Even if you’re not a die-hard funk fan, you know James Brown. His breaks and beats have been sampled by virtually every hip-hop artist, and his sound has inspired music legends ranging from Stevie Wonder to Bob Marley, Michael Jackson and Prince to the Rolling Stones.
On stage, Brown was a trailblazer for showmanship. He could shake his body in ways that defied gravity, and had moves that made you sweat just by looking at him. Brown was the ultimate stage presence, thoroughly earning his titles Mr. Dynamite, Soul Brother Number One and the Godfather of Soul. So when, on Christmas day 2006, Brown died, a vacuum was left in the music world. Luckily for us, if you glance east, you’ll find a group that can fill that void.
With their dapper suits, spinning trumpets, tight beats and a frontman that oozes star power, nine-piece Japanese funk band Osaka Monaurail put on a performance that, believe it or not, rivals their idol, James Brown. Now for the first time, they’re bringing their show to Canada.
Disciples of a vintage sound
“My intention has always been to learn the vintage sound of the ’60s,” band leader Ryo Nakata says, with a smile that travels through the phone line. “You know there are many music students out there learning to play Bach or Beethoven. People think I’m crazy, but I’m learning the music of Ray Charles and James Brown to the same level.”
Nakata began his music life being a devotee to new wave Tokyo techno band Yellow Magic Orchestra, but that all changed with a little help from Japanese whiskey.
“I saw this TV commercial for Suntory Whisky, which featured Ray Charles,” explains Nakata. “Charles was singing a new jack swing version of the classic ‘What I’d Say.’ I was 15 at the time, I don’t know what happened to my body, but the music just made me feel so good.”
Since their formation in 1992, Osaka Monaurail has been paying homage to soul’s heroes. During their shows you’re likely to hear the music of Brown, Charles, the Temptations, Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, all done to the most meticulous specs and timing.
“My motivation comes from the showmanship of these great musicians,” Nakata says. “You know it’s something I really want to be good at, but the dancing, it doesn’t come easily. But I watch the videos, YouTube clips, you know, and I guess my legs are shaking most of the time, at least three hours a day.”
Supporting soul legend Marva Whitney
Despite Osaka Monaurail’s obsession with the past, don’t make the mistake of thinking it as just a cover band. The group has released five albums featuring their own tunes.
Their sound has even attracted the attention of former James Brown singer and funk diva, Marva Whitney. Whitney had been virtually out of the music business since the late 1970s, but as her backing band, Osaka Monaurail was able to give Whitney’s famous raw, brassy vocals a new lease on life.
“I think she was 62 when I first met her,” says Nakata. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I’d been listening to her records since I was 17-18. And it was just a great process of a soul legend becoming my great friend.”
In 2006, Whitney and Osaka Monaurail released an album together, I Am What I Am, to great acclaim and toured the record throughout Japan and Europe.
“I don’t have a plan at the moment, but I really want to tour again,” Nakata says. “It could be anywhere, Europe, Africa, Japan, North America, wherever, it doesn’t matter to me. I just want to tour with her.”
The Canadian connection
Now, for the first time in their 20-year history, Osaka Monaurail will be playing in Canada, but it’s not Nakata’s first trip. In the late ’80s, he was an exchange student in Jasper, Alta., and was desperate to start a funk band.
“I tried so hard to find some musicians there,” Nakata told me. “But there were none. I heard that there was a bass player in town. I went to his house, but I found out he likes Metallica. So I didn’t do anything with him.”
At least Canada – or more specifically, the CBC – still has a small part to play in the Osaka Monaurail story.
“The family I was staying with had only one channel, the CBC,” says Nakata. “We used to watch a sitcom called The Golden Girls, and I remember the comedy show, Kids in the Hall. Back then, every Sunday night the CBC ran episodes of Night Music hosted by saxophonist David Sanborn. That show had all the great jazz musicians, soul musicians, gospel musicians, blues musicians and was my only source of music. The family didn’t have a VCR, so I was recording the show on audio tapes … Night Music was a big influence. I still have those tapes today.”
So if James Brown was the hardest-working man in show business, get ready to see the hardest-working band. Nakata and his players take “Make it Funky” as a mantra and put on a show that the Godfather of Soul himself would surely have been proud. Be sure not to miss them.
Osaka Monaurail will be playing in Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City and Halifax.
Rear-view Mirror: James Brown’s ‘Papa's Got A Brand New Bag’
Q&A: Lee Fields talks James Brown, ladies, the essence of soul
Still Black, Still Proud, a musical tribute to James Brown
on Jul 03, 2012