It was Japanese night at the South Bank’s World London Festival. The Purcell Room was hosting Miso Soup, a London-based Japanese electro-punk band, the foyer throbbed to Japanese DJs, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall’s headliners were Kila and the Oki Dub Ainu Band.
The Oki Dub Ainu Band began the show. Oki, who is from Hokkaido at the Siberian end of Japan, plays the tonkori, which has the appearance of a stringed wooden broadsword. Its characteristic wobbly sound, produced by overtones reverberating inside its hollow body, is unnerving enough anyway; the band double and treble the effect by feeding through a series of dub treatments until the sound is teased away out of reach on a wave of echo. From time to time, Oki plays a jaw harp by tugging on a cord, using his own mouth cavity as a resonator. But tonight the band owed less to King Tubby than to Can, cruising to a motorik bass thud and sheets of fast, choppy guitar: when Oki forgot himself and acknowledged a round of applause with “Danke schön”, it was oddly appropriate.
The band were an impressive sight, Oki in embroidered Ainu robes and running shoes, his second tonkori player dancing with a hunting bow and arrow like a shaman. But the music never quite gelled.
Kila, a seven-piece Dublin band who have collaborated with Oki for a few years, came in full throttle, flute and violin and uileann pipes blending into the perfect lilting melody over a furious bodhran rumble. The energy was relentless: the band swapped instruments with the multiskilling capacity of a Toyota production line; Ronan O Snodaigh, the frontman, could keep still only by standing on one leg.
When Oki joined Kila, his tonkori fitted into their frontline as effortlessly as a bouzouki. But it needed more breathing space than Kila’s bullet-train delivery allowed. The best moment came on “Kai Kai As To”, a song about a rippling mountain lake. Oki started a delicate pattern, joined by Dee Armstrong on pizzicato violin and then by Eoin Dillon on bamboo flute, with just the tiniest clash of bells.