Is it really a decade since Mika Uchizato’s last album? It was back in 2003 when I first met the singer and sanshin player from the small isolated island of Minami Daito which is to the east of Okinawa. She had been recording some vocals for a Ryukyu Underground album and I interviewed her for an article about Okinawa’s ‘girl power’. The following year she released her second full-length album Kaze No Shonkane which was a big step forward for her. But after that her recording career seemed to come to a halt. So the release this month of a new third album, Mika No Uta, is long overdue.
Over the past ten years her contemporaries have taken various different paths. The talented Kanako Hatoma moved to Tokyo and pops up every now and then with her Hatoma Family band while recording just one more solo album. Chihiro Kamiya has experimented with different styles and recordings both modern and traditional, while Ayano Uema signed with a major record company and became the new acceptable face of Okinawan music for many Japanese. Meanwhile Uchizato, now 33, was being busy becoming a mother and she devoted much of the decade to bringing up her children.
Mika No Uta opens with a lovely version of the traditional ‘Sa-Sa Bushi’ and comprises ten songs plus a bonus track of ‘Abayoi’ a song much associated with her and originally recorded on the debut album Tabidachi. Most of the songs here are either traditional or shimauta but there are also two tracks – ‘Sakura’ and ‘Akisare’ – which were co-written by Kazutoshi Matsuda who also produced the album and joins Uchizato on vocals for one song. Matsuda himself released a fine album last year (reviewed on this blog) and he writes in his notes to Mika No Uta that it was the discovery of Uchizato’s superb singing on her first album which led him astray from eisa and into songs and songwriting.
Mika No Uta is less heavily arranged and produced than its predecessor and is more of a back-to-basics recording which demonstrates the simplicity that Uchizato says she has always strived to capture. ‘Ishikubiri’ is a particular highlight which shows her at her best on the slower songs. She plays sanshin and taiko on the album and is joined by Matsuda’s sanshin and also by some piano and guitar. Her slightly husky, deeper voice is reminiscent of Misako Koja and she sings with great expression and emotion throughout. If anything, her more mature voice is better than ever.
Mika No Uta is out now on Campus Records (TUNE-15).
Mika Uchizato’s earlier interview is in Chapter 8 of The Power of Okinawa and also in the article ‘Young Okinawa’ on the Features page of the website: