Today, there is said to be over 300 ska bands in Tokyo. Standing out from the pack is the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra (TSPO), formed 15 years ago. Drawing influences from ska legends the Skatalites and the Specials, as well as from jazz, R & B, punk and other genres, TSPO brings their love of ska to the forefront. “One of the great things about ska is that players can fuse various musics to it and create something completely new out of it,” says Atsushi Yanaka, the group’s baritone sax player. “By doing it, we conquered the barrier between underground and mainstream. We did not consciously try to create something toward mainstream.”
Whether operating in the underground or above, there’s no question that TSPO is a powerful collective of musicians that keeps audiences on their toes. In June, this 10-piece ensemble made its debut U.S. tour, taking them coast to coast with a stop at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.
So why has it taken a decade and a half for Americans to finally hear about them? For one thing, touring on the other side of the world is hardly financially feasible for such a sizable band. But having witnessed Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra at S.O.B.’s, in New York City, at their first American concert ever, it became immediately apparent that whatever it took to get them here, it was worth it: these guys quickly won over the toughest of audiences.
“We want more people to enjoy ska music in the U.S.,” says Yanaka. “We were able to break a barrier between mainstream and ska music in Japan. We wish to do the same in the U.S.” That barrier is already disappearing. Their set at Bonnaroo, which typically hosts the cream of the mainstream jam bands—the likes of the Dead, Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Dave Matthews—was a huge success, as was every stop on the band’s tour. Their albums, including the latest, High Numbers (Avex Records import), can be difficult to track down in the States, but that shouldn’t be a problem for long. Already the band has plans for another album, as well as a second and longer U.S. tour.