Robert Soko: It was Tokyo, November 2015, and the crowd was going mad like only the Japanese knew how. People from Japan – those who were coming to our parties in Europe – I had found very lively and very grateful. They loved Balkan music, though you had the sense they didn’t quite know what it was all about. They mostly focused on the rhythm and they loved going crazy. They also had weird way of dealing with you as a DJ-slash-star, seeing in you a little idol; signing a CD for them was a special moment.
I was always super happy to be in Japan. The people were very friendly. Yes, it wasn’t easy communicating with them, because not a lot of them spoke English (or any other language, for that matter). So one spent quite a bit of time monkeying around with language, which could be a little tiring after a while. Sex, by the way, was very hard to get with Japanese girls.
I had driven from Fukoshima up north. It was almost surreal for me, to drive on the Japanese highway. And it was fun. You saw monkeys on the road. It was crazy. Monkeys!
At the club earlier, I had been struck by a guy sitting at the bar, looking at me and weeping his eyes out. Turning to my Japanese DJ colleague, I asked, “What’s going on here, Chiku?”
“It’s because of you,” Chiku said. “He is overjoyed to see you!”
Talking to this devoted Japanese fan, it turned out he had all my compilation CDs, and saw me – just a normal, average kind of drunkard – as a kind of a god, speaking to me in English in that special way Japanese had of breaking your balls.
“Sokotan! Sokotan!” He kept shouting at me. “So happy to meet you! Love you! Love you!”
But it would get weirder.
As the party kicked off, bizarre footage of Hitler, Mussolini and jack-booted fascists was being projected on the wall behind me.
“What did this have to do with Balkan music?” I had to ask myself. It was just another illustration for me of how weird the Japanese actually perceived us Europeans and history in general.
Nor was that the only bizarre detail.
Meanwhile a half-naked Japanese girl, who had introduced herself as a porn-movie director, was hovering over me telling me in broken English how much she liked Balkan music, while I was squirming around this way and that because I just had my ass chemically washed by a special hygienic Japanese wonder-toilet. I was grooving around by way of scratching my ass, when suddenly Chiku climbed center stage, turned his back on the crowd, lowered his trousers to his knees and mooned the audience, spreading it wide. The crowd freaked out, cheering wildly. Was I missing something here? It didn’t matter. Fuck it. Welcome to Japan!
Chiku Yutaka: Ha-ha-ha. What can I say? I was drunk. And, it was part of the Japanese performance. Japanese are generally more shy and introverted. I guess I’m not. In Europe the audience excitement is really obvious. The mood is different overall. Japanese are more quiet. No sex? Sometimes. Ha-ha-ha.
I used to DJ punk and country music twenty years ago. And after that I started getting into Irish music and accordion music, violins. Gypsy music is using those instruments. So, then I started liking that kind of music. Then I watched the Kusturica movies and the movie about Fanfare Ciocarlia. That was around eighteen years ago. I started getting into Goran Bregović. “Gas, Gas, Gas”, “Kalashnikov”, “Mesečina“. I also like his collaboration with Rachid Taha.
Gogol Bordello! When I started listening to them I realized the connection between punk and Gypsy. When Gogol Bordello came to Japan, that was the moment that the scene really started. They came twice. Do you know Flogging Molly? They are an Irish punk band. They came with Gogol Bordello and played together in a music festival. Irish music was already established in Japan. And the fans of Irish music came to the same festival and they started liking Gypsy music as well. Alcohol helped me to discover this music. Especially tequila. People who went to our parties they drank, they didn’t really take drugs. Not in Japan. Not really drugs. But tequila is okay. Or saki.
At the time that I met Soko ten years ago, that’s the time that Balkan music started to spread in Japan. Robert Soko is the “Godfather of Balkan Beats”. He is the greatest! I would say he is a guy who likes Japan a lot. I found out about him through his compilation CDs. Balkan Beats CDs. Especially volume one. I knew some of the artists on it. I bought it. His name was on it. And I got really interested. Deladap, Magnifico, struck a chord with me.
Robert Soko: Magnifico! “Hir Ai Kam Hir Aj Go“. It was a big hit in Japan! It was used at some point as a football stadium anthem. Chiku made some money with this as well, if I am not mistaken.
Chiku Yutaka: Well, it took four years for me to establish my own style. I started putting on events and inviting my friends. Mostly the parties were in Osaka. More people were interested in Balkan music in Osaka than in Tokyo. The parties took place two or three times a month. Maybe a couple hundred people showed up for each party. It was mostly younger people, but a lot of people in their thirties. There were a lot of stylish people who were luxury blond. Luxury blond? You know, fashionable Japanese. There were a lot of people who worked in the fashion industry at our parties.
Robert Soko: Because it seems to be that the Balkan music and the Balkan fad seems to be something exotic, very special. Just a small group of Japanese people would follow the trend. It is more like a fashion rather than a broadly accepted cultural phenomenon. And then there was the time Chiku got naked on the stage and showed his ass to the people. I loved it, because to me it was not very Japanese. It was rather, Balkanese. Why did he do this? Why did he show his ass to the dancing crowd? I always wanted to know.
Cyril Coppini: The fashion industry people that would come to Chiku’s parties, most of them were friends with Chiku. They shared his style of dress. The thing is that he was able to sell to them the idea that Balkan Beats was cool, that Balkan Beats was fashionable: If you are in the fashion industry, then you really have to come and check it out, man!
Chiku Yutaka: There were also a lot of people into belly-dancing coming to our parties. Students who were going to belly-dance school. I performed at a belly-dance festival this summer in Yoyogi park, a big park in Tokyo. What’s the connection between belly-dancing and Balkan music? There’s a definite connection. But the people who like this stuff are a distinct minority in Japan, and there is not much information available on this subject. So that’s why they came to my parties. They were curious. There were a couple of Japanese bands playing Balkan music. For instance, Pyramidos. Mostly they do cover music.
Rodehihi (from Japanese Balkan cover band Pyramidos): Robert Soko played with Pyramidos one night in Tokyo. I would say a couple hundred people showed up and they were like maniacs. Ska, reggae, World Music makes people happy in Japan. And the kind of people who like this kind of music, know Balkan music.
We started getting into Balkan music around ten years ago. We started to play belly-dance music and Egyptian music, Arabic music and got into Balkan music through this. We were curious about many countries’ music, not just Egyptian. We were also influenced by the movies of Emir Kusturica and Goran Bregovic. We also have interesting costumes, copies of Turkish costumes from the sixties, made by one of the bandmembers’ mother. Sometimes we wear pyramids on our heads. We called ourselves Pyramidos because we liked to play Egyptian music.
And then we started to put out videos on Youtube, which opened up a very big avenue for us. And people from many different countries reacted to our Youtube videos. And so we started to play more songs. North Macedonian songs. The reaction was big. Next, we started to play Greek songs, Bulgarian songs and Serbian songs. The response on Youtube was huge.
People in the Balkans were so surprised. They would tell us, “My grandmother sang this song.” We were on North Macedonian radio. Also we were on TV in Greece.
We like “Niška Banja”, for sure. But actually, we don’t know what the lyrics mean. We were just curious, and, by the way, got a lot of good feedback from Serbia. But we also like “Bubamara”, “Mesecina”, “Mastika”, “Chaj Shukarija” ,Opa-nina-ni-a-niya: that one. So many songs.
I guess we like the irregular time signatures and quarter tones. Balkan music is a little bit difficult to play. And so it is very interesting for us. I don’t even listen to English music anymore.
We play in very small places. Pubs. And at festivals. In Greece we play for audiences of one thousand, five hundred people. We played in Greece three times, and also in North Macedonia and the response was huge. But in Japan maybe thirty people come to our shows. Ha-ha. A small but quality audience to be sure. And, I might add, we also played at the Serbian embassy in Japan.
What do we think of Gypsies? One of our band members had his wallet stolen by Gypsies in Greece. Gypsy lifestyle is different from Japanese lifestyle. Living for the moment and not worrying what the next day will bring is not very Japanese. But many in Japan are ambitious about Egyptian lifestyle.
Cyril Coppini: So, first let me introduce myself. I was born in Nice 49 years ago in the south of France. And I learned Japanese, actually, when I was in high school, twenty five years ago, which was pretty weird in a provincial city of France to learn Japanese in at a high school level. My mind opened to Japanese culture and Japanese language. After the baccalaureate, I went to Paris to learn Japanese in a very specific university where they teach Oriental languages. And during this time I got a fellowship from the Japanese government to come and study in Japan for one year. And at the time I wanted to be a Japanese teacher in the future. When I had this fellowship and I came to Japan, I partied for one year in karaoke bars and restaurants. And I had only one thing in mind, which was to go back as soon as possible to Japan.
In 2007 I started to discover and be in touch with people like Caravane Passe, DJ Click, Stani Vana, the guy from Deladap. And I started to play more and more music from the East in a very global way.
Robert Soko: Eventually Coppini dragged me into his orbit. And when he says 2007, I would say that was the time when the Eastern, South-Eastern music started to take off, to get a shape.
Cyril Coppini: There was a famous promotor called Plankton, who was trying to have Shantel come to Japan. They were doing Fanfare Ciocarlia. These kinds of things. It was not a big buzz as it was in Europe. But it was a little au current . So I did some research and I became very familiar with Caravane Passe, and they introduced me to Gypsy Soundsystem in Switzerland, and DJ Click and all this kind of network, and Tagada. And one day I came across “Balkan Beats Paris”, and I was like, woa, what is that? And doing some research I found out that Balkan Beats was not coming from Paris, but from Berlin, and there is another guy behind that, and this guy is called Robert Soko. And I was like, woa, who is this guy? And I searched and searched and searched, and we met finally in 2011, I guess. And between 2007 and lets say 2010 I was very busy with work at the French Institute. At the same time I was getting more and more into this Gypsy, East, global music thing and mixing this with the beats of the clubs. And I thought that the Balkan Beats concept was really, really interesting. And that’s how we came to see about how to develop it here in Japan under the name of Balkan Beats Tokyo.
To be honest, I’m not sure the Japanese really enjoy the music. If you can make it as a brand, and it’s cool, it’s vibe, it’s hype, they will get into that. Of course, you have people who are listening to the music and love this music. But, I had a chance to DJ with Robert in Berlin and I was always very surprised by the number of people coming to the parties after a decade of war and a decade of parties. Every month there were like a thousand people going completely crazy in the house. Here in Japan before Robert was coming we had to build the scene, right? You couldn’t have Robert come and play in front of ten people. Especially because he is “the Godfather of Balkan Beats” and all. And we had to create this story also. And at the peak, at the good times it was like when we had two hundred people, we were drinking champagne and we were like, “woa, tonight it’s packed!” But if you have two hundred people then it’s not hype at all, when you see how it goes in other countries, especially in Europe. And when you think of the population of Tokyo. I mean, two hundred people, it’s peanuts, right? It is very difficult, not only to entertain, but to educate. I think education is something very important. Because it’s not like in Berlin or Paris, where since we were kids, or Robert, since he was in Bosnia, he was listening already to all this music.
OMFO: Quite often I play in clubs in Tokyo. In fact, my second family is Japanese – my daughter is half Japanese, half me. And I am also here visiting the mother of my daughter’s relative, staying in their house. So I am always coming to Tokyo, and I have no problem arranging a couple of gigs, like Dj-ing gigs, but now I also do the concerts. You know, Japanese people are quite unique to me. There are all sorts of genres here you can encounter. And again, I don’t go to big parties. I am not in this mood, and probably not in this age, and not at this intellectual state. Everything that you can find in the West you can find here, in hyper form. The Japanese mind somehow transforms all those trends to its own somehow. And I know some people here who master some traditional Oriental instruments like kanun, oud, and the belly-dance is very popular. There are a lot of people involved with the belly-dance. It’s been popular for many years by the way. But it’s very strange now how the Oriental music is coming into the non-Oriental scene. And yet there is a huge conflict with the Orient and Occident. It’s also funny just to see what it will bring to the mind of people.
But Japan is a quite unique place. I remember playing Jewish music – I’ve been confronted with records from Japan – it was, like, early nineties when there were klezmer bands from Tokyo playing klezmer music quite superb. There are Latin groups. If they put their mind to it, the Japanese master it to the highest level.
Robert Soko: As a DJ you see your crowd, you feel it, and to some extent you read it as a book. And reading the Japanese book, the Japanese crowd, I’ve noticed that they are a little bit dishonest, they are goofing around a little bit. I mean, they all jump; it’s all good. But somehow I don’t have them on the frequency I have other crowds in Europe.
Cyril Coppini: So we tried to create a Robert Soko story and the big quote was “the Godfather of Balkan Beats”. And what is Balkan Beats? Trying to describe the mix of electronic beats and traditional music of the East. I mean, it’s not far West for the Japanese. But yes, it is also the story of immigration, because Robert is not German to start with. You know, all these stories. I mean, immigration is also something very…light in Japan. There’s not a lot of immigration here. It was a concept very far out for a lot of common Japanese people. There is also something else. Talking about the culture of the clubs. In Japan, when you reach your mid thirties, thirty-five say, you don’t go to clubs, because usually , especially if you get married and you get kids, and blah, blah, blah. This is also a very big, big, difference between Europe, I guess. I mean, I saw in Berlin, when I came to Dj with Robert, of course there were young people. But there were people, also like us.
Robert Soko: Old. You can say it out loud. Fifties, even sixties.
Cyril Coppini: Which is something you will never see in Japan in a club. It has to be cool. It has to be quick if you want to catch right now this audience. Because the audience you get now in their twenties and even late twenties, you will lose them in three, four or five years, because they don’t have the age anymore to go to clubs. But to go back to your question about the story of Robert, yeah, it’s all about this immigration thing and the mix of the cultures. I thought because these were very far away concepts from Japanese culture, it could work, actually. It worked. Of course, it worked a little bit. Because we had the chance of Robert coming three or four times.
Robert Soko: What I was wondering, was do the Japanese understand what it means, Balkan? Or is it for them just another far-West fairytale? Because often they would ask me about electro-swing, as if I had anything to do with it. I could tell that they don’t really distinguish who is who.
Cyril Coppini: I think for them the Balkans are just another far away galaxy. Like, for a while now, there was a little fashion with cumbia. It’s like, okay, cumbia is from South America and Balkan is from the European East, you know, rock & roll is from America.
I don’t think most Japanese know where the Balkans are located.
Robert Soko: I remember – it was funny – some Japanese tourists coming to Sarajevo, Bosnia, but in the middle of the war. Ha-ha. Because there were the Olympic Games in 1984, and I guess they grabbed the information and came round to see it and then stumbled upon the horrible trenches and soldateska, and were like, wow, this is something else entirely.
Cyril Coppini: Soko often used the word “punk” with regards to Balkan music. I think that this punk culture – the two hundred people that we could gather with the Balkan Beats Tokyo Nights, or something like that, I think they are punk, actually. This part of the culture – because it is completely different from what is being a good Japanese. This Balkan music, it has something punk, right? And Chiku is a punk, right? He’s a punk in his style.
Well, in the beginning when I tried to develop a brand, Balkan Beats in Tokyo, I knew that it would be very difficult if I was alone. I needed some Japanese forces with me. And I met Chiku many years ago in a club, or something like that. And I knew he was interested in Shantel and stuff like that, and I thought maybe he could be the good guy to try to do something together. He’s a nice guy, but he’s too bordello. Organization is zero. A Japanese punk, in a word. In both of the meanings of the word in English. He’s a nice guy, but I didn’t think he was the right guy to do some business with. And Fumino, another DJ, he was working for, and he was more down to earth…and well, the movement, it didn’t explode, but before it exploded, it was already cooling down a little bit. But I was asking about the United States because if it works in the United States, then it works in Japan as well.
Robert Soko: Japan! Ignace (DJ Tagada) was the one – let me say one thing – thanks to him I went to Japan, because he befriended Cyril Coppini. You see the French line now. The French DJs, blah, blah, blah. He was the one who was somehow invited to New Caledonia, the French colony. And me and him went there. New Caledonia: the end of the world. And then we made a stop-over in Japan. Can you imagine, if – really crazy.
Tagada: In this way I invited Soko and Dubioza Collective. You can’t imagine, we go there together to play in a part of the world where they don’t listen to this music.
Robert Soko: The Kanaken. This is were the Kanaken live. We played for Kanaken. Ha-ha! Yeah, we did, we played for Kanaken!
Tagada: And at this time Cyril (Coppini) wrote me, and he said, “Come to Japan and I will make you a tour. Osaka, Nagano, Fukuoka.” OK, so I went to Japan for one month. Japan for me is a fascination. All my childhood dreams came true in Japan. I really am a Japanophile. And I go to Japan. Fuck, man! Amazing! I go to Japan and I met Cyril. The audience was not really big. But the people there were very receptive. What to tell you about Japan? I was there like a stupid guy. I went to sleep at nine in the morning, got up at six. Went looking to buy a new camera. Went to bars. Got drunk. Kissed Japanese girls. Only now am I beginning to understand the Japanese and their culture.
I was with a famous designer in a sushi restaurant. They paid 1,300 euro. We stayed there for four hours. Non stop sushi. There were four of us and everyone was sitting Indian style, with legs crossed. But me, I couldn’t do it, you know? Man, I couldn’t sit still for hours on end. By the end I was drunk and all slouched all over the place like a slob. It was shocking to the Japanese, and they loved me, you know. They felt for me a mixture of shock and love. And I was thinking all the while, maybe for hours they were talking about me and taking the piss out of me: “Look at how this pig is looking. Drinking saki, eeee, drunk!”
Robert Soko: As a DJ I got a little bit spoiled travelling, often making love to girls in Europe, America, etc. In Japan, even though I would meet girls half naked, almost half naked in the club, coming from the porn industry, and also making you believe that they are easy to get, I never had any experience with Japanese girls because I would hit a wall as soon as I somehow started approaching them, realizing, oh, I don’t know how to do it in Japan.
Cyril Coppini: The story I think, first, if you want to succeed in a lot of fields in Japan you first have to speak Japanese.
Maybe Robert wasn’t in the right area. Of course you can get some one stand night in the area of Roppongi, where you have Japanese ladies coming to hunt foreign boys or guys. Maybe he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. The two hundred people we were gathering, they were here to listen to the music selection of the godfather of Balkan Beats.
Robert Soko: I have the feeling that Japanese girls in general are more conservative when it comes to these subjects, going out with boys, dating boys, making love.
Cyril Coppini: I don’t think Japanese girls are more conservative. Because they don’t have the weight of the so-called religious things on top of them. You see what I mean? You can have the weight of Christianity on you, the moral thing.
Tagada: It took me five years to get laid in Japan. I met one girl in the first year. She was DJing with us, and she come to me, blah, blah, blah. And then the third year she came back and, blah, blah, blah, we kissed. And two years later I came back with Chinese Man from France. And Chiku, our friend, said to me, “Tagada, Tagada. Now tonight, when she go, you go! After the party when she go, you go!” We made the party and at five, Chiku comes up and says, “Tagada, Tagada, go, go, go!” And she was waiting for me in a taxi in front of the club. She opened the door, and pulled me into the car. You can’t show the other people that you are in love. You can’t kiss. The Japanese are very reserved and modest. But after five years I realized this girl wanted me. And first we went to eat sushi and then we made love. Yeah! It was good, but it was not like you were slowly getting into this. It was the other way round. She took me, she pulled me. Actually, she was the hunter. I was actually less excited than she was. Because I was the prey. I was surprised. And she was a cooker, a chef. How did we communicate? Because in my experience you can’t talk. It’s just Tarzan language. Chiku, Chiku, Rrrrrrrr!
Robert Soko: Soko, Soko! Tagada, Tagada! Rrrrrrr!
Tagada: Tagada, Tagada, after, after!
Robert Soko: Chiku knows just five words. Go, go go!
Tagada: But it was so magical. I have so many pictures of Chiku. He was laying down on the ground. On the street, man. This is a no-go in Japan! A big producer of hip-hop gave me some cocaine in Japan. Which is inconceivable. Was it good? It was immense! I did it two times. This time and the time with Chinese Man. In Japan so many people wear masks. This was even before Covid. And then Robert had the great idea to put the Balkan Beats logo on the masks people would wear. And they thought it was great.
Robert Soko: Balkan Beats masks. Which fits to the Covid situation really well. I still have some. I’ll show you.
Tagada: We had the chance to go some places at night where nobody goes. We were with a DJ who was living for a long time in Brazil. He was a fanatic of Brazil. We went to this bar. He had ten thousand vinyls. Only Latino and Brazilian music. Ten thousand. Amazing. And you talk with these guys and it is magical. I had a chance to go to places and meet with guys. One guy was a karaoke of metal music. There were only guys from metal music on the floor. Rrrrrrrrr! Rrrrrrrr! Karaoke! What the fuck! And we went to this one place. In the midst of these tall buildings there were like 200 old, old, old bars. It was something magical. I found one bar where the owner and all the girls there were fanatics of Django Reinhardt. And she had only Django and Swing Manouche. It was a magical moment! In Japan you can talk with girls from TV and the entertainment industry and models. And you are at a restaurant where you eat just cartilage. The specialty of this restaurant is cartilage. All the cartilage from all birds. We talked with one of the most famous models in Japan, and she is eating cartilage! That’s Japanese. And that’s the craziness of Japan.
Gypsy Box: I had just finished my tour in Japan and ended up in Berlin shortly after the Japan tour was over, at the Balkanska party at SO36 in Kreuzberg. And the girl that was running the party, she asked me about Japan. “What were your experiences?” And I started to give my impressions. You can’t talk about Japanese culture if you have never been to Japan. In Japan you experience totally unexpected things. The Japanese live in a way we outsiders can’t begin to comprehend.
Robert Soko: Also with regards to sexuality. Japan is just different.
Gypsy Box: In many things the Japanese are different. So the point was I was in Japan, and I explained to this woman at SO36 that I was at a show, and I asked a couple of local guys from Tokyo if they could bring me to a local and exotic place, something a little bit different. And they said first off, “Are you sure that you want to see something local and very exotic?” And I said, well sure. We weren’t talking about sex necessarily. I just wanted to see something a little different. So they brought me to this place that is called “Milk Bar”. When you first arrive it looks like just a regular bar. A big, big, big bar. But it looks normal; there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it. But then in the back there are red curtains. And we opened the curtains, and behind the curtains there were like six capsules one after another – and inside the capsules six girls, with a lot of men in front of them. The girls were naked, with tubes attached to their nipples, and they were giving milk. You could order a cup.
You had two options. You could have one up served from the tits. And the other option was you could go to the girl directly and suck on her nipple like a baby. Well, it was such a horrible moment for me because I saw a bunch of guys taking milk like babies. It was a very horrible, just fucking horrible. And then I realized that these men were all alone, without any families. It was not very sexual. They were not, like trying to have sex. They were just very alone, and they were feeling like they were a baby again. Very weird.
So I explained the situation to this girl from Balkanska at SO36. I mean, I was just sharing an experience. I didn’t say that I had actually bought a milk or anything. I was, after all, very afraid of this, and I didn’t like it. But after I got done talking, the girl got very angry with me and said I was a macho asshole and that all the problems in the world were the result of people like me. But the point is, to be honest that moment it wasn’t about me searching out this experience. It was a coincidence. And also in Japan, you experience this kind of thing which is on the one hand very sad, but at the same time, when I witnessed that, it was more than a sexual thing it was about poor people who had a kind of social deficit. It was not about sexual things. They were not having sex. It was just this very sad moment.
Robert Soko: It’s an amazing story. It’s such a fascinatingly good story about how you can see sexuality. And I would also feel utterly awkward to see something like this. To drink someone’s milk would be totally perverse. And yet I understand completely what Abel (Gypsy Box) experienced. And it’s a crap situation that such a shitstorm should arise from certain feminists, especially here in Germany, where some people are just very hysterical.
What happened to me, just to round it up. I was playing in Tokyo, and there were three girls who actually had something to do with the porn industry. One of them was a porn movie director. And therefor they walked around with practically no clothes on. And they loved Balkan music, and it was for me like a lightning bolt. What, there are naked girls here, almost naked girls. They were showing me their tits as though they were showing me the rings on their fingers. Ok, they wanted to take a picture with me. I was glad to do it. A picture was taken. I posted a picture and what a shitstorm I got on Facebook from certain people in Germany, me being a douchebag macho asshole etc. And I felt really furious about that. It’s just what you describe. It’s not me that I asked them to do it. This is how they act, how they deal with certain things. For us Westerners it might be awkward at times, but this is how the Japanese are, to some extent. This is how they do it, and I don’t see anything wrong in telling the world, look, this is the way the Japanese do it; this is my experience. Am I an asshole? No I’m not. You are the asshole for judging me from your position of ignorance.