Rising stars from the East Music: Japanese pop and soul artists are coming to America, with songs tailored to U.S. taste.

August 04, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Toshi Kubota was really on a roll when he hit New York this summer. His latest single, a sultry duet with supermodel Naomi Campbell called "La-La-La Love Song," had raced up the charts in May to spend six weeks at No. 1, making the singer hotter than he'd been in years. So what was he doing playing a club as small as S.O.B.'s?

Learning how little the phrase "Big in Japan" means to Americans, that's what.

Kubota is one of a growing number of Japanese pop stars trying to make a splash in America. Like Seiko Matsuda and Akiko Yano, he not only has a deal with an American label, but specifically tailors his material to match American taste. Yet he, like Matsuda and Yano, remains virtually unknown in this country.

Historically, foreign artists have lusted after the American market because it is the biggest and most lucrative in the world. In many countries, you can go gold with sales of 50,000 albums; in America, it takes half a million. Needless to say, success on the American scale appeals to pop stars of every nationality.

But even though the Japanese music market is smaller than ours -- $3.6 billion in sales for the first six months of 1995, compared with $5.1 billion in the United States -- the individual rewards can be staggering. Soundscan, whose computerized data service tracks CD and cassette sales in America, recently expanded its service to Japan, and early results have been startling. One week in July, Soundscan reported sales of 415,000 for Nanase Aikawa's "Red," the top-selling album in Japan -- 146,000 units higher than the figure for "It Was Written" by Nas, the No. 1 album in America that week.

Soundscan also reported that four of the world's 10 best-selling albums were Japanese -- a statistic that's even more impressive when you consider that with an average price of 3,000 yen (nearly $30), CDs in Japan cost twice what they do here.

So why would Kubota be playing a club in Manhattan when he could be more profitably packing 'em in at home? Because in his heart of hearts, Kubota sees himself as an American-style soul singer.

In fact, if you were to see him in the video for "Just the Two of Us," the first single from his current album, "Sunshine, Moonlight" (Columbia 67250), you'd never guess he was Japanese. Shown at the center of a house party in some funky New York apartment, he looks every bit the homeboy as he and his dreadlocked band mates work their way through the Grover Washington oldie.

He sounds the part, too. Not only does Kubota have no discernible accent, but his lithe, smooth tenor has no problem adapting to the demands of soul singing. Instead of the wide, slow vibrato favored by many Japanese singers (think Yoko Ono), Kubota's voice is light and supple, with the same sort of soulful agility Stevie Wonder's mid-'70s work possessed. As a result, he has no trouble holding his own against his duet partner, Soul II Soul veteran Caron Wheeler.

Nor is that track an anomaly. From the aptly titled "Funk It Up" to the sassy, soulful "Nice & EZ," it's clear that Kubota knows the idiom inside out. He knows how to work a groove, can ornament a vocal line with jazzy ease, and has great taste in sidemen ("Sunshine, Moonlight" includes contributions from D'Wayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Tone!, as well as session vets Nile Rodgers, Tawatha Agee, Omar Hakim and others). He genuinely has the goods.

Why, then, hasn't he had more success in America? Because as good as Kubota is, there are a lot of Americans (and Britons, for that matter) who are even better. Moreover, for all the competence Kubota exhibits, what he brings to the music isn't terribly unusual. And with so many sure-footed soul singers knocking around on the charts these days, it's easy to get lost in the crowd.

All of which makes Kubota's success with "La-La-La Love Song" more than a little ironic. Recorded after "Sunshine, Moonlight" was released, it eschews the ersatz soul of that album for a more Japanese pop approach. Instead of building his vocal around blue notes and gospel-style melisma, Kubota lets the tune's innate perkiness chart his course, so that the melody seems almost to float over the cheerfully chugging rhythm arrangement.

Even the staccato cadence of lyrics like "Iki ga tomaru kurai no" -- despite its title, and unlike the songs on "Sunshine, Moonlight," "La-La-La Love Song" is sung in Japanese -- helps to hammer the chorus hook home. Could it be that Kubota sounds more soulful when he sticks to being Japanese?

If so, he'd have plenty of company in Seiko Matsuda, who is making her second run at the American market with "Was It the Future" (A&M 31454 0480).

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