BOOK TWO: Chapter 9



Taj Mahal Travellers played the music of the spheres, their sound reminiscent of the creaking rigging of the un manned Mary Celeste, or a divine emanation of those moments we all have late at night when, exhausted after a hard day's work but too tired to crawl up to bed, our barely conscious minds - chronically searching out meaning as all humans are programmed to do - perceive the wind outside, the familiar whirr of the fridge's electric motor, and the awkward grind of the cranky and still-contracting central-heating pipes as they shut down for the night, but - from our low low point of consciousness - register the overall sound not as a collection of accidental noises but as something heavenly, something regal, something with intention behind it. Taj Mahal Travellers' music is psychedelic by its earliest and most Aldous Huxleyan definition, for their sound is truly 'mind manifesting', conjuring up the amplified inner workings of a world slowed down to 'Flower Petal Opening Speed', a collective sound so outside time to we Westerners, so achingly sedate that the word mañana appears vulgarly and treacherously urgent in comparison. Indeed, Taj Mahal Travellers' music reminds me of an acid trip I once took in South Wales, in 1981, throughout which I lay recumbent and immobile for six hours believing that I could hear the raindrops outside screaming as they hit the ground, each desperate to enjoy just one more millisecond of individuality before being subsumed into water's vast eternity.

Like John Cage's silent piece '4'33"', Taj Mahal Travellers' music is not merely silence but performed silence. But, unlike the aforementioned Cage composition, each Taj Mahal Travellers work is at least twenty minutes long. Inspired by Japan's traditional and mostly rhythm less gagaku percussion accompaniment to its day-long Buddhist rituals, seven long-haired outsider musicians came together in 1969 to challenge the precepts of the day by travelling to a wide array of geographical locations in order to perform music that accompanied the environmental sounds that were already present - on hilltops, on beaches, in quarries, beside roads, even in kindergartens. Deploying a wide range of mainly acoustic instruments, including tympani, bass tuba, mandolin, a multitude of hand percussion, harmonica, trumpet and santur (Iranian hammered dulcimer), plus electric violin, electric double bass, Mini Korg analogue synthesiser and an array of hand-made instruments, 'voices, stones, bamboo winds' and tree branches, Taj Mahal Travellers made a promise to themselves to play 'wherever a power supply was available'. [1]

For this ensemble, nothing was a given and everything was to be challenged. As if to symbolise Taj Mahal Travellers' collective refusal to follow the 'accepted way of doing things', double-bass player Ryo Koike even played his instrument horizontally by lying it on its side, like some funny farmer engaged in a highly private act of dubious animal husbandry. All around the recumbent electric double bass, which appeared as vulnerable as a gargantuan beached seal pup, numerous guitar leads stretched throughout the ensemble, leading to the bass itself, to Seiji Nagai's floor-level Mini Korg synthesiser, and to leader Takehisa Kosugi's electric violin, via the various percussion emplacements of Tokio Hasegawa, and the prayer mats of percussionist and occasional tuba player Yukio Tsuchiya, sound recordist Kinji Hayashi, and mandolinist and tree-branch shaker Michihiro Kimura. As a pop artist of considerable note, Michihiro Kimura it was whose striking animal prints decorated the front covers of LPs by Foodbrain, Hiro Yanagida and Speed, Glue & Shinki. But if the filmed evidence of the ensemble's sole TV documentary Taj Mahal Travellers on Tour is anything to go by, Kimura appears to have spent much of the early '70s shaking a tree branch in a wide variety of obscure locations around the world.

For travel was as much a part of this group's raison d'être as was the making of the music itself. Indeed, the Taj Mahal Travellers were formed by experimental violinist and former Group Ongaku founder Takehisa Kosugi in response to his somewhat accidentally self-enforced 'sabbatical' from the experimental music scene six years previously, when, in spring 1963, he'd accepted an invitation from electronic composer Matsuo Ohno to work on the musical score for the forthcoming 'space age' cartoon series 'Tetsuwan Atom' (Atom Boy). Unbeknownst to Kosugi, the unbelievable success of that first series foisted such pressure of work on to his hitherto freewheeling spirit that Kosugi's considerable energies were, to his utter chagrin, diverted away from the experimental scene into three consecutive series of TV theme music. Takehisa Kosugi, therefore, missed out on most of the mid-'60s' finest 'actions', even those instigated and realised by Kosugi's close friend and Group Ongaku co-founder Yasunao Tone, whose managerial and administrative skills helped to create so many of the high-profile (and to some 'infamous') actions by the Situationist trio Hi-Red Center (see Book One, Chapter Two). Incensed that his TV success had become such a self-inflicted 'Golden Handcuffs' award, Kosugi vowed to return to his former free-form lifestyle as soon as was possible. And so, sometime in the latter days of 1969, Kosugi invited six likeminded experimental musicians, or 'metamusic creators' as he portentously termed them, to enlist in his new ensemble.

Between Now and Now & Again

Taj Mahal Travellers' earliest performances were haphazard to say the least, their chaotic nature mainly brought on by the large age difference between leader Kosugi and the rest of the ensemble, most of whom were barely out of university. As the 32-year-old Kosugi struggled to free himself from all outside commitments, his six much younger cohorts were happy to indulge in the new freedoms available to them in Tokyo's burgeoning underground. By December '69, however, Taj Mahal Travellers had set up a week-long series of performances at Shibuya's Station 70 club, which were recorded by engineer, sound manipulator and seventh member Kinji Hayashi. But when the shows were taken over by street hippies all intent on contributing to the 'happening' on stage, Kosugi soon decided that Taj Mahal Travellers must separate themselves from such goings-on, or risk being mistaken for yet another commune band in the style of Jigen (Zero Dimension) and Maru Sankaku Shikaku (Circle Triangle Square), action artist Kant Watanabe's clown-faced noise ensemble. To this end, Kosugi proceeded to set up shows in art galleries and kaikans (culture halls) of the kind in which Group Ongaku had previously performed. Throughout spring '70, the ensemble played a series of shows in Shinjuku's prestigious New Jazz Hall, breaking briefly to allow Kosugi time to fulfil his musical commitments to the highly prestigious 'Expo '70' international exhibition, which took place in Osaka over the summer.

When Kosugi returned from 'Expo '70', however, his mind was blown from witnessing one of Karlheinz Stockhausen's long concerts at the West German 'Spherical Auditorium'. Like some Space Age twentieth-century psychedelic vision of Malta's subterranean prehistoric hypogeum at Hal Saflieni, the Spherical Auditorium was metallic blue and stood on the edge of a garden site. Visitors entered at ground level then descended into underground exhibition halls via the broad spiral staircase. On reaching the centre of the auditorium, they were there given ochre cushions on which to lounge. Stockhausen's extended group featured former Can founding member David Johnson on flute and Kosugi's friend, the German percussionist Michael Ranta. Bursting with inspiration and not a little envy, Kosugi returned to Tokyo to share the experience with his ensemble. By September, however, the younger musicians had once again pressured their leader into performing at a rock concert at the Tokyo University of the Arts. Unfortunately, Taj Mahal Travellers were forced to quit the stage barely an hour into their performance, so that Murahatchibu's road crew could set up their amplification. It was clearly time for a rethink.

Despite the wishes of Kosugi's young cohorts to pursue bookings at rock'n'roll venues, the violinist remained convinced that the best way forward was via art galleries and public halls, where more cultured audiences would at least remain open-minded towards the musical ideas taking place, never dreaming of drunkenly invading the stage to join in. Fortunately for all parties, a third option revealed itself that autumn when Taj Mahal Travellers were invited to play a day-long concert 'from pre-dawn to dusk' on Oiso Beach, that coming December. Situated on the southern Pacific coast in the Kanagawa prefecture, around one hour's drive southwest of Tokyo, Oiso is a place of mythical beauty to the Japanese, and is known to the local population as shonan (bright coast of sunlight). For the Taj Mahal Travellers themselves, the Oiso Beach show was a revelatory experience of possibilities, and thereafter no one wished to risk constrained performances at inhibitive coffee shops or small clubs. Henceforth, Taj Mahal Travellers were united in their collective aim to become a Gnostic ensemble whose music forever would conjure up spectacular images of strangely garbed hippies playing bizarre instruments in the lee of sacred snow-capped mountains, 'at windswept beaches at dawn', or at Shinto temples as cranes flew low across the horizon.

Exotic Outsiders Abroad in the Barbarian West

And so, between 1971 and '72, Taj Mahal Travellers hit the road in a rune-inscribed Volkswagen minibus, travelling from Japan to the Netherlands via Germany, Scandinavia and Great Britain, thence to Iran and back to Japan via the Taj Mahal itself. Indeed, the aforementioned 1972 documentary Taj Mahal Travellers on Tour explains more about the mindset of this wild ensemble than any book could hope to, revealing six inordinately hairy cosmic explorers hungry to make sounds in any possible situation. At one point, the documentary shows Michihiro Kimura holding one of his 'self-made instruments' (as the screen credits term it), which looks like one of those ritual folding chairs discovered in Danish Bronze Age mounds. Elsewhere in the film, Kimura is seen playing an acoustic guitar around the back of his head in a remarkably unconvincing Jimi Hendrix homage. Armed with two small spoon-shaped mallets, Yukio Tsuchiya batters his Japanese shanai and Iranian santur into submission. Trumpeter and percussionist Seiji Nagai is also seen violently shaking the (same?) tree branches almost continuously throughout the documentary. Of the sixth and final member, I still have no clear idea what vocalist and percussionist Tokio Hasegawa did. Credited in the documentary as having contributed 'voices, stones, bamboos, winds', Hasegawa's may be the most prominent Taj Mahal Traveller voice of all, but so subsumed is it into the general stew of sound that I've been unable to make a guess. What surprises the viewer most of all is the sheer exuberance of every Taj Mahal Traveller throughout the footage. Filmed in the back of a taxi, they even attempt a primitive harmonica and beer-bottle blues that shakes the listener with its underachievement.

Throughout this extended tour period, Taj Mahal Travellers gained mightily from leader Takehisa Kosugi's previous decade in the experimental field, as country after country welcomed the ensemble with open arms, directing them straight to the nearest arts festivals. At a time when most longhairs were experiencing the wider world via the threat of a police baton and a night in the cells should they put a foot wrong, even a cursory glance at Taj Mahal Travellers' 1971 itinerary reveals that, thanks to Kosugi's exemplary credentials, the ensemble always inhabited important cultural centres and corridors of power.

From several Swedish performances in the prestigious moderna museets (modern museums) of Stockholm [2] and Gothenburg, their Scandinavian progress took in Finland's Amos Anderson Konstmuseum, in Helsinki, and Copenhagen's St Nikola Church, before heading south for a Belgian radio concert in Brussels' Palais des Beaux-Arts, thence to London's New Vic Theatre. While 1972 opened with further Concerts at Rotterdam's Art Akademie and Denmark's Musikonservatorium, in the northwest city of Aarhus, the whole of April and May was spent engaged in a series of 'travelling events' that took the ensemble from Western Europe to the Taj Mahal itself, via the Middle East. During this period, musical 'actions' were executed at various geographical points along the route and recorded for posterity in the manner of Fluxus's early-'60s operations.

The single down side to this highly attractive method of seeing the world was its sheer lack of confrontation, for the seven musicians were seen not as threatening frontiersmen out to challenge the social mores of the West, but as exotic aliens whose hefty art credentials should at all times be catered to. In this way, Taj Mahal Travellers' decision to opt out of the rock'n'roll circuit ensured that they would remain invisible and beyond judgement until decades later, by which time the Post-Everything rock'n'roll audience had had time to retune their ears to the ensemble's ambient, nay ambulant soundtracks.

The Recordings of Taj Mahal Travellers

From the Taj Mahal itself, the ensemble returned home in summer '72 in order to record their debut LP for Columbia Records. Captured in a Single evening performance recorded in Tokyo at the Sogetsu Kaikan (culture hall) where so much of Takehisa Kosugi's early Group Ongaku career had first flourished, JULY 15, 1972 was a monumental three-track brass'n'strings drone experience in the style of Tangerine Dream's ZEIT. Sounding more like three enormous weather formations or recordings of far-distant galaxies than any contemporary music, great care was taken by Kosugi to retain their sense of mystery by naming each track after the time period its performance occupied. Thus, the whole of side one's 26-minute epic took the simple title 'Taj Mahal Travellers Between 6.20 and 6.46pm'. With Takehisa Kosugi's harmonica to the fore, and the bugle-like single sustained notes of Seiji Nagai's lone trumpet, Sohgetsu Hall herein became a mile-deep cavern from whose deepest recesses various groups of hermit species gradually return blinkingly into the world of light. Similarly, side two was split between the comparatively brief 'Taj Mahal Travellers Between 7.03 and 7.15pm', which concluded with Michihiro Kimura's remarkably tangible and incongruously bluesy electric guitar, and the fifteen-minute-long deep-trance Henry Flyntisms of 'Taj Mahal Travellers Between 7.50 and 8.05pm'. But whilst the LP remains to this day a fabulously complete document, it's still to be wondered why Taj Mahal Travellers felt the need to return home in order to record their album debut, when so much of their oeuvre had already been captured during the previous two-year tour. Perhaps the staff of Nippon Columbia Records felt unable to trust the limitations of contemporary mobile recording studios, or perhaps - as evidenced from the sleevenotes - Tokio Hasegawa's decision to replace his tree branch 'tour axe' for an echo-machine was their single concession to commercial palatability.


Thereafter, Taj Mahal Travellers returned to the road and pretty much stayed there. Having honed down their modus operandi to its most streamlined components, the seven blazed through 1973-74 with concerts at Tokyo kindergartens, Hiroshima department stores, industrial designers' conferences (no shit!), educational TV shows, beach concerts on the southern island of Okinawa, snowy mountain villages, even turning up at the 'Oz Days' benefit festival for the owner of Tokyo's legendary Oz rock café, which had been shut down after one too many drug busts. (Ironically, while Takehisa Kosugi's refusal to court a rock'n'roll audience had ensured the invisibility of his ensemble, this single 'Oz Days' appearance alongside such underground legends as Les Rallizes Denudés, Miyako-ochi and Dr Acid Seven's own electric band would - simply because of the appearance of a double-vinyl bootleg of the show - contribute hugely to sustaining Taj Mahal Travellers' underground myth into the twenty-first century.)

A second album AUGUST 1974 was recorded in Tokyo, at Nippon Columbia's enormous Studio Number One, and was released in double-LP form. Containing just four side-long tracks entitled 'I', 'II', 'III' and 'IV', this second release was a beautiful package but something of a sonic disappointment. Due to Taj Mahal Travellers' re-emphasis of the sound away from the vocals to fairly crummy acoustic everyday sounds, the huge resonances of the first album were simply not there. The closeness of all the sounds therein remind me somehow of an a-rhythmic take on the zoned-out music of AMM, Anima and Kluster (the pre-Cluster trio formed by Roedelius, Moebius and Conrad Schnitzler).

Just one month after the recording of AUGUST 1974, Takehisa Kosugi again entered Nippon Columbia's massive Studio One, but this time he was alone. Kosugi was here to record CATCH-WAVE, an all-time underground classic utterly bereft of tree branches, harmonicas and tubas. Propelled instead by Kosugi's magical blend of echoed violin, electronics and voice, this cool Martin-Rev-meets-Joji-Yuasa urban meditation was to become the 'Pushing Too Hard' of drone music, a Queasy Listening classic that sends the listener just like the Jaynettes' elliptical 'Sally Go round the Roses' sends you. The single-vinyl LP consisted of two enormous side-long pieces, the twenty-six minutes of 'Mano Daruma '74' (Mano Dharma) and side two's 'Ueibu Kodo e-1' (Wave Code #e-1), which the composer described as a 'triple performance by a solo vocalist' in which 'a vocal phrase is taken and electronically modified until it loses any meaning other than as part of the wave form'. But the strung-out mantras of side one's 'Mano Dharma '74' contained a secret ingredient that pitched it slightly ahead of its cohort. For Takehisa Kosugi had created the track by playing over several tape experiments that he had created back in 1967 while visiting Toshi Ichiyanagi in New York. And it was with the intention of shuttling between Tokyo and New York that he now focused many of his ideas.

Beyond the Valley of Taj Mahal Travellers...

Takehisa Kosugi was almost forty by the time CATCH-WAVE was released, and he used its success as a springboard into the next phase of his career. After almost half a decade of travelling, Kosugi now took the opportunity to explore his on-the-road discoveries with a wide variety of different composers and musicians. A rare opportunity presented itself in September 1975 when the director of Tokyo's NHK-Broadcasting invited the composer to perform a collaborative improvisation with two old friends, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Stockhausen's percussionist Michael Ranta, to be broadcast on NHK-Radio. The excellent results, which were later released on the Iskra Records LP IMPROVISATION SEP. 1975, were a kind of stripped-down/punked-up version of Taj Mahal Travellers, in which Kosugi's violin was ring-modulated alongside Ichiyanagi's equally ring-modulated bass piano to present a kind of half-life music akin to the Residents' LP ESKIMO, the ring modulators conspiring to create an unearthly and hissing sibilance like the voices of many cartoon snakes. [3] However, with less than half the performers who had been involved in Taj Mahal Travellers' music, this improvisational trio revealed far more individuality; Michael Ranta's simple percussion often becoming particularly wild and Mo Tucker-like, akin to some singular shaman crazily exerting his authority.

By 1976, Kosugi's travel schedule had increased considerably as he took over the 'South-East Wave/East West Song' project for Merce Cunning ham's New York dance company, and recorded another collaboration for Columbia Records with New York saxophonist Steve Lacy and experimental pianist Yuji Takahashi. However, Kosugi's most important project of the year was his involvement in the creation of the ten-piece Tokyo improvisational ensemble East Bionic Symphonia, whose instrumentation and attitude were to ensure that the musical legacy of the now-defunct Taj Mahal Travellers would continue along the same stratospheric trajectory. Formed by occasional Taj Mahal Travellers guest musician Kazuo Imai, the rest of the musicians were, once again, mainly young Tokyo music students, whose choice of instruments included double bass, piano, snake charmer, viola da gamba (upright descant viola) and kokyu (Chinese upright fiddle), combined with multiple percussion (water sticks, wands and the like), rudimentary electronics, and the inevitable 'found objects' and 'natural materials as thrown percussion'. With Kosugi at the helm, on the evening of 13th July 1976, East Bionic Symphonia entered Tokyo's Bigakko Jinbotyo Kanada studio, where they recorded their debut LP. It was an astounding work. Despite inevitable comparisons to Taj Mahal Travellers, the ensemble's overall sound was a transcendental combination of La Monte Young drone and Daevid Alien-style Gong glissando, ostensibly created by Chie Mukai's one-string upright fiddle and leader Kazuo Imai's baritone viola da gamba, but heavily modified by the potentiometers and FX pedals of electronics operators Tatuo Hattori, Tomonao Koshikawa and Masami Tada. Lacking Taj Mahal Travellers' brass players, Kazuo Imai further removed his ensemble's sound from its Ur-source by adding a brazen North African atmosphere with his reedy and abrasive snake charmer. East Bionic Symphonia would never achieve the status of Taj Mahal Travellers, but their brilliant debut ensured hefty solo musical careers for both Kazuo Imai and fiddle player Chie Mukai.

Beyond Japan... & in Conclusion

In 1977, Takehisa Kosugi finally moved to New York full-time when he was invited to become resident composer/performer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Thereafter, all emphasis shifted away from Japan as the composer worked flat-out to complete the heavy schedule required of him. However, Kosugi still found the time to perform in France in 1978, at Paris's Festival d'Automne, and at the festival at La Sainte-Baume in Provence. But Kosugi's rich artistic pedigree was best appreciated in New York, where he was constantly lauded and invited to provide sound installations. Indeed, the arrival in 1979 of Yasunao Tone, Kosugi's old friend and co-founder of Group Ongaku, provided the pair with a rare opportunity to collaborate on 'Geography & Music', a Tone composition specially commissioned by Merce Cunningham for his dance piece 'Roadrunners'. Featuring a line-up of true underground luminaries, the 21-minute work contained the piano of David Tudor, and the voices of John Cage and Kosugi himself, as Martin Kalve intoned sections of the I Ching like some Burroughsian cut-up. [4]

Moving into the '80s, Kosugi continued to release occasional albums, most of which I have no time for. However, as one of Japanese experimental music's founding fathers, nothing he does should be totally dismissed. By 1994, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts had awarded the composer the John Cage Award for Music, and Sonic Youth invited him to contribute to their 1999 celebration of the avant-garde 'Good-bye 20th Century'. That same year, former Taj Mahal Traveller Seiji Nagai made a timely return with his superb album on Doppelganger Records, entitled ELECTRONIC NOISE IMPROVISATION 1999, which he described as 'the hypnotic throb and flux and the spirit of Taj Mahal Travellers ... recreated via dense electronic soundscapes'. Unlike most music made in reaction to an artist's past, the music was vast and wholly vital.

Strangest of all was the release in 1998 of Taj Mahal Travellers' best ever album LIVE STOCKHOLM JULY, 1971. Recorded at the Modernmuseet during their first tour, this double-CD easily eclipsed the ensemble's two Nippon Columbia albums, and made me hugely excited at what is still awaiting rediscovery out there in Europe. And as Taj Mahal Travellers made a special trip to Germany's Radio Bremen, whence so many classic and unique recordings from Guru Guru, Kraftwerk and Eno-period Roxy Music have sprung, we can only assume that Taj Mahal Travellers' Bremen performance is not far away from being set free into the public domain. [5] Finally, there is also the ninety-minute Taj Mahai Travellers on Tour documentary, which I showed at my 2003 festival Rome Wasn't Burned in a Day and which everyone should endeavour to search out. Again, it's to be hoped that the publication of this Japrocksampler will help to force the hand of whomsoever owns the rights, because the unique soundscapes of both Taj Mahal Travellers and Takehisa Kosugi need to be heard above the clamour of uniformity that permeates much of early-twenty-first-century culture.

Footnotes: (go back)

  1. Yuji Takhashi, biographical sleevenotes written on the group's Columbia Records double-LP AUGUST 1974.
  2. Recordings from the first Stockholm performance were eventually released in 2002, on the double-CD LIVE STOCKHOLM JULY, 1971, by Drone Syndicate Records.
  3. IMPROVISATION was re-issued in 2002 as a limited edition of 300 on the Iskra imprint (catalogue 3004).
  4. This evocative work was released together with another piece featuring Kosugi, Tone's 1961 composition 'Anagram for Strings', on the LP YASUNAO TONE, on the Dutch Slowscan Editions label. I would have included it in my Top 50, were it not frustratingly difficult to find. Perhaps the publication of this Japrocksampler will motivate the tapes' owners to give it a more general release.
  5. In December 1972, Taj Mahal Travellers also recorded a live BBC-TV show called Music Fusion, at the Cullompton studios. Preliminary investigations have yielded nothing, but it's still early days.

Taj Mahal Travellers Discography

1JULY 15, 19721972Nippon Columbia
2OZ DAYS LIVE w/Rallizes1973Oz
3AUGUST 19741972Nippon Columbia
4LIVE STOCKHOLM JULY, 19711998Drone Syndicate

Takehisa Kosugi Select Discography