Soul is not a foreign language to Toshi

Music Notes

Music: In Concert/CDs

October 21, 2004|By RASHOD OLLISON

SORRY. English is not my first language,M-v he tells me.

But thatM-Fs hard to believe when listening to Toshi KubotaM-Fs new album, the dreamy, silky Time to Share. The Japanese soul singerM-Fs English is just fine when heM-Fs crooning. He seems to be very fluent in the language of love. A mack daddy with chiseled features, come-to-me eyes and a golden throat.

M-tThese days, I like more laidback grooves,M-v he says, calling from his New York home. The artistM-Fs personal manager is also on the line, translating some of my questions in Japanese. M-tSome people call it drunken beat. Every time I hear it, I want to sing behind the groove. ItM-Fs comfortable for me.M-v

Toshi (he goes by just his first name these days) has put out two English albums in the United States: 1995M-Fs Sunshine, Moonlight and 2000M-Fs Nothing But Your Love. Both are in the modern soul vein, rich with funk and throbbing beats. Neither did that well over here, though. But in his native country, where Toshi released his debut BumpinM-F Voyage in M-F95, the singer-songwriter is a major star, selling out stadiums and mining platinum over and over again with 10 million albums sold.

M-tThe R&B and hip-hop is popular in Japan. A lot,M-v Toshi says. M-tBut Japanese R&B or hip-hop is melody-oriented. Over here, itM-Fs more groove-oriented.M-v

So Toshi emphasizes the groove more on Time to Share, but memorable melodies still abound. The album is a pleasing balance of classy two-step inducers and dim-the-lights slow jams. To crack the American soul market this time, Toshi recruited the best production talent on the scene: Ahmir M-tQuestloveM-v Thompson of the Roots, Angie Stone (yes, the singer) and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, formerly of A Tribe Called Quest. He duets with Stone on the breezy M-tHold Me DownM-v and Mos Def raps on the thumpinM-F M-tLiving For Today.M-v

Now, if his English isnM-Ft that tight, how did the singer communicate with the American producers in the studio?

M-tThe language was music,M-v says Toshi, who likes to keep his age a secret. M-tI knew that we could understand each [other] very well. For instance, when I worked with Angie Stone, we didnM-Ft have to have much conversation. We have the same influences. So I would say, M-fI want a Marvin Gaye-like song.M-F And she and her programmer would give me a track I want.M-v

Growing up in Shizuoka, where his parents still run a grocery store near Mount Fuji, Toshi fell in love with American soul. Although he didnM-Ft understand a word of the lyrics, he couldnM-Ft get enough of Al Green, the Stylistics or Stevie Wonder. M-tSongs in the Key of Life was the first album I actually bought,M-v Toshi says. M-tIt changed everything for me. [WonderM-Fs] voice, his songs, everything was different from anything I had ever heard before.M-v

After high school, the artist, who had briefly formed a band in junior high school, moved to Tokyo for college, majoring in economics. But he spent more time performing in night clubs than studying. One night, a label executive caught his act and recruited Toshi to sing on a jazz musicianM-Fs album. The artist used the track as part of his demo to land a solo deal. He eventually signed with Sony.

Time to Share is among the finest R&B records IM-Fve heard this year M-y probably nothing that the Usher or R. Kelly crowd would get into, though. ItM-Fs an album for us mature folks, those of us who like our romantic tunes with lyrics that leave a little to the imagination. Those of us who like our grooves tough but the melodies tender. Shades of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, whose 1980 hit M-tTripping OutM-v is sampled on M-tBreaking Through,M-v ToshiM-Fs latest single, color the singerM-Fs phrasing here and there. But overall, his vocal approach is original, sensual, caramel-smooth.

Currently touring the country with Angie Stone and Anthony Hamilton, Toshi is optimistic about his American breakthrough this time. It may not be on the level of his Japanese success, but heM-Fs definitely got the chops to compete over here.

M-tThe reaction so far is very warm,M-v Toshi says. M-tI expected some strange reaction because IM-Fm Japanese singing soul music. Hopefully, my music and my message and my attitude will help make this a more peaceful world, a romantic world, too.

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