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Helsinki jazz-folk quartet Barlast tours Japan: Chopstick guitar, taco rice and attentive audiences

by Julius Johansson

Helsinki-based quartet Barlast, formed in 2016, has won over audiences with their expressive blend of Nordic folk and jazz, where free improvisation plays a significant role. After performing in Estonia, Norway and Hungary, they recently embarked on their debut tour of Japan. Due to the pandemic, the tour had to be rescheduled and delayed for several years. This photo feature highlights their fourth concert in Tokyo, part of a seven-city tour in March 2023.

Barlast is made up of a talented group of musicians: Philip Holm on double bass, Heikki Hänninen on electric guitar, Minna Koskenlahti on percussion, åspipa and månmarkapipa (both of which are wooden flutes) and Santte Salonen on soprano saxophone and clarinet.

Tomoyuki Ohsawa, founder of Tokyo booking agency Real & True, managed the tour. He has over two decades of experience in introducing Japanese audiences to foreign acts, with a preference for those that explore genres outside the mainstream. With his admiration for the melodic and rhythmic language of Finnish music, Ohsawa has brought Finnish artists such as Maria KalaniemiJ-P PiirainenKimmo Pohjonen and Aki Rissanen to Japan.

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As they make their way to the venue, the band moves through the world’s largest urban rail network. The members of Barlast have been thoroughly impressed by the attentiveness of Japanese audiences during their concerts. 

“It’s so nice to perform here. Elsewhere, performing in venues with bars can sometimes be challenging because of the background noise. Here, everyone listens very attentively,” says guitarist Heikki Hänninen.

In Japan, March marks the end of the school year, which began the preceding April. As a result, it is a time for goodbyes. On the way to the venue, there were many young people dressed in graduation ceremony attire.

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Tonight’s venue is called “Haretarasoranimamemaite” (晴れたら空に⾖まいて) or simply, Haremame. This unusual venue, located in Daikanyama, Shibuya City, is named after a Japanese poem and literally means “If it’s sunny, throw beans in the air”. Its walls are adorned with unique artwork, and there is a corner with tatami mats for seating, as well as standard tables and seats. The venue’s specialty is taco rice, a popular dish from Okinawa.

A corner of the backstage was inhabited by a Kamidana, a type of Japanese household shrine used to enshrine and worship kami, or spirits – an important part of traditional Japanese culture.

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The band sets up the stage with sound engineer Motoki Tanizawa.

The venue takes pride in its use of analogue gear, which is a way to differentiate it from competitors. During his career, Ohsawa has operated a collection of venues with unique atmospheres. As the world’s largest city, Tokyo has a highly competitive service sector, including venues, cafés and restaurants. As a result, business owners expend significant effort to offer experiences that provide a distinctive atmosphere.

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The venue’s tea selection, with tour manager Tomoyuki Ohsawa in the background. Ohsawa explained that the decision to bring Barlast to Japan was simple. 

“We were in contact, and I listened to their music and found it interesting. That’s how it started. Basically, I’m open to all suggestions, but it’s the music that drives me. If I like it, I’ll do it, and if I don’t, I won’t. It’s that simple.”

He emphasised that his motivation in the business is not primarily monetary gain, but rather promoting artists and their music.

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Clockwise from upper left: Heikki Hänninen, Minna Koskenlahti, Philip Holm and Santte Salonen.

Barlast has released four albums: Ihantola (2017), Svanvik (2019), Live and Electric (2021) and Musik för scener (2022).

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Japanese culture is renowned for its meticulous attention to detail, which was apparent during the evening, as White Russian cocktails were served as a nod to Finnish drinking culture. The bar manager had even ordered Finnish Lonkero long drinks via an online store.

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During the intermission between Barlast’s two sets, the DJ played a diverse selection of music, including tracks from Finland and some of Barlast’s own music.

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The band is ready to perform for their audience in Tokyo.

The audience and staff demonstrate great respect for the music, ensuring that nothing distracts from the performance. For example, during the Tokyo show, the bar counter lights were dimmed to minimise any distractions. This suggests a deep appreciation for live music or perhaps a cultural norm of being considerate towards others. Upon listening attentively to both sets of the evening, the audience requested an encore. 

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The audience was intrigued by how Heikki Hänninen used chopsticks to play guitar during one tune.

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The success of the concert, which was nearly sold out, was celebrated with a Japanese seafood feast. As the night drew to a close, Barlast began to focus on their next tour stop the following day in Yokohama. Despite the pandemic-induced delays, the band was close to completing their debut tour in Japan.

The Scandinavia-Japan Sasakawa Foundation, the Finnish Cultural Foundation and TelepART provided support for Barlast’s Japanese tour.