One of the most experimental groups to emerge from the 70s Jap-rock milieu, Taj Mahal Travellers eschewed the prog leanings of many of their contemporaries to focus on ambient noise and free-form improvisation. Led by artist Takehisa Kosugi, this collective existed primarily to create improvised live music in as many unusual settings as possible. In 1972, they set out on the road in a cramped, VW Minibus covered in scrawled runic symbols. Their epic tour, more of a musical/spiritual odyssey, took them from their native Japan to Scandinavia, Rome, Greece and Istanbul, and then on to the Middle East, via Iran, Kabul and Pakistan, finally arriving in front of the Taj Mahal itself where they, naturally, played a gig.
Existing almost entirely outside any concept of the music industry, the Travellers lived the hippy ideal of playing just for the joy and love of sound itself. Their motto was "play wherever there is a power-source." Their 1972 tour was captured by film-maker and musician Matsuo Ohno, whose documentary, Taj Mahal Travellers on Tour (find it on YouTube), sees the band playing in areas of transcendent natural beauty, such as cliff-tops and beaches, as well as museums and holy sites - anywhere off the beaten track where they could give their music to people for free. On the way they hooked up with legendary jazz musician Don Cherry, step-father of Neneh Cherry, a fellow free-spirit who would later collaborate with The Slits.
Born in Tokyo in 1938, Kosugi graduated in 1962 from the Tokyo University of Arts. A member of international artist network Fluxus, which also included Yoko Ono, Kosugi understood how art and music could be used to lift people's consciousness out of everyday humdrum existence, and that this would work best if they were confronted, immersed even, by music in situations and environments where it was unexpected. Inspired, he formed his own version of Fluxus in Japan, Group Ongaku, to perform improvised, multi-media happenings. In 1969, he put together a collective of younger musicians, all of whom embraced a hippie-living ethos which went starkly against the mores of post-war, ultra--repressed Japanese society.
Together, they played any instrument they could lay their hands on, from electric violin and harmonica to double bass, tuba and mandolin. They also embraced synthesizers and early electronic equipment. Unlike the celebrated prog bands of the day, who used synthesizers for showy flourishes in-between interminable guitar soloing, Taj Mahal Travellers were part of an early vanguard which included Germany's Kraftwerk, Cluster and Tangerine Dream, who explored the expansive, ambient possibilities of synths. In contrast to Kraftwerk, whose Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express hymned technological advancement, Taj Mahal Travellers used machines to enhance their communion with nature, to tune into its rhythms and pulses. In this way, they were even further ahead of their time, anticipating the post-rave chill-out sounds of The Orb and The KLF.
Taj Mahal Travellers' second and final official album, August 1974, has come to be viewed as something of a cult early classic of experimental drone music, and is generally considered the best of the group's output. Inspired by US avant-garde composer La Monte Young, considered by many to be the father of drone music, the eight-strong band used a mathematical approach to layering frequencies, using heavy electronic processing to add distortion and delay to instruments.
It seems a little pointless to break each track down, especially since the whole album is actually a continuous jam, only broken up to fit onto four sides of vinyl. However, each offers something different: the first track, I, captures the band easing slowly into the groove, making use of silence and space. It features low droning, moaning sounds, feedback, hiss, echoing whistles and cries and lonely, wailing harmonica. The sound of simple, childlike xylophone playing drifts over the sonic abyss. Early Pink Floyd and Sun Ra at his most abstract are useful touchstones here. II introduces a tense, horror film-style rhythm, tapped out repeatedly, yet muffled under trembling, nerve-edge strings and distorted, unearthly vocal sounds. It's like being trapped in a Jodorowsky-directed, psychedelic, head-fuck zombie movie.
The third track, which is untitled, is, in my opinion, the most accomplished and beautiful. Calming, Eastern-style percussion and strings ebb and flow, creating a serene, transcendent ambience, as if you are sitting in a sun-drenched Japanese garden with just a slight breeze to disturb your surroundings. Only the scratchy, atonal playing of a violin, probably by Kosugi, sounds a note of warning somewhere in the distance. As the string sounds fade out, echo envelops the percussion and a distorted electronic beat comes to the fore, heralded by whistles, clattering bells and smothered shouts, creating a miasma which becomes almost unbearably intense.
Also untitled, the fourth and final track is the most electronic and has an almost Medieval sense of foreboding and murkiness about it. Over drones, moans, head-squeezing synth pulses and simple, clanking percussion, Kosugi's violin scrapes out a weeping elegy, buzzing in and out of the fog like a hellish insect. The focus on the violin makes this the most musically conventional piece on the album, recalling sections of King Crimson's debut In the Court of the Crimson King. Listening to it you can see why, following August 1974, Kosugi went on the become a classical composer.
August 1974 is ambient music par excellence. Sure, with each track lasting around the 20-minute mark, it's a commitment to make it all the way through, and I wouldn't dream of recommending it to someone who isn't already into this kind of stuff. But what a treat if you are! The music here will take you off to other worlds, simultaneously ancient and futuristic. The sound-world Taj Mahal Travellers created remains just as profound, startling and - here's that word again - transcendent nearly 40 years later as it was when they created it, seemingly from nowhere. So do yourself a favour and take a trip with the Travellers. You won't regret it.