Santa Dharma – Japan

The duo I’m featuring today is one I am totally in love with. As a matter of fact if I lived in Tokyo I’d be begging them to let me join their band!! They’re one of my all time favourite discoveries on Soundcloud – I’ve devoured everything they’ve put up onto Bandcamp and it’s a real pleasure to present them here today. Plus they’re super nice people, I’ve had the pleasure of emailing back and forth with Holly and she’s been really friendly and helpful when I’ve asked her questions about the cool synths and other assorted gadgets they use. Please make sure you check out the links at the bottom of the page to visit the uber cool world of Santa Dharma!!

The Santa Dharma story

We’re Tomo and Holly! We first met in a hookah bar in Tokyo and immediately bonded over our love of American indie music. Before that, we had dabbled in a few bands and solo projects, but nothing really stuck. We both were looking to start a new musical project, so we jammed together in a small one-room apartment and made demos with a sound recorder. Eventually we began playing and organizing gigs around Tokyo among a community of DIY artists at diverse intersections of “experimental” and “music”.

Over the years we have slowly built up our instrument collection and studio from online auctions and junk shops, gravitating toward nostalgic and lo-fi sounds. We don’t have computers in our live setup, so we use midi to connect synthesizers, drum machines, and loopers. We’re always experimenting with new ways to perform songs and add layers, so every time we play our set looks and sounds quite different. We also love tiny portable instruments that we can bring into nature and jam with. 

Before the pandemic, we hosted and streamed gigs in our home studio in Tokyo. Unfortunately, gigs have been on pause for a while. However, the extra time meant we finally released our first full-length album earlier this year, and we learned a lot about live streaming. We’ve also had more chances for sound experiments since there’s no upcoming gig to rehearse for. 

Musical influences / favourite artists

We have really random music taste, and we’re always discovering new stuff we love. We have been influenced by 90s/early 2000s indie rock, like Yo La Tengo, Pavement, and Galaxie 500. Once we started writing songs, we became inspired by Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. Also, we love lots of experimental artists out there who are carving out new ways of making music like Chad Vangaalen, Tune-Yards, and Peaking Lights.

When we lived in Tanzania a few years back, there weren’t taxis in our town, but we occasionally hired a driver. He always had this amazing African music playing, and we’d say, “What is this?” and he’d say, “I don’t know, it’s on my USB drive.” We just had to enjoy the song in the moment since we didn’t know if we’d ever hear it again. Locally, we’d often hear African rhumba and highlife from the live musicians at our favorite Indian restaurant, or Bongo Flava and Nigerian pop at the clubs. Being there inspired us to buy more African music and experiment with African rhythms and sounds.  

Then we moved to Colombia, and we were introduced to champeta and cumbia. We became more interested in experimental Latin American music like Mitú, Bomba Estéreo, and Meridian Brothers. Actually, our album art was designed by the same artist who did the cover art for a Meridian Brothers album. Being there also inspired us to write a cumbia song.

It probably goes without saying that Japanese music has influenced our music too, especially experimental pop artists like Shintaro Sakamoto, The Plastics, and Takako Minekawa. We also love how Minyo Crusaders are combining traditional Japanese minyo (folk singing) with Latin American rhythms. We’re also both interested in yoga, meditation, Indian philosophy, and Zen Buddhism, so sometimes themes come up in our lyrics. 

What’s the song you’ve uploaded to Soundcloud that is your favourite? What’s the story behind the song?

We mostly use Soundcloud to post unpolished demos, so most of what’s up there is a peek into our song-making process. Probably our favorite song upload is “Happiness Glasses”. 

Our house in Tanzania was far away from town. Often our electricity would go out and we’d jam with a little lantern and battery-operated instruments. We wrote and recorded a bunch of songs, with the nature sounds sneaking in through the windows. We had lots of animal visitors—monkeys, mongooses, chameleons, stray cats. Being there taught us how to be more present. This song is about those times out in that house. There was a beauty in the simplicity. 

The version on our album is re-recorded, using an Omnichord (an 80’s electric autoharp). You can also hear the original Tanzania recording here.

Your favourite Soundcloud artist and song?

Lately we discovered an artist named Sawyer Dust, making some cool songs. We especially like “Sports Men”, which is a Haruomi Hosono cover. We like how it sounds as if New Order covered the song. The production’s great, and it’s super brave to cover the legendary Haruomi. 

Any tips for people starting out on Soundcloud?

We think the thing is to not just use Soundcloud simply as a place to upload songs and promote yourself, but also to support and connect with other artists with like minds. Once you find artists you like, check out the artists that they’re listening to, and you will find an endless supply of music to inspire you.

Also, upload often even if you’re not sure if it’s good or not. Soundcloud is the perfect place for experiments, and you may be surprised that a demo you thought wasn’t that great is just what someone needed to hear.

Your thoughts on the Soundcloud community (if you have any!!)

We like that Soundcloud creates opportunities for music to be shared quickly and easily. People post tracks they might not share on other platforms, so we can hear music in its early stages, often with minimal effects and mastering. Through hashtags, subgenres can be explored in real time collectively from different parts of the globe.

We’ve noticed some artists who are popular on Spotify only have small following on Soundcloud. It’s testimony that it’s more community driven. It’s a different way of listening and exploring music.  

My favourite Santa Dharma song…

I can’t actually pick a favourite and I find all of their songs to be pure joy, but I think this is one of the first I heard. I spent a few weeks with their collection of songs on repeat as I drove around town, walked the dog etc…. I also really like Coyote and The Badger A LOT – the version below is a demo I believe but the “official” version is on their Bandcamp page.

Santa Dharma (Holly & Tomo) 

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