Bread 463: Makoto Kubota & The Sunset Gang ‘Hawaii Champroo’”

  1. […] Over at Monolith Cocktail > Our Daily Bread 463: Makoto Kubota & The Sunset Gang ‘Hawaii Champroo’ […]

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