Ill Japonia Live at the Leeds Irish Centre: Bo Ningen frontman moves to Rap.

All in all, this was another gig that was nominally a bit out of my comfort zone. My bud is a huge Black Midi fan, and ever up for a mid-week night of music and debauchery while my missus languished on a slow train home from Hull, I jumped at the chance of joining him at Leeds Irish Centre. To be fair, a bar crammed with John Smith’s Smooth or artificial flavoured Berry Bulmers is so totally not my idea of a debauched evening (in fact I check my alcoholism risk with bars with beer choices like this), but at least I was very happy with the sounds and the good company.

First up (and focus of this write up) was Taigen Kawabe, vocalist and bass player with Bo Ningen (a band I caught at a festival a few years back, with their blend of Japanese psychedelic Krout Rock). In his solo persona, Taigen performs as Ill Japonia, specialising in somewhat avant garde Japanese Rap and Hip Hop. I think Taigen is pleasantly surprised both with the positive reactions and with the way his music has developed into an interesting and valuable new direction. Taigen takes his influence from his own history, and from a generation of younger Japanese rap artists who have produced what I am told is “Soundcloud Rap” where rap is backed with lusher and more relaxed music.

It is certainly pleasing to see more people turn up for the supports these days (I don’t understand missing them; not least they are paid for!) and there was quite a throng there to catch Ill Japonia perform his opening solo set. A bellwether I always check is whether the place where I’m stood towards the front, is busier or quieter at the end than when it started. Ill Japona won that little test.

It took me just a little while to adjust to the confusing fusion of beat and noise being created. I’m used to a full band so a guy where most of the sound (including some of the disembodied backing vocals) comes from a speaker can be a bit disconcerting. However, I quickly got into the Ill Japonia vibe; there are heavy tinges of Rap mixed with a clearly Japanese heart. Lush music, hard and fast beats and almost monk like incantations, some soft some thrown into the audience as an anguished instruction, some in Japanese, some in English, some in neither, makes for a complicated head test.

While the mix of sound hits you, Taigen uses his slender form to kick up a storm onstage. With his striking long hair flailing, stripped to the waist after a while, Taigen produces such a whirlwind on stage; I almost imagined a perfectly formed raked bed of pebbles being created by his movements to suit a Japanese Garden. If this was an artist dancing and performing hard to make an impression….well, he soon made an impression.

The songs seemed to veer between Japanese and English and had great lyrics. I loved the sentiment of the tunes; one of the tracks made the point: who cares where you are from. It’s true; we are all people, ready and capable to amaze. Simple as.

By the end of the set it seemed the audience was completely at one with Taigen, and there was a small queue of people wanting to talk Japanese Rap with our man. I was one.

Chris R

Images from Taigen Kawabe social media.


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