An interview with Mio Matsuda

Posted November 24, 2014 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Interviews

Mio Matsuda is a remarkable singer from Japan. Shortly after she made her debut album Atlantica in 2005 I wrote about her for an article in the UK’s fRoots magazine (now on the Features page of The Power of Okinawa website) and we have kept in touch ever since. Known for her eclectic musical tastes, and equally at home singing in Japanese, Portuguese or Spanish, she has worked with many musicians from around Europe, South America and elsewhere and has gone on to make a number of successful albums.

Her latest project sees her returning to her roots as she sings many old Japanese songs that she collected while on her extensive travels both inside and outside Japan. The result is not just a CD but also a book which she has written about the songs and her journey to discover them. Creole Japan: a journey through the memories of songs is scheduled for release in December.


Mio found time recently to answer some of my questions about this intriguing work. The interview follows below.

(JP): The Creole Japan project has no Okinawan songs. Is there any special reason for this?

(MM): I have a deep respect and love for Okinawan music and culture, ever since I was at university. I have visited Okinawa at various times and learned a lot from artists like Tetsuhiro Daiku and Yasukatsu Oshima. In the first place, I respect Okinawa as a place with a different language and history, not as one of Japanese dialect or a region such as Meiji Japan wanted it to be. With so much respect and love for Okinawa, I didn’t include any Okinawan songs as I still have a long way to go till I learn the language and the soul of Uchinanchu, which is the essence of their folklore. The aim of this project is not to make a compilation of songs from all over the Japanese territory, it is on the contrary, to undo the image of Japan through the songs.

How did you get the idea for this very ambitious project?

I have always wanted to find a repertoire in Japanese while I have been singing a lot in other languages like Portuguese and Spanish. In December 2011, in my hometown in Akita, I found an archive of old folk songs sung by local people. Then I started to encounter these fascinating songs. As for my repertoire, I wanted to find songs of Japan that transcend the images of a closed archipelago. I could have taken some of the well-known minyo, but that wasn’t my idea. I found instead that it was more interesting to meet with rough songs sung by people in their daily work, since those work songs carry the real rhythm of the body, which is now lost a lot in Japan.

You must have done a lot of travelling both outside and inside Japan. How long did the whole thing take and which places outside Japan did you go to when looking for songs?

It’s been three years since I first had the idea of looking for songs, visiting different regions, interviewing people, arranging and recording the songs and finally writing the whole book. It is a book because I wanted to write all the stories behind the songs.

Was there anything in particular that surprised you or was very unexpected during the project?

A lot. I was surprised by the fact that a song itself carries lots of stories behind it. Like the Christian songs in Nagasaki, like a Micronesian song delivered to Ogasawara, like songs made by Japanese immigrants in Brazil… there are lots of stories we would never know without looking deeply into a single song.


Do you have a favourite song or songs that you discovered? (My own favourites are ‘Song of the Mountain’, and ‘Lemon Grass’ which I can’t stop humming to myself – in my head).

Oh how nice! I love these two too. In fact, I love them all, they are precious songs from the time when people were singing in their daily lives attached to nature. All the lyrics are peculiar and somehow connected to the places across the sea. In particular “The Tale of a Small Man” as it is a Christian song made in the Meiji era and I see it as a mixture of occidental and Japanese cosmology. It reminds me of William Butler Yeats’s fairy stories. It became more and more attractive as I discovered little by little the stories behind the song.

The title of the CD-book (and the whole project) suggests that Japan is not a mono-racial or mono-cultural place at all but has a lot of mixtures and variety. This might surprise some people who don’t realise how diverse it is. Would you agree and do you have anything to add about that?

Japan was certainly formed by people of various cultural and racial roots over a period of thousands of years. The diversity has survived in the regional culture. Lafcadio Hearn came to Japan with his mixed roots, animist soul and experiences in Creole regions of the world. That’s why he understood the essence of Japanese culture. This CD-book is in a way, in response to his vision that I admire.

You have made these songs come back to life and you sing them in such a beautiful and sympathetic way. Do you see this as a separate side project or do you intend doing more Japanese songs in the future. How about your Portuguese, Cape Verde, and South American work?

This project is unique in my singing career but the essence is the same. I always see a song as a story. So I had a very deep look into particular songs and searched for their origins. I had to make it a CD-book because the stories were so dramatic and precious and it was worthwhile to write about them. I hope to translate it into English someday. The songs are not only of Japan, they are also connected to the world where I have travelled…Portugal, Brazil, Cape Verde, Hawaii, Micronesia and so on. They are places where the people who sang those songs have travelled both fiscally and spiritually.

A concert to mark the release of the CD-book will be held in Tokyo at Sonorium on 4th December. ( In the meantime a fascinating glimpse into Mio Matsuda’s journey can be seen in this documentary video which is subtitled in English:






Onaga wins Okinawan election

Posted November 17, 2014 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Life

LDP member and former Naha mayor Takeshi Onaga won the election here yesterday and becomes the new Governor of Okinawa. Onaga is an anti-base campaigner who is committed to stopping the construction of the new American military base at Henoko. In the end his victory over the incumbent Governor Nakaima, who came second, was resounding. Onaga gathered more than 360,000 votes which gave him a runaway victory with more votes than all the other candidates combined.

Takeshi Onaga celebrates his victory

Takeshi Onaga celebrates his win

The election went beyond matters of political ideology and was more to do with the struggle for Okinawan identity. Onaga was supported by parties of both the left and right in his anti-base stance. The election result is another blow to the Japanese government whose immediate response nevertheless was to say that they had expected this result, nothing has changed, and that they still fully intend to go ahead with the Henoko base plan. Interesting times are ahead.

Singer and musician Shoukichi Kina, who is also opposed to the bases, came last of the four candidates with a meagre total of 7,821 votes. On Aguni Island he gained just 5 votes and on Kita Daito Island only one voter went out on a limb to vote for him. Kina’s response was to point out the lack of time he had to prepare plus the fact that no political party, business organisation or union gave him any support. Perhaps he will now concentrate on music but what he does next is anyone’s guess.

Kina for Governor?

Posted November 10, 2014 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Life

Shoukichi Kina returned to music this year with the release of Washinnayo, a joint project with Dutch musician and producer Pascal Plantinga, and the mini-album has been getting a fair bit of attention overseas. The current issue of the UK’s fRoots magazine also features the pair in its ‘Okinawa Revisited’ article and offers a free download of the track ‘Munushiri Bushi’ to subscribers. Back in Okinawa, however, it is Kina’s political activities that have been attracting more attention.

His determination to stand as a candidate in the election for Governor of Okinawa – against the orders of his party – caused him to be expelled from Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan). In typical undaunted fashion he is now campaigning as an independent candidate in the election which takes place next Sunday. Kina has been out and about with his campaign which has inevitably included the singing of his trademark song ‘Hana’.

Shoukichi Kina's campaign poster

Shoukichi Kina’s campaign poster

A major issue in the election is the Japanese government’s intention to push through their plan to allow the construction of a new American military base on Okinawa in the rural district of Henoko on the coast of Nago. This would in theory replace the existing base at Futenma. It is a plan which ignores the wishes of the local people who earlier this year voted decisively for a Nago mayor who is vehemently opposed to the base and to all military activities.

Like many Okinawans who continue to protest over the proposed construction, Kina is against the Henoko plan. However, the latest opinion poll in the Okinawa Times, shows Kina lagging some way behind in the four man race to be Governor. Currently leading the way is another anti-base candidate Takeshi Onaga who is closely followed by the present conservative Governor Hirokazu Nakaima.

Joni Mitchell: Through Yellow Curtains

Posted November 5, 2014 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Other Music

Joni Mitchell, one of the greatest of all singer-songwriters, hasn’t made a new album since Shine in 2007. This new release is a double album of early live performances which captures the Canadian before she had even released the first of her many albums. The recordings were made in the intimate setting of the Second Fret Club in Philadelphia. The first disc is from a performance in November 1966 and the second contains recordings from two further shows at the same venue the following year. The final track is a cover of a Neil Young song, ‘Sugar Mountain’, a rare recording from a radio broadcast.

What we have here is Mitchell and her guitar with some songs which must have been very new to her audiences but which were to become an essential part of her repertoire and in some cases classics. It’s surprising that there are already fully formed songs here which were later to appear on all of her first four albums. These include ‘Both Sides Now’, ‘Chelsea Morning’, ‘The Circle Game’, ‘Morning Morgantown’, and ‘Little Green’ (which didn’t turn up until her fourth album Blue in 1971).


Several songs which were later on her debut album are also here and a few are repeated on the second disc from the subsequent shows. The recordings maintain quite a lot of the in-between songs chat and at times it hovers dangerously close to those seemingly interminable monologues all too familiar to audiences at live shows by Japanese artists. At the same time it’s compelling to listen to her thoughts from almost half a century ago when she was still in her early 20s and setting out on a path which was to establish her as one of the major figures in North American song.

Many of these songs still have a resonance today and even though she was to go on to explore other kinds of music, including her well-known forays into pop and jazz, these early recordings show just how uniquely talented a songwriter and performer she already was. The Joni Mitchell box set The Studio Albums 1968-1979 came out two years ago and is a good way to collect her first ten albums at a reasonable price. This new release offers a fascinating bonus.

Through Yellow Curtains will be released in Japan by MSI on 20th December.





Neenee: N1

Posted October 31, 2014 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawa CDs

The debut album by Neenee is by no means the first recording by any of the group’s members who are already popular for their work with other bands. This new project has been created by Yamato from Orange Range (vocals), Takashi from Mongol 800 (guitar) and Tetsushi (DJ) from Ryukyudisko. The fourth member of Neenee is Seiji (bass, manager) who had the idea to get them together to mix and combine their strengths. As a result they are calling themselves “a rocking electronic dance band”.


All the members are based in Okinawa but there isn’t a great deal of anything that could be called Ryukyu roots music on N1. Despite this they were included on the Music from Okinawa 2014 CD compilation which was given away at the recent Womex (World Music Expo) in Galicia, Spain. In fact, I was one of the judges who recommended their inclusion. Their sound may be without sanshin and with no obvious references to Okinawa but they have an island spirit, and, at their best, some of the most exciting music.

The first track ‘Now is the Time’ (included on the Womex CD) sets a very high standard with its acoustic guitar intro leading into a vocal which is then driven along by a thumping electronic beat. It’s the outstanding track on N1 and nothing else on the album quite matches it. Several other tracks come close though and there are good blends of electronic and guitar rock styles on both ‘God Hand’ and ‘Chocolate and Milk’.



All of the song lyrics were written by Yamato and all the music by Tetsushi, and there are two instrumentals in addition to the nine songs. The influence of Ryukyudisko is the one that looms largest and the electronics generally take precedence over the guitars on most tracks – not surprising given that all the music is by Tetsushi. The combined efforts of all involved have produced an album which may be great for the dance floor but is equally good to listen to at home.

N1 is released by Meisai Records




Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Posted October 29, 2014 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Other Music

The new self-titled album by Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn is a duet by two of the best musicians currently active on the roots music scene of the USA. Abigail Washburn is already known to readers of this blog and her solo album City of Refuge was reviewed here on its release in 2011. She attracted attention at that time because of her singing, banjo playing and songwriting which draws on her American heritage as well as influences from her experiences in China.

Bela Fleck is one of the greatest banjo players and an award-winning musician whose work encompasses many different genres. On this album the pair use seven different banjos and no other instruments or musicians are involved. But it would be a mistake to think that this is limiting in any way or that it’s an album for banjo obsessives. The range of their playing is quite astonishing and the nine songs and three instrumentals are given space to breathe in arrangements that are never flashy or showy.

bela abigail

Washburn sings all of the songs in her immediately recognisable style and they include both traditional and new compositions. Her very moving ‘Ride to You’ is sad and inspiring at the same time and an early high point while Fleck’s ‘What’cha Gonna Do’ is his response to the recent devastating tsunamis in Asia. Washburn’s ‘Shotgun Blues’ takes the Appalachian murder ballad genre and rewrites it to “seek retribution for all the ladies”.

Among several traditional songs ‘And Am I Born to Die’ (learned from a recording by Doc Watson) is outstanding with its chillingly delivered vocal from Washburn. This and several other songs reflect on matters of life and death which is an underlying theme running through the album. It sounds at times strange and familiar, ancient and modern but ultimately this is timeless music made by two remarkable people.

Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn is released by Rounder Records.


Sakishima Meeting at WOMEX

Posted October 27, 2014 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawa Overseas

Music from Okinawa was successfully introduced at last week’s Womex event in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain. As well as the presentation of a new CD compilation of music from the Ryukyu Islands there was a live performance by Sakishima Meeting (Yukito Ara and Isamu Shimoji).


Sakishima Meeting at Womex last week

Sakishima Meeting at Womex last week

The duo were also featured in a special World on 3 programme from Womex broadcast on BBC Radio. They played two songs for the show and Isamu Shimoji was interviewed by presenter Mary Ann Kennedy. The show can be listened to for the next four weeks through this link:






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